Meet Local Whiskey Distilleries—Berkshire Mountain Distillery and The Craft Brewers Whiskey Project…and Tasting Samples!

This TalkTails was the first of what I expect will become a series of featured local (New England/New York) distilleries, and first up was Berkshire Mountain Distillery (BMD), Number Ten’s most local of local distilleries. This session benefited from a terrific guest, Michael Kowlaski, BMD Director of Sales and Hospitality, who also happens to have a graduate-level chemistry background and so provided an excellent overview of the distilling process generally and a deep dive into the Craft Brewers Whiskey Project specifically.

Here’s what BMD has to say:

5 YEARS, 12 BREWERS, 12 BEERS, 12 WHISKEYS and 80 BARRELS OF SPIRITS

The long-awaited Craft Brewers Whiskey Project is in its final stages—ready to taste the first batch of whiskeys!

After five years of aging in oak barrels, Berkshire Mountain Distillers, the award-winning maker of a select line of premier craft spirits, will release the first trio of whiskeys in partnership with three brewers in the Northeast as part of their Craft Brewers Whiskey Project in December of 2020.

This multi-year collaboration includes the distilling of a dozen different popular beers from the country’s top craft brewers across five states. Each addition to the American whiskey collection is the product of a single-sourced craft brew distilled into a unique Berkshire Mountain Distillers whiskey.

One point to keep in mind is that the difference between beer and the mashbill fermenting that is the typical way to start whiskery production is very slight. Apart from such things as filtering or re-carbonation of beer before bottling (okay, and grain selection, too, and grain toasting or not, and addition of hops and other flavoring stuff), the fermentation process of beer mash and whiskey mash is close, so in some ways, the Craft Brewer’s Whiskey Project was not a big stretch. But proofing down all the expressions to 86 and aging in similar barrels for similar lengths (5 years) kept so many of the potentially big variables at bay in the resulting whiskey and so made the project  something like a controlled experiment.

Yeah, science!

Whiskeys of the Taste

TalkTails provided tastings for the following BMD Craft Brewers Whiskey Project expressions only very recently available in our area:

  • Spencer Trappist Ale American Whiskey
  • Smuttynose Really Old Brown Dog Ale American Whiskey
  • Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold Ale American Whiskey
  • Long Trail Unearthed Barrel Aged Stout American Whiskey

Spencer Trappist Ale American Whiskey

Producer: Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Mashbill: Distilled from Spencer’s Trappist Ale
Age Statement: 5 Year (oak barrel)
Proof: 86
Retail price: ~$65.00
Tasting Notes: Nose: Sweet off the nose, with a touch of floral; Palate is bourbon-like: smooth and sweet front palate and a medium mouthfeel, before the back palate drops the sweetness for some spice and a touch of astringency and a touch of the floral hops; Finish is short, dry, with a fade of the light note of hops.

From a private Wine Spectator tasting panel (courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Distillers):

Many have coveted this Trappist Ale, the only of its kind that can truly be called a Trappist Ale but is made outside of its birthplace in Belgium. We were honored to be given the chance to work with this nectar of the gods and to coax out its myriad of flavors. On the nose, this whiskey has subtle notes of creme brulee, and both cannoli shell and its filling. On the palate, nutmeg and cherrywood take the stage to add some spice before resolving back to the initial notes of creme brulee that your nose detected. A whiskey for the ages.

From https://thewhiskeywash.com/reviews/whiskey-reviews-berkshire-mountain-distillers-american-whiskey-collection/

Nose is pine, cherry, oak, and nutmeg. It’s a little floral and herbal. Very pleasant, like fresh scones.; Palette is similar to the nose. It seems sweeter than a typical bourbon, yet a little bitter with hops, with notes of stevia, cinnamon, burnt orange, and nutmeg and with strong and warming palate filled with floral; Finish fades toward a light bitterness.

From https://www.drinkhacker.com/2021/06/17/review-berkshire-mountain-distillers-craft-brewers-whiskey-project-ufo-white-big-elm-and-spencer-ale/

…quite hoppy and fairly funky on the nose, though heavy with spices and some barrel influence. Things perk up on the palate, where some needed sweetness appears, along with ample notes of green herbs, heavy on dill and thyme. The finish brings in some white pepper and more herbal notes, clearly evoking the base beer. Spicy but approachable, the bitter hops linger for quite a while on the fade-out.

Smuttynose Really Old Brown Dog Ale American Whiskey

Producer: Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Mashbill: Distilled from Smuttynose Really Old Brown Dog Ale
Age Statement: 5 Year (oak barrel)
Proof: 86
Retail price: ~$65.00
Tasting Notes: Nose: Some sweet, but some heavier wood or dough notes, too; Palate carries the sweet with some spice, but the back palate goes low, dropping the sweet for some malt grain, where the ale asserts itself; Finish is dry, with a bit of odd flavor carrying this style of ale through a whiskey form.

Really Old Brown Dog from Smuttynose added some some extra weight in taste, as you might expect from a dark ale.

From a private Wine Spectator tasting panel (courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Distillers):

This whiskey offers a beautiful nose of wildflower honey, cedar, and red clay, with notes of bran and mandarin peel all derived from the malt build and moderate hop profile of Brown Dog. On the palate, there is an abundance of earth and grain notes thanks to the malts of this beer. Those rich notes of Connecticut wrapper tobacco, and malt lead nicely into the floral hop character, and finally to the slightly spicy finish of gingersnap molasses cookie, toffee, and coffee. A perfect whiskey to enjoy on its own, in an old fashioned, or with a cigar.

