A Close Kinship – How Distillers Look to Beer for Inspiration and Purpose – Good Beer Hunting
While many established whiskey distilleries tend to view yeast as merely a tool, they approach malt with the same casualness, viewing it as merely a source of fermentable sugars rather than a means of controlling the flavor of the liquid. The elaboration of the bouquet is a job left to the barrel to solve.
Traditional Scottish distillers, for example, claim that whiskey gets up to 70% of its flavor from interaction with wood. In some cases, this may well be an underestimated figure. But by examining how varying amounts of light malts, chocolate, crystal and other specialty malts affect the taste of a beer, some distillers are beginning to recognize that the same principle could – and perhaps should – be applied to craft whiskey making.
“It’s probably all influenced by craft beer,” says Westland’s Sell. “[Flavor research] is something craft brewers have been doing for decades, while distilleries are only beginning to recognize that a grain bill affects the flavor of the wort and will eventually affect the flavor of the distillate as well. You can draw a parallel between Budweiser or Coors and washing a [conventional] distillery – they just consider the grain bill as a commodity. If we use a diverse range of malts, of course we will see all these different flavors in our new brand as well.
The darker beers and darker specialty malts used in their recipes look particularly appealing to distillers. Darker malts can help enhance a whiskey’s palate or give the liquid a more lingering finish. More importantly, they can impart distinctive roast, coffee and cocoa notes that would normally only come from a long interaction with the wood, thus enhancing the bouquet of a younger spirit.
In Alberta, Canada, GrainHengeMeeting Creek Single Malt Whiskey is inspired by a beer made by sister brewery Troubled Monk, Open Road American Brown Ale. Its grain beak includes amber, crystalline, brown and chocolate malts.
Seattle’s Westland has followed a similar path: “In our flagship product, Single Malt, we use different malts: Washington Select Pale Malt; Munich malt; extra special malt; pale chocolate malt; brown malt; Bairds very peaty malt. Some of the grain bill is similar to what you would find in a Porter,” Sell says. “Use different varieties of malt [is the result of] an exploration of the growing barley crop in the Pacific Northwest. There are plenty of breweries in the Seattle area that seek out hyper-local maltsters in order to source malt from the same region where they make their beer.
Across the Atlantic, interest in darker malts is also growing. The work of Tim Massey, former manager of the English brewery Freedom, provides empirical evidence of the potential of black malt to enhance the flavor of a distillate. As part of his recently launched Beer Barrel distillery project, he contract distilled an Imperial Stout for Northern Monk in Leeds. The distillate sold out within a day. It is described as an amplified version of its base beer, showing aromas of brown sugar, vanilla, cocoa and tobacco, and a slight sweetness.
Meanwhile, a chemistry graduate and scotch enthusiast Rutele Marciulionyte experimented with black malts as part of his PhD program at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. Marciulionyte’s work suggests that although dark malts may lead to a reduction in the alcohol yield in the distilled liquid, they contribute to a substantial increase in the concentration of volatile aromatic compounds, i.e. complexity . His research could have game-changing implications in a country that, when it comes to whiskey grain bills, still tends to take a rather conservative approach.