How To Sip Whiskey, Drink Beer

How To Sip Whiskey, Drink Beer
New Annals of Craft Collaboration

Jameson Caskmates whiskey aged in stout barrels.

The combination of drinking whiskey by the shot and chasing it with beer is known as a boilermaker, a process that generally is like throwing a haymaker to one’s head. It’s a method more familiar to the 1960s and B-movies than the current era, if only because whiskey and beer are so much better these days.

Yet, if you stop to consider that both whiskey and beer are made from malt, it can make sense to put them together again, precisely because the quality of each continues to improve with innovation. So I decided to give some thought to pairing whiskey and beer in the same three ways that one would pair food and beer. In other words, choose beers whose flavors are either complementary to the whiskey, a contrast to the whiskey or that refresh the palate.

The results were quite surprising.

Given the ruminative qualities of whiskey, which have inspired many an artist and writer, one might hope this pairing revelation initially resulted from intuitive thinking, if not drinking. Alas, I must confess that it was while working on a story about Caskmates made by Jameson Irish Whiskey that the idea occurred.

Caskmates is aged in barrels that previously held an Irish stout and prior to that, these same barrels were used to age Jameson Original. The Caskmates whiskey is highlighted by notes of cocoa with a hint of hops – which came from using the same aging barrels used by Franciscan Well of Cork, Ireland to make its Jameson Stout.

In the company’s media release about Caskmates, this mild-mannered suggestion was included: “With the subtle suggestion of hops in every sip, it also makes a perfect accompaniment to stout beer.”

Initially, I went to a Guinness stout as a pairing – in part because the Franciscan Well Jameson Stout is not available yet in the U.S. Alas, the Guinness pairing made me long for something richer.

So the journey began. At one of my favorite beer emporiums I bought a four-pack of Old Rasputin by North Coast Brewing Company, a truly rich Russian Imperial Stout. I also picked up a bottle of Taddy Porter by Samuel Smith’s as well as a six-pack of Boulevard Brewing Company’s Unfiltered Wheat. Once at the counter, I confessed that my selections were all whiskey chasers. “Oh, you’re going to have a merry holiday season,” was the reply. The pairing idea already seemed to be gaining traction.

Once at home by the fireplace (where there was no fire due to this year’s mild winter), my glass held two fingers of Caskmates and standing nearby was a pour of Old Rasputin, impenetrably black and topped by a creamy tan head. If straight whiskey invariably has a dry, hot finish, it quickly began to make real sense to follow it with the wetness and coolness of beer. And then start over. Soon the fire was roaring.

The Old Rasputin indeed offered a complementary richness to the cocoa and hop notes of the Caskmates and a soothing wet finish. It helped the palate find the subtle but noticeably present hoppiness in both. It was a warm, sensuous, flavorful and almost analgesic combination.

The next logical step was a sip of the whiskey followed by the Unfiltered Wheat in order to “cut” or cleanse the palate. I thought an American wheat style would be a bit more hoppy, less spicy and yeasty compared to European wheat beers, therefore a good selection as a palate restorer. What surprised me was how much the Caskmates and its distilled malt brought out the sweetness in the malt of the Boulevard. In one respect, this beer had never tasted so good, and the whiskey sustained its contrasting appeal of the cocoa and hop notes amidst the distilled malt. Still, it was not nearly as bracing or levitating as the complementary pairing of a Russian Imperial Stout.

The remaining method of food pairing calls for a beer that offers a contrast. I chose the Taddy Porter to pair with the whiskey because it tends to have a slightly more caramel and tangy flavor found in a classic English Porter, but is “stout” enough to hang with whiskey. Although a bit roasty, Taddy Porter is less hoppy and less chocolatey than many current stouts or American porters.

There was indeed a contrast – the Taddy blossomed in terms of its dark fruit notes and the whiskey retained its slightly dry notes of cocoa and hops plus a wee bit of the green apple, a flavor note in the Jameson Original used to make Caskmates.

The initial conclusion was that it only takes two fingers of whiskey straight up to handle three different pairings. So it’s not a volume thing like boilermakers. Certainly a feeling of bonhomie emerges, not surprisingly, with each beer and whiskey combo. But one combination stood out. The real upwardly bound sensation concerned the complementary matching with the mighty stout; the other two seemed to enhance the flavor of the beer without returning the favor to the whiskey.

After this heady introduction to sipping and drinking and maybe even a little thinking, it was logical to go for another tasting with a beer from my cellar, where I found a nicely aged year-old bottle of Gonzo Imperial Porter from Flying Dog Brewery – an extra hoppy version of a Baltic Porter first created in honor of Hunter S. Thompson. Gonzo journalist Thompson was fond of beer and whiskey, among other inebriants, and probably came up with a few pairings of his own along the way. So this seemed to be a perfect candidate for an alliance with the Caskmates, although I couldn’t decide if it should be considered a complementary or contrasting pairing.

