As anyone who watched 1980s television—or, specifically, 1980s commercials—can tell you, there’s an appeal in contrasts. In this case, I’m thinking of the old “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” ad campaign, which posited that two things that you liked might be even better when combined. This combination has gone from novelty to ubiquity when it comes to bourbon barrel-aged beers, which shifted from outliers in the beer world to a common sight. This is not to denigrate this style, which I’m decidedly fond of; instead, it’s to say that something that once felt adventurous has shifted to being decidedly reliable.
The fact that breweries are now veering into different varieties of barrel aging isn’t all that surprising. When thinking about the appeal of a Scotch cask-aged beer, it might make sense to think a little about barrel-aged beers in general. There are certain bourbons that are hailed for a set of flavors that translate well into thicker, darker beers. Scotch is a more complex creature: Do you prefer something with peat? Smokiness? Floral qualities? Because of this, beer aged in Scotch barrels is going to be a much less predictable experience.
Goose Island's Islay Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout matures for 17 months in Ardbeg whisky barrels—which falls on the peatier side of the single malt spectrum. Initially, upon looking at it, the first thing that I notice is its color: It’s pitch black, so dark that I couldn’t even make out the shapes of my fingers on the other side of the glass. A peaty smell emerged when I sniffed it; the bottle, too, smelled not unlike a recently-opened bottle of single malt.
Compared to bourbon barrel-aged stouts, this is a lot more complex and a bit harder to get a handle on.”
When I tasted it, things turned interesting and, occasionally, contradictory. This stout is, like many good stouts, smooth. It picked up a lot of the flavor of the cask, though, which caused an odd layering sensation if consumed too quickly. The sweeter part of the stout’s taste hits on one level, while the smokiness from the whisky makes its way to an entirely different part of the mouth. On the first sip, the sensation was not unlike drinking two different things at the same time, if those two things managed to remain distinct as they were consumed.
Much like Scotch itself, this is a sipping beer. Doing so lets its flavors emerge more slowly and in tandem. There’s some spiciness, lots of peat, lots of smoke. The imperial stout acts as a kind of leveling agent, establishing a tasty and steady flavor over which the tastes from the cask can play out.
The end result makes for a beer that’s an acquired taste—compared to bourbon barrel-aged stouts, this is a lot more complex and a bit harder to get a handle on. It’s also quite strong at 13.4% ABV, but it doesn’t necessarily taste like it—and so you could quaff away if you so desired. But this is, ultimately, a beer to sit with, to savor, and to occasionally ponder.