Who Knew: Craft Beer Distills into Whiskey!


When my friend texted to ask if I was interested in attending a tasting at Brooklyn Wine Exchange, I said yes.  She is a member and generously brings me as her (+) 1 to their tastings and classes which are usually really interesting.  It wasn’t until I head the topic that I got truly excited – Beer-isky??  …as in beer distilled into whiskey???

Of course, I immediately needed to know more about the statement that “Whiskey is, essentially, distilled beer.”  Turns out this is a reasonably fair thing to say.  The ingredients (with the exception of hops) and the process (with the exception of distillation) are shockingly similar.

I entered the tasting with soooooooo many questions!  Would this process work with more complex beers or those that are barrel aged?  What about open fermented or wild beers?  How does a black stout distill into a clear whiskey?  You use wine barrels to age this…huh??  Armed with my questions, my curiosity and my taste buds, we nabbed seats at the front of the room.  13th generation Master Distiller Marko Karakasevic of Charbay Distiliery & Winery took us through an amazing journey as we tasted the beers along side the whiskey they became on this whirlwind tour!

As it turns out, this distilling thing has a really exciting side effect – not only do the colors of a beer not distill (hence the clear whiskey prior to barrel aging) but neither do the bitter compounds.  This, combined with the smoothness imparted by the barrel leaves behind.

Please excuse my lack of ability to describe whiskey as well as I do beer, but I’ll give it a try!

Flight 1

Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA:
A sold west coast IPA to say the least – and this coming from a not-so-IPA-loving girl… Hazy, golden, honey and wildflowers.  Very clean and well balanced.

After the initial batch distilled from pilsner (see flight 3 below) this was the next beer up and the relationship between Bear Republic and Charbay was born.

Charbay Distillery Hop Flavored Whiskey R5:
Clear hoppiness and herbal notes come through, with some of those wildflowers, some orange and clove from the IPA as well.  A lovely level of roundness and body comes from the french oak (chardonnay!) barrels that this spent 2 + years in.

Apparently the key here with any beer set for distillation is to ensure that it is as fresh as can be – bottle ready if you will – sadly this knocks out the potential for big barrel aged stouts, for example, to be distilled because of the oxidization that has already taken place.  Sad news as I had high hopes for intensifying the already intense flavors.    That said, a classic stout distills quite well!

Flight 2

Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout:
Decidedly a thinner mouthfeel than what I typically drink.  Both roasty and malty, there is a more prominent hop profile here than in your typical stout, but it’s not off-putting, its actually enough to make it interesting.

Charbay Distillery Hop Flavored Whiskey S:
Much more mellow!  The contrast between the R5 and the S almost perfectly mimics the contrast between an IPA and a stout.  Brown sugar, roastiness (even maltiness?), cinnamon.  Coffee and dark chocolate have made their way over from the stout for sure.  Maybe even amplified here.

Lesson learned, when you distill delicious beer, it concentrates the deliciousness!  But what about the flavor left behind in the barrels after the whiskey is aged?  Any reciprocity between beer-isky barrels going on to age beer in the ultimate “circle of beer life?”  The answer was a resounding no.  Apparently Marko loves his barrels too much to let them go.  Fair enough as those barrels have treated him well, especially when it comes to the last whiskey in our tasting which spent 6 years in oak and another 8 in “neutral vessels.”  Seems as though those barrels are being put to consistent good use.

Flight 3

Baderbrau Chicago Pilsner:
** Disclaimer – this is not the beer originally distilled to get the whiskey it is paired with, just a close approximation.**   A classic pilsner.  Clear, light, fizzy, refreshing with lemon notes and a bit peppery.  Classic hot weather drinking.

Charbay Distillery Hop Flavored Whiskey III:
And now the pièce de résis·tance, the first whiskey distilled from beer, the product of an experiment conducted with 22,000 gallons of pilsner from a now defunct brewery.    Wow is this strong!  Singes the nostrils on first whiff – 132.4 proof will do that I suppose.  Added a fair amount of water before I could get to the flavors here but once I did, I found flavors that had nothing to do with a pilsner.  There was chocolate, coffee, char.  Almost bourbon-y, sweet and spicy

And so, after closing the tasting with a vanilla bean rum (which I won’t even attempt to discuss the deliciousness of) we wandered out into the streets of Brooklyn.   Yes, whiskey from beer… that’s a thing.  And it’s delicious.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s