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Monday, February 04, 2008

Neener Neener - Notes on Two Bourbon Ales

I score little swag. When I was writing for Willamette Week, it was like a glorious faucet of free beer. Somehow, though, breweries regard this blog as a less valuable organ of promotion. (Jon is constantly getting freebies, but I'm not sure how.) Anyway, I bring this up because I have scored a rare coup--over the weekend, I had a chance to sample BridgePort's bourbon-cask-aged Old Knucklehead, not available to the public until tomorrow.

The context of my tasting was a party, so I took no notes. Credit the beer with leaving a strong enough mental impression to do a review from memory. Bourbon casks are a little tricky to work with--sometimes they impart too much bourbon flavor, and (more rarely) not enough. The trickiness is enhanced when you introduce barleywines, because they border on being too heavy, too alcoholic, or too sweet (or some combination) in the first place. Age one in a bourbon barrel and you just increase the likelihood of exacerbating the problem.

Old Knucklehead manages to adroitly dodge all these potential pitfalls. It is quite dry for a barleywine, and relatively light on the tongue (no barleywine is light in absolute terms). It doesn't have any of the stickiness of some barleywines. The bourbon contributes some flavor, but little sweetness--the effect is almost like caramelized sugar. Finally, it finishes with a peppery note that helps draw out the dryness, so that it finishes cleanly. The bourbon is present as a flavor note, but it's subtle. I'm not a huge fan of barleywines, but I like this one quite a lot.

Now, having warned of the dangers of over-heavy, sweet, and intense bourbon-aged beers, allow me to contradict it all and tell you about a beer I had yesterday, during the Superbowl-- Full Sail's bourbon-aged Top Sail (again, no notes). This is one seriously intense beer. Topsail begins with a lot of oomph--it's a thick, rich, roasty beer. (Trivia quiz: what's the difference between an imperial porter and a stout? No really, I'd like to know.) I have described the regular Top Sail thus:
It is an absolutely gorgeous beer, pouring out with velvety viscosity, a dense chocolate shake head piling up (and lasting pretty well, despite the high alcohol content). It has a mild, Tootsie Roll aroma; I could detect no hops. The flavor is a wonderful blending of intense, dark-chocolate bitterness, with notes of roasted coffee, and fruit-sweet notes that fall halfway between plum and blackberry. The sweet notes are unusually fruity, but you have to turn your attention to them; otherwise, the creamy, slightly chalky bitterness carries you away.
The bourbon both accentuates the chocolate note and contrasts it; the result is like a toddy. I would have liked just a bit less bourbon up-front, but I wonder what this beer might have turned into in a year. It's definitely an after-dinner beer, and it would certainly accompany a desert nicely.

(I created a firestorm the last time I condemned 22-ounce bottles, but at the risk of opening old wounds, this is a crazy lot of beer. It took three people and two days to get through our bottle, so don't open it blithely--plan ahead.)


  1. Way to go on scoring some free suds.

    If you really want to know the difference between any kind of porter and any kind of stout, there's only one man to ask: Ron Pattinson. He writes about that sort of thing all the time at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. You might even be able to find the answer in his archives somewhere.

  2. Keith, I am pretty familiar with the differences, but I think we're into deeply murky waters with Top Sail. Styles are roadmaps, but sometimes you're off the grid, smack dab in the uncharted territory inhabited by the likes of Top Sail.