If you have ever lived in or visited Colorado, then you know that beer and beer-making is a key part of the state’s culture. Having lived there myself, the number of craft breweries I could choose from was mind boggling. Sometimes it even seemed like there were more breweries than restaurants to choose from.
Spirits makers saw the interest in how much the population loved their home-grown booze that they decided it was a worthwhile market to get into as well. Stranahan’s was the first distillery to find large-scale success in the Centennial State. Their success opened the door for other distilleries to set up shop. One of those distilleries is Mile High Spirits out of Denver. Led by a team of passionate spirits enthusiasts, they began to distill bourbon and rye whiskey using their own methods and specifications. The fame they gained from the locals made it possible to expand into other markets far outside of Colorado. They were only limited by how much they could produce.
Mile High Spirits Fireside “Barrel Share” is born
But the team wasn’t satisfied with their whiskey recipes just by themselves. They soon came up with a plan to combine their love for whiskey with Colorado’s beer culture to develop Fireside “Barrel-Share.” Barrel finishing is not a new concept to whiskey but it has been fine-tuned by other distilleries who were looking to offer new takes on their classic flavors. Whereas Scotch and Bourbon typically get finished in wine casks, the concept of beer barrel finishing is becoming increasingly popular. No, the final product will not taste like all of those Irish Car Bombs you drank in college, but depending on the beer that was in the barrel it could gain notes of chocolate, coffee and even give it a thicker mouthfeel.
Some whiskey makers have even gone as far as to suggest to the breweries which flavors of beer they should age in the barrels before they are returned. This allows them to plan ahead for complimentary flavors to the whiskey which can be done with great effect (see: Abraham Bowman Gingerbread Beer Finished Bourbon). There is no limit to the flavors that a barrel can retain once it has aged beer, mainly due to beer’s versatility.
Fireside went around to local Colorado breweries telling them that they will give them fresh whiskey barrels to use for aging their beer if they can have them back once they’re done. New Terrain Brewing Co took them up on this offer and received 4 barrels to age their beer in. The first barrel they used was filled with their standard Shadowland Imperial Stout. The second barrel was filled with Shadowland and vanilla flavoring. The third barrel was filled with Shadowland, vanilla and cacao. The last barrel was filled with Shadowland, cacao and toasted coconut.
Mile High received the barrels back and filled up the standard Shadowland cask with their standard bourbon which has a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% malted barley. After a brief time (and lots of taste testing), the bourbon was declared done and it was dumped. Mile High elected to proof it down to 88 proof in an effort to allow maximum barrel influence to shine through. So what does this experiment taste like? There’s only one way to find out! I tasted this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Fireside Bourbon typically has a very “rye-forward” character, so it’s no big surprise to find an opening salvo of gingerbread scents followed by springtime forest floor. There’s lots of cinnamon spice, notes of kettle corn, and a touch of youthful rye grain. A nice buttery scent develops more as the session goes on and the nose opens up. This is easily the best part of the nose. Fresh ground espresso beans can also be detected as the nose opens up.
Palate: The gingerbread scents from the nose transfer to the palate along with heavy baking spice notes (cinnamon and anise). Cocoa powder, peppercorns, a bit of raisins, and a little bit of green wood all add layers to the base flavors. A crispy sugar wafer taste also develops as the session goes on giving this a nice layer of sweetness to balance out the slightly bitter beer notes.
Finish: The finish has a lot to say before it fades away. Lingering notes of chocolate covered raisins, coffee beans and a handful of herbal rye notes dominate while spiced notes like clove and anise (bordering on black licorice) follow closely behind. As the session goes on, I find the licorice notes becoming more dominant. It’s refreshingly different and finishes somewhat like a rye whiskey instead of a bourbon. This is typical with my experiences of most Fireside products.
Having never tasted Shadowland Imperial Stout before, I’m unsure what notes this bottle of Fireside Barrel Share gains from it. I’d say that chocolate is one of them but I had previously detected the espresso/coffee bean notes in their unfinished bourbons before. If anything, the finishing process amped up those coffee notes. I felt like the beer barrel finish imparted more sweetness to their whiskey than would have been there before. This is not a bad thing! It could also be a result of the low proof because whiskey tends to mellow out and increase in sweetness when water is added.
Before I share my final thoughts, I’d like to share something I observed about the appearance of this whiskey. As I was holding the bottle in my hand during the tasting, I observed the whiskey inside has a bit of a haze to it. If you’re unfamiliar with why this is, let me assure you that it is typical of other beer-finished whiskies I’ve had. The haze is a direct result of the inevitable contact with whatever beer remained in the barrel as the whiskey was dumped back in. Hazy beer becomes that way through the process of fermenting called “attenuation.” This dictates how much sugars the yeast processes. Full attenuation, like what happens with distilling yeast, processes all of the sugars leaving behind a clear liquid to distill with. In beer, the yeast is not designed to fully attenuate the sugars and as a result there is a lot of sugars and flocculant that remain suspended int he liquid. This is why beer has a certain level of cloudiness to it when done fermenting. I feel like this is important to point out before you fear that something is wrong with your bottle!
When it comes to beer finished whiskey, Mile High has a bright future with their base bourbon. It has enough character to not get washed away with the finish and it seems like they were careful that the finishing process did not come off as overdone. I also felt like the proof seemed to be a much better fit than I gave it credit for before I took my first sip. The nose on this bottle was unique and the sweet, buttery notes were my favorite part. This is a fun example of what can happen to whiskey when care is taken during the finishing process. I can’t wait to see what other Barrel Share products Mile High rolls out with next because if this barrel is any indication, they now have the ability to enhance any of their whiskies with flavors that can elevate it to the next level.
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