Paste magazine, which I know best from my brief record store tenure ~15 years ago as a publication that might include a free CD from Jeff Tweedy’s new side project, has become increasingly relevant in beer media. Two years ago it seemed like the entire online beer universe was talking about their original 116 entry IPA blind tasting – this was not just another arbitrary ranking listicle, but had something approaching a real method behind it. It was thoughtful, and put together spectacularly well.
It also provided great marketing opportunities for breweries up and down the list; certainly I sold some extra Heavy Seas Loose Cannon (#7 on the list) in the weeks following its publication. Since then, Paste has published several more blind tasting features, including lists on DIPAs, imperial stouts, Christmas beers and, most recently, Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts. And right there at #2 is a beer I know very well: Jackie O’s Spirit Beast.
I’ve written elsewhere about my deep connection to Jackie O’s: I saw the brewery founded in Athens, OH 12 years ago, and their original brewer and I were classmates at Ohio University. I love their brewery, and their beers.
But Spirit Beast is a different animal: a blend created from a melange of beers aged in barrels that were sourced by a couple of local knuckleheads: Joe Casey, of Gallo’s Taproom in Columbus, and Frankie Heath, of Local Cantina. Both manage beer-centric businesses; both are lovers of great bourbon and spirits, generally.
And both have in the past couple of years done several barrel picks at noted Kentucky distilleries. Casey and Heath ferried the barrels from those picks the 70 miles or so from Columbus to Athens, where Brad Clark, Head of Brewing Operations and minister of the barrel program at Jackie O’s, filled them with the beer that would eventually become Spirit Beast.
Spirit Beast is now in its second incarnation. The 2015 version was a blend containing imperial stout, a massive DIPA, a barleywine, and an imperial amber – not quite a stout, and classified as a strong ale. The 2016 version, despite containing a thread of Jackie O’s Skipping Stone Belgian Quad, is recognizably a stout.
When we got the empty barrels we didn’t know what to do with them.”
While the 2015 version contained beer aged in just two Russel’s Reserve barrels provided by the Gallo’s and Local Cantina fellows, 2016’s Spirit Beast blend contains beers aged in various Russell’s, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses barrels sourced from Heath and Casey’s barrel picks. Brad Clark and Jackie O’s supplied the remaining barrels (1792 and Woodford Reserve) in which Spirit Beast lately rested.
Barrel picks – wherein a bar manager or beverage buyer at a given business is invited down to a distillery to select an entire barrel of whiskey for purchase, bottling, and exclusive sale at her or his business – is increasingly common but still out of the ordinary. Many bars and restaurants are unwilling or unable to make the substantial upfront investment (potentially exceeding $10,000) of purchasing an entire barrel of spirits. Fewer still are willing to then commit to purchasing the beer aged in that empty barrel, 12 or 18 months later, with no guarantee of what the final product will eventually be like.
“When we got the empty barrels we didn’t know what to do with them,” Frankie Heath told me recently. "Our beer rep Julia, who sells us Jackie O’s, kept telling us 'You should put beer in this, you should put beer in this.’ The only brewer we knew was Brad [Clark at Jackie O’s], so we texted him and asked, ‘Hey would you put a stout in these?’ We had no expectations going in, except that we both knew that good barrel aged beer takes a long time. Our bosses [at Gallo’s and Local Cantina] were both very much aggravated that we’d committed to something a year out and we didn’t know what it was going to taste like.”
“We had these two wet Russell’s Reserve barrels at the time and Jackie O's didn’t have a steamer yet, so they had to get some beer into them immediately,” Heath continued. "That first year, when we brought the barrels down, they had just started kegging Brick Kiln and Matriarch. At first we were reluctant to put a giant triple IPA in there, but that ended up being the best of the threads in that first blend – total orange marmalade.”
The key to a successful barrel aged beer often lies in the blending. While Heath and Casey initially thought that their Russell’s barrels would yield up a complete barrel aged beer unto themselves, they quickly discovered that the beer from their barrels would comprise part of a blend. Brad Clark of Jackie O’s does a lot of blending – the barrel program at their offsite warehouse in Athens, OH has grown hugely in the past couple of years, and he is now the steward of hundreds of sleeping oak vessels.
Of the 2016 Spirit Beast, Clark said, “The 2016 blend has beers from five different types of barrels: Russel’s Reserve, Woodford, 1792, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace. The base beers were BA Dark Apparition [Jackie O’s ‘flagship’ imperial stout], BA Oil of Aphrodite [an ‘American Double Stout’ brewed with Belgian candied sugar and black walnuts from Athens co.], BA Champion Ground [a barrel aged coffee stout, though in this case without coffee added], BA Oro Negro [a stout based on Oil of Aphrodite but conditioned on cacao and vanilla beans, habaneros and cinnamon], and Skipping Stone, our BA Belgian Quad. There’s also a touch of our collab with Side Project, which is a big, 14% imperial stout. That was a later addition to the blend – it needed some oomph, and the Side Project collab put it over the top.”
It definitely verifies what I’ve been trying to accomplish.”
Clark was characteristically humble about the Paste hosannas, but did say that it was satisfying, in the context of a rigorous blind tasting, to be recognized for his developing skill as a blender. “The Cellar Cuvee project is really kind of the birth of all of these things – Cellar Cuvee #1 came out in 2008. That was a blend of Dark Apparition and Wood Ya Honey [Jackie O’s bourbon barrel-aged honey wheat wine] that was aged together in a barrel. That was the beginning of these blending projects nine years ago. Since then we’ve released 10 different Cellar Cuvees and played around with blending."
"But the thing I’m really humbled and pleased by with the recognition from Paste is that the blending program itself had gotten some recognition – it definitely verifies what I’ve been trying to accomplish, going with my gut, years of trying to put things together that are greater than the sum of their parts. That felt great. I’m getting bolder and more confident in my blending capabilities. We can look at things like Untappd and Beer Advocate until we’re blue in the face, but it was nice to place that highly in a blind tasting with that many other high caliber beers on there.”
I recently enjoyed a bottle of 2016 Spirit Beast with Frankie Heath at Gallo’s Taproom on Bethel Road in Columbus. The beer pours an inky, viscous black with very little head. Very low carbonation, nearly still, makes it immediately apparent that this beer is quite different from 2015’s version. Aromas of malt, dried fruit, and port emanate from the glass as it warms. The flavor is beautifully complex, a melding of nuttiness, sweet malt, vanilla and coconut, bittersweet chocolate and a very slight smokiness, as well as a tiny bit of warmth both from the alcohol (12.5% alcohol by volume) and perhaps the Oro Negro thread of the blend.
Surprisingly drinkable for such a massive beer with such low carbonation, especially considering all the thought (and blending) that went into it.