The allure of the bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, perhaps the gold standard style for craft beer enthusiasts, is in part because of the time that goes into aging the beer. It tends to make the beer more rare, more of a status symbol. Simply drinking a Stout with layers of flavors is a reward in itself, but when you’re plunking down more money for a beer, having it be more of a crown jewel is more appealing.
Peruse October’s beer directory, and you’ll find the usual heavy hitters among the bourbon barreled Imperial Stouts – Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, Founders KBS, and others. Beer Advocate’s Top 250 list is littered with barrel-aged Imperial Stouts, as well. The barrel-aged Imperial Stout checks several boxes for serious craft beer drinkers – high alcohol by volume, endless possibilities for flavors, and the ability to be able to tuck a few bottles away for a special occasion.
The one thing a barrel-aged Imperial Stout doesn’t lend itself to? Being an everyday purchase. The time and effort that goes into producing them is two-fold: if you are drinking regularly, you’re burning a hole in your wallet, and also likely expanding your gut. It’s probably a good thing most of them aren’t available year-round, for our own sakes. But if you have a desire for one at a moment’s notice at your local bottle shop, odds are you’re able to find one – New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk.
There are a couple reasons New Holland is able to keep Dragon’s Milk on the shelves year-round. It has about a six-month stay in bourbon barrels, on the shorter end compared to most of its competition. And as a distillery, New Holland also has easy access to bourbon barrels. Logan White, a marketing support coordinator for New Holland, said most of the bourbon barrels that are used for Dragon’s Milk come in-house.
Dragon's Milk first spends three months in a barrel that just had bourbon pulled from it. Then, a second batch of Dragon’s Milk is aged in the barrel after the first batch of Dragon's Milk is pulled out and aged for another three months. “This Dragon's Milk absorbs the character of the oak barrel more than the first batch can and with less of the bourbon,” White said. The final product derives from the two batches blended together, making for a quick turnaround compared to most in its style.
“We have many barrels aging at any one time though so we are usually able to age a batch of dragon's milk in separate differently staged barrels in just over three months,” White said.
For how readily available it is, it's a go-to introductory beer for those seeking a bourbon barrel imperial stout.”
At first blush, the bourbon presence is more velvety, which those less than enamored with bourbon might prefer. It’s more complimentary as opposed to a Stout that hits you over the head with bourbon notes. After the initial soft hit of bourbon, a smooth oakiness washes over.
In my early days of drinking craft beer, Dragon’s Milk was the go-to if I wanted a big sipper of a Stout. It was perfect for Michigan winters and readily available since it was first brewed in 2001. I was surprised to see the IBU count at 31, because I haven’t had it in awhile and remembered it as sweeter. But on tap at New Holland’s Grand Rapids location, The Knickerbocker, I drew much more of a hop presence on the back end that I remember.
Dragon’s Milk’s bourbon doesn't stand out in the way it does in, say, KBS or Big Bad Baptist; it’s more subtle. For how readily available it is, it's a go-to introductory beer for those seeking a bourbon barrel imperial stout – enough backbone to make an impression, but not enough to possibly turn off someone getting acclimated to the style. One area New Holland has on its competition is variety. It pumps out enough Dragon’s Milk variants to satisfy pretty much everyone – Mexican Spice Cake, Vanilla Chai, S’mores, Coconut Rum Barrel are just some of the different versions.
So, does less time spent in bourbon barrels make much of a difference? Paste magazine did a blind tasting of barrel-aged imperial stouts in 2015, and Dragon’s Milk ranked sixth, ahead of offerings from Deschutes and Goose Island. Your opinion might vary, but you shouldn’t have to chase any trucks to grab an old reliable such as Dragon’s Milk.