From https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/american-whiskey/berkshire-mountain-distillers-releases-fall-craft-brewers-whiskey-project-offerings/

…hints of wildflower honey and mandarin peel plus a slightly spicy finish of ginger snap…

Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold Ale American Whiskey

Producer: Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Mashbill: Distilled from Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold Ale
Age Statement: 5 Year (oak barrel)
Proof: 86
Retail price: ~$65.00
Tasting Notes: Nose carries hop notes—especially pine—strongly, with floral undertones; Palate continues the resin nose, growing in character through the back palate, while hinting at baking spices; Finish has a bread dryness that leaves off any of the modest sweetness of the nose and palate.

By the way, some tasters noted, especially in the Captain Lawrence expression, what seemed to them to be a marijuana-like skunkiness in the nose and palate, as well as some resin tones in the finish, and that shouldn’t be surprising, since marijuana and hops are from the same Family (yes, I’m talking taxonomy now) and only separate at the Family stage, which is only one step removed from the Species, or final class. As cousins, so to speak, these plants share terpenes, and if you see the word “turpentine” in there, you are not wrong. A fun 101 on this subject can be found at: https://lagunitas.com/story/beereducation-dankfactor/#:~:text=As%20you%20can%20see%2C%20cannabis,a%20key%20ingredient%20called%20terpenes.

The skunkiest of the selections, and no surprise given the types of hops because in the beer, and that hops are taxonomy cousins.

From a private Wine Spectator tasting panel (courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Distillers):

Captain Lawrence’s Liquid Gold, a Belgo-American Ale, is one of the first examples of craft brewing in NY. The nose is subtle and ever-changing, with layers of honeysuckle, sandalwood, honeycomb, cut grass, rose water, and orange blossom. There are even layers of bacon on the nose, thanks to the Belgian yeast and strict hop selection. On the palate, subtle vanilla notes as well as allspice, clove, and nutmeg come through with a finish of spiced cake donut. This whiskey will keep you intrigued with each sip as numerous layers unfold in the glass.

Long Trail Unearthed Barrel Aged Stout American Whiskey

Producer: Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Mashbill: Distilled from Long Trail Unearthed Barrel Aged Stout
Age Statement: 5 Year (oak barrel)
Proof: 86
Retail price: ~$65.00
Tasting Notes: Nose offers bourbon-like sweetness with other bourbon tones from the barrel-aged stout, while adding caramel and—surprisingly—a touch of peat; Palate is smooth and continues sweet, with some baking spices, but adds toasted and malted grain notes mid- to back-palate; Finish carries the toasted grain of stout to a lingering end, the sweet just hinted at early in the finish.

From a private Wine Spectator tasting panel (courtesy of Berkshire Mountain Distillers):

Made from an American stout that was Barrel Aged in whiskey barrels, this complex yet easy-drinking whiskey has a blossoming nose of garam masala, cedar, clove, and vanilla sugar. On the palate, a clean and rich note of caramel and butterscotch blossoms into sweet bran and malt richness with a finish of allspice, smoky hardwood, coriander, and cardamom.

Different Beers Make Different Whiskeys

At the risk of stating something obvious, different beers used as source material for distillation do produce noticeably different tasting whiskeys. One of the remarkable elements of the BMD Craft Brewers Whiskey Project is that so many of the potential variables that go into making whiskey were controlled, so that the effect of source beer on the final whiskey could be emphasized.

The “earth” in the name of this beer–“Unearthed”– fits the whiskey well, but in a good way. In some ways, this is the most bourbon-like of the four selections, with caramel sweetness, and the beer itself was barrel aged. The way this whiskey finishes brings you down to earth, as it were. But in a good way, with some bass-like flavor notes.

Different mashbills make different whiskeys, just as does different char level in the barrels and how long a whiskey ages in the barrel. There are many other factors as well, including how the whiskey ages (lots of temperature fluctuations or a hot part of the rick, and so forth), and how the distiller does his or her work, reflecting the care taken and opinions applied to determining heads and tails of the distillation, and how many distillations are undertaken per expression, and whether or not filtration is used, and, probably, the color of the guy’s socks during distillation, and that art-versus-science thing, and plain luck.

Here’s a fun fact about distillation, which produces more than just ethanol (the stuff we drink), but also some pretty hair-raising substances, too, like formaldehyde, methanol, and acetone, which all evaporate at lower temperatures than ethanol, and must be set aside when they appear at the start of condensing the distillate (called, thus, “head”), because some or all of which can blind or kill a person, which is definitely not what we mean by “blind- and/or dead-drunk.” The problem with the product of some moonshiners back during Prohibition (when moonshine was a major alcoholic product) was that it could be inexpertly made or maybe the moonshiner simply desired to have more volume regardless that some of that volume might be methanol,-heavy so please buy your moonshine from responsible outlaws. (Another problem that sometimes resulted from the production methods of certain moonshiners was lead poisoning, in that the car radiator was thought by some miscreants as useful for condensing the distillate, which radiators were, indeed, good for doing, except for all that lead soldering, of course.)

Fortunately, Berkshire Mountain Distillers is just about the polar opposite of moonshiners, at least bad outlaw ones, and in fact BMD is much much better than that. I’m a fan of their Race Brook Rye, I use their Ice Glen Vodka and Greylock Gin for a number of house cocktails at Number Ten, and they’ve made some spectacular Ethereal Gins over the last few iterations. The regular Berkshire Bourbon has not been a favorite of mine, but I’m hearing that they have older barrelings now in the works and I’m looking forward to seeing how a couple of extra years in the barrel works out.

What this TalkTails session showed was that starting from one beer or another makes for different tasting whiskeys, and with very interesting effect. I liked two more than the rest, and there are another eight expressions from The Craft Brewers’ Project to try, although some of the earliest releases are now generally unavailable, at least to mere mortals.

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