Wine Is to Brandy as Beer Is to… ______

25 Oct

Fill in the blank: ________ The answer is “whisk(e)y,” but I might be skipping ahead too far.

The real question is: People drink wine and brandy (and specialized kinds of brandy, like cognac), but people don’t drink beer and whisk(e)y. You might think I’m wrong. Did I just say that people don’t drink beer?

The Real Question

Yes. Of course, people drink beer. But people don’t drink the beer from which whisk(e)y is made. So, let’s ask a related question that may be possible to answer:

  • Why Is Good Whisk(e)y Made from Bad Beer?

If we just focus on Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, as far as I know, the beer (wash) from which these are made isn’t even drunk by the people that make the whisk(e)y, much less offered to visitors. Single-malt Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, water and yeast (period). Irish whiskey is made from a combination of malted and un-malted barley (and water and yeast). Even though the Scottish or Irish distilleries don’t sell or offer tastings of their starting product, their finished products turn out well enough….

  • Why isn’t whisk(e)y made from good beer?

I define “good beer” as beer that whisk(e)y producers would be happy for distillery visitors to drink, perhaps good enough that they’d sell it on the open market. I will point out that it’s all the rage to sell “new make” (or “white dog”) spirit, which is simply legal moonshine, so I wondered why no one had extrapolated this process further up the production chain. Whisk(e)y lovers seem to be clamoring for such “insider” experiences.

Yes, Virginia, You Can Make Whisk(e)y from Good Beer

I was very fortunate this Summer to spend time at the Charbay Distillery in St. Helena, CA. Marko, the 13th-generation Master Distiller, is doing just this. He’s making whiskey from Bear Republic Brewing Company‘s Big Bear Black Stout and their Racer 5 IPA. Both are likely to become fine whiskeys. Marko’s direct quote about the distilled stout is: “…green spice, rum tones, and its so smooth i want to bottle it right off the damn pipe.

Back to the moonshine comment above: I’m not a fan. I’ve tried many of these trendy “whisk(e)y” products and mostly they are pretty flavorless. As with anything I write here, this is my opinion. I know that many people like them and I am not disparaging their opinions. Please: If you like something, drink it! You don’t have to justify your preferences to anyone else. To my palate, these products do have more flavor than vodka, which is the closest thing I can compare them to, but it’s clear that — at least for the ones I have tried — they really need lots of time in wood (at least the traditional 2-3 years) to acquire their “whisk(e)y flavors.” Not so with Charbay’s product: According to Marko (see above), his white dog spirit actually has flavor before it has rested in wood for years. It doesn’t need those years of chemical reactions and magic to be palatable.

If you think about it, the distillation process is a way of concentrating flavors and smells by 15-20x, so in your mind, imagine starting with an excellent stout beer or IPA and extracting and concentrating the best flavors. You’d imagine that the finished product would simply rock…and it does.

This isn’t the first time Marko (and his Dad, Miles) has made whiskey from good beer: Marko’s solo project, Doubled & Twisted was distilled from an IPA (rather recently), after Marko and Miles got rave reviews on their first beer distilling collaboration that they produced from Pilsner beer. I was able to taste their Pilsner whiskey at one of the local retailers that carries their products, and it was amazing. You would be blown away at how the hops evolve in distillation. And these flavors are present immediately — as soon as the liquid leaves the still. This whiskey had been aged as well, so it was a deep and complex whiskey, one of the best I have ever had.

California has always attracted pioneers, explorers and dreamers, so it’s only fitting that you’d find a distillery in the middle of the Napa valley wine country that was experimenting with making whiskey from good beer. Honestly…where else?


Posted by on 25-October-2011 in California, Whisky2.0


6 responses to “Wine Is to Brandy as Beer Is to… ______


    25-October-2011 at 01:25

    The mapping’s imperfect, as you set it up. “Wine is to Brandy as Wash is to Beer”. “Beer” usually implies other botanicals — at least hops.

    So it’s not too far from asking why we don’t make brandy from, say, vermouth (ignoring fortification here.) Perhaps there’s an alternate universe in which people drink mainly wash, vermouth, whisky, and brandy, and people there are saying “why doesn’t anyone drink the plain grape wines from which brandy is distilled?”

    The answer’s the same — wash and beer are different products, as different as wine and vermouth. If you distill a hopped beer in Scotland, it’d be illegal to call it “whisky”, even if all the other criteria were met.

    I’m not saying it wouldn’t be delicious, and I’m excited to try Marko’s product. I’d also love to try distilled vermouth some day. I just wouldn’t call it brandy.

    • whisky2dot0

      25-October-2011 at 11:58

      Good points. My definition of “beer” as “fermented powdered cereal grains” was intentionally bare-bones to make a comparison with the relationship of fermented fruit juice (fruit “wines”) and brandy. My definition of “beer” admittedly doesn’t include hops. However, there are minimally hopped beers a über-hopped beers, so there is a lot of range there. I think beer without hops is perhaps not sold at all, but it’s still (in my mind) technically “beer.” I wanted to start from there simply because I wondered if anyone (other than Charbay) has ever made whisk(e)y from “good beer” – a finished Pilsner, Stout, IPA, etc. The results are really amazing.

      • whiskyhauslein

        25-October-2011 at 23:44

        As far as I know it is actually very simple why there will be no (malt)whisky distilled from good beer or pilsner. Hop when heated, leaves some sort of waxlike-layer behind in the Potstill. This layer is extremely difficult to remove and prevents all coppercontact from te moment hop has been introduced into the process. Coppercontact is essential in order to get the best quality of alcohol and reduce the sulver amount in the new spirit as much as possible …

      • whisky2dot0

        26-October-2011 at 12:21

        Thanks for your comment! I hear what you are saying, but we have several existence proofs that indicate that it is not impossible. 🙂 Your comment may make it a challenge to produce such whiskey at large volumes, but trust me the results are worth the extra effort (i.e., assuming you are right, the stills would have to be cleaned or maintained more frequently).

  2. jellydonut (@frakwit)

    1-November-2011 at 11:29

    Um.. Brandy/cognac isn’t distilled from a very drinkable wine, either. I’m not sure I get the point you’re making, to be honest. :p

    • whisky2dot0

      1-November-2011 at 12:59

      Historically, you are absolutely correct. Cognac (and grappa, its unaged cousin) has traditionally been a way to get value out of a waste product. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is are several distillers in California (Germain-Robin and St. George, and AFAIK, also Charbay) that take first-quality wine and make brandy from it. The results are spectacular. You can get a Germain-Robin “cognac” (yes, it’s not made in France, so it’s just brandy, but it is distilled in the traditional manner), and for about $100 you get a product that stands up to cognac that costs 4 to 10 times as much. My overall point in writing this is that if you start with good inputs, you get a high-quality output.


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