The relationship between beer and spirits is closer than you think — and not just for the growing beer cocktail trend or the “pint and a shot” special at your local dive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Doubled and Twisted is part of Charbay's experimental whiskey series, a project of owner Miles Karakasevic and his beer-loving, 13th-generation master distiller son, Marko. In 1999, the two created their first whiskey by taking 20,000 gallons of keg-ready pilsner from now-defunct Sonoma Mountain Brewing and turning it into 1,000 gallons of aged whiskey that still stands up next to some of America's best bourbons in competition. Doubled and Twisted is the next step in this beer-to-whiskey experimentation. This limited-edition unaged whiskey (aka moonshine) was released last year and is made from distilling drinkable batches of a West Coast IPA. And not just any IPA, but the highly popular, deliciously sessionable Racer 5 IPA from Northern California's Bear Republic Brewery. The spirit is unlike anything else on the bar shelves, with hints of barley sweetness in the aroma and an interesting flavor of mellowed-out hops that distracts from the liquid's cool 99 proof. Makes for an interesting — if off-key — Manhattan, but we suggest sipping it neat with a pint of regular Racer 5 on the side.
Since the craft distilling movement is still in its infancy, many of these spirits are hard to find outside of the distillery's home state. High Times in Costa Mesa is the best area bottle shop for small-batch spirits and consistently carries Rogue and Charbay products. Beverage Warehouse in L.A. has Doubled and Twisted in stock and Mission Liquor and Wines in Pasadena is listed as L.A.'s only bottle shop carrying Rogue Spirits. New Holland, Dogfish and Stranahan's are not available in California, but their websites suggest searching online for legal liquor retailers that can mail you some bottles. If you'd like to drink Charbay's spirits at a bar, Mohawk Bend and Steingarten LA are your best bet — they carry all of their year-round spirits and get bottles of limited releases, too.
Update: The original story incorrectly listed Mark Burrier as the artist of Flying Dog Brewery's labels. The labels are drawn by Ralph Steadman.