Mainly, the two crafts thrive on the same fermentation science, with spirits beginning life as a fermented-sugar liquid similar to beer before being run through a still, which pumps up the alcohol by volume (ABV). Whiskey is the nearest to beer in this way, since both of their base sugars are barley (as opposed to rum's molasses and tequila's agave sugar base). Basically, what gets put into the still to create whiskey is a beer brewed without hops, or what is called a "wash."
For centuries, the arts of brewing and distilling have remained on separate yet parallel paths, but one look at the American Distilling Institute's 2012 Artisan Spirits Award winners and it's clear that the two industries have begun to find common ground (hopped whiskey, anyone?). In the last few years, American craft distilling has grown in a similar way to craft beer and, with more than 200 small-batch distilleries experimenting with new methods and recipes, the two industries are cross-pollinating more than ever.
So what happens when a well-known craft brewery gives leftover beer to a distillery? Or when a rum is spiced like a beer? Read on for our top 5 spirits that both bartenders and beer geeks can appreciate.
To make its Straight Rocky Mountain Whiskey, Denver's Stranahan's has always turned to brewers' expertise. In its early years, it sourced wash from nearby Flying Dog Brewery (famous for its Ralph Steadman-drawn labels) and, when Flying Dog moved operations to the East Coast, got another local brewery, Oskar Blues, to make it. As part of the distillery's recent expansion, though, Stranahan's is now able to brew its own wash, but what makes it into the bottles today is still based on recipes from two of Colorado's best craft breweries.4. Dogfish Head Spirits -- Whit Spiced Rhum:
At Dogfish Head's Brewing and Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the company's head distiller, Alison Schrader, makes spirits in a still made of welded-together kegs and a piece of old farm equipment that she thinks might have been a chicken feeder. Schrader distills vodka, gin and rum for the "off-centered" craft brewery's spirits division, but also makes a special beer-inspired rum for pouring exclusively at the restaurant. On top of the molasses and sugar cane that goes into its traditional rum, Dogfish Head's Whit Spiced Rhum adds coriander and orange peel, just as you would if brewing a Belgian wit-style beer. Think of it as a boozy Blue Moon that doesn't need an orange wedge.3. New Holland Brewing and Spirits -- Hatter Royale Hopquila:
Despite its name, Hatter Royale's Hopquila is not a tequila but a white whiskey, made of twice-distilled barley wash that is then aggressively dry-hopped with Centennial hops. With the sweet-citrus aroma of a good IPA and the crisp booziness of an unaged whiskey, the Hopquila puts up front the one main brewing ingredient that rarely gets used in spirits. Tastes delicious on the rocks or, as its creators at Michigan's New Holland Brewing and Spirits suggest, in Hoparitas.2. Rogue Ales and Spirits -- Dead Guy Whiskey:
After making rum and gin throughout the early 2000s, Newport, Ore.'s Rogue Ales' brewmaster John Maier and Rogue Spirits' master distiller John Couchot decided to combine powers and make a whiskey. The outcome of this collaboration is Rogue's Dead Guy Whiskey, which is created by distilling a hop-free version of the brewery's flagship session beer, Dead Guy Ale -- a process made simpler by the fact that the House of Spirits (where the company's whiskey is made) lies across the parking lot from the main brewery. In addition to driving wort-turned-whiskey wash across the parking lot for distilling, Rogue's beer-spirit partnership goes one step further with its John John beer series, which for Dead Guy reuses the whiskey's barrels to age limited-edition batches of its brethren beer.