The Gonzo Imperial is a thrilling beer, no doubt, starting with Ralph Steadman’s extraordinary label in tribute to Thompson; much like the various collaborations of these two journalists, the label tends to introduce hallucinogenic phobias. The beer is a meaty porter as opposed to tangy or chocolatey with an intentional burst of extra hops. These characteristics were emphasized by a year in the cellar before a brief stay in the freezer to bring it down to 55 degrees. Alas, the beer fell in between complementary or contrasting when drunk with the Caskmates – extra bitter and not enough cocoa or fruit.

So what about other whiskeys? I went to my liquor cabinet and brought out a bottle of Defiant, a single malt, which figured to be good for another round of pairings.

Alas, a similar result with the Gonzo Imperial Porter.

While it might be fun to report gonzo journalism lives and that I dove right into more whiskey and beer despite the bats flying through my house that had jumped off Steadman’s label amidst other paranoid ramblings, I concluded the inaugural whiskey and beer evening in favor of a second day’s sampling and a fresh palate.

Defiant, distilled in North Carolina by Blue Ridge Distillery, comes out of the same mountains that have been dominated for several centuries by Scotch-Irish distillers otherwise known as bootleggers. By creating a different way to distill it, this whiskey is made in the same spirit moonshiners often displayed. Defiant is made, surprisingly, without barrels. The influence of American oak comes from spirals of the wood used during the aging process in modern stainless steel tanks. It has been judged to be one of the most bourbon-like single malts made in the U.S.

The Day 2 tasting began with a trip to a neighborhood store, which yielded a bottle of Innis & Gunn Original as well as Lagunitas IPA.

A stab at making a complementary choice for the Defiant, the Innis & Gunn Original was one of the primogenitors of the movement to match beer with bourbon barrels. When paired with Defiant, the intense, flavorful whiskey highlighted the beer’s sweet vanilla notes, but otherwise, the beer and whiskey didn’t quite connect.

About this time, there seemed to be a pattern developing. I realized what was happening with each of the whiskeys and all of the pairings. Pairing the two alcohol types emphasizes retronasal tasting due to the volatized nature of whiskey, whose aromas are easily exhaled from the throat after a sip. A lesser known fact of life, retronasal tasting is something I first came across in Jeff Alworth’s recently released book The Beer Bible.

Alworth’s research is exacting and impeccable. In the case of explaining retronasal taste, he combined standard research on the nature of taste, which includes the limitations of the tongue, as well as insights from brewers who are charged with tasting beer daily and maintaining consistency. What Alworth confirmed was that the tasting of any flavor occurs most noticeably when the aromas come through the nose via the opening at the back of the throat, hence the phrase retronasal.

These retronasal “scents are always detected in the presence of the tongue’s taste,” writes Alworth. “That fusion may be why we are so easily fooled to think ‘flavor’ is something our taste buds sense. Yet, in most cases, when we say ‘taste,’ we mean the overall flavor of something, and when we say ‘flavor,’ we largely mean retronasal smell.”

Innis & Gunn Original and Lagunitas IPA

I seemed to be discovering that if a whiskey such as Caskmates has a cocoa and hops flavor, drinking a stout with a similar profile emphasizes the taste not only due to the complementary flavors. As the alcohol and intense flavors of whiskey continue to evaporate off the surface of the tongue and throat, they are exhaled into the back of the nose following a sip of beer and help carry the flavor of the beer, too. In other words, you get a real rush of flavor.

This is probably something already discovered by those drinking stouts enhanced by bourbon barrel-aging – alongside a few sips of bourbon.

In some cases, the whiskey tends to just enhance the beer. This would explain why even an American wheat tastes so flavorful after a sip of Caskmates. To take another example, the highlight of vanilla, which is the American oak flavor intensely imparted by Defiant, is brought to life by the Innis & Gunn Original. In these cases it seemed that the beer was enhanced considerably more than the whiskey.

It’s clearly more cerebral if the taste in the whiskey and the paired beer are similar in the manner of Caskmates and a rich Russian Imperial Stout, because one enhances the enjoyment of the other so noticeably.

The folks at Jameson, who are very interested in making the connection to the craft beer drinker, seem to have caught on to this, too. Starting with a small batch in 2016, Jameson intends to follow Caskmates with a whiskey influenced by an IPA that was made in Jameson barrels at KelSo Beer in Brooklyn.

KelSo owner Kelly Taylor, who began his brewing life in hop-heavy San Diego, made a floral IPA with highlights of spice and vanilla two years ago using six Jameson barrels. That beer was shared via kegs through the brewery’s distribution network in New York City and the barrels were sent back to Jameson’s distillery in Cork for experimentation with an IPA-influenced whiskey.

To me, the idea of making a whiskey influenced by an IPA through the wood of a barrel is interesting, because the lush, malty and bitter Lagunitas IPA, when paired with either of the whiskeys I experimented with, simply overwhelmed the connection. But what if you had a whiskey that accentuates the flavors of an IPA followed by a healthy swig of a lusty American IPA? That could be a one-two “barley-maker” punch worth trying.

As the winter wanes, meanwhile, consider enhancing the flavor of some of your favorite beers with a well-chosen pairing of some good sipping whiskey.

This story was copied from an email to The MOB by The Beer Connoisseur. For more articles, click here.