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Hophead Vodka

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The origins of the modern craft beer movement are usually traced back to 1965, when Frederick Louis "Fritz" Maytag III purchased Anchor Brewing Company, saving it from closure and keeping it strictly independent even during the dark days of consolidation and dominance of the big 3. A few decades later, in 1993, the company opened Anchor Distilling, a microdistillery in the same location as the brewery (surely not the first "craft" distillery, but probably ahead of the curve).

They're most famous for Old Potrero, a rye whiskey, but they also make gin and a few other oddities, like this relatively new offering, a vodka made with macerated hops. There have been various attempts to meld beer and spirits over the years, usually coming in the form of distilled commercial beer, like Charbay R5 (which is made from distilled Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA). Hopehead Vodka takes a slightly different approach. It uses hops which are macerated in neutral grain spirits before being distilled, apparently similar to the process used for Gin. Details are a little sparse, and while it's mentioned that they use 2 different hops, they don't mention which two. To my mind, the result is more gin-like than hoppy, but it feels like the mutant offspring of two different worlds:

Hophead Vodka

Hophead Vodka - Pours clear, no color at all. Smell is... not what I expected. These aren't your typical hops, but they do display related notes, mostly floral with a little citrus, maybe some spice. Taste is a little less distinctive, again floral notes, a little bit of citrus in the finish, hints of spice, ethanol. Mouthfeel is crisp with a bit of a bite from the booze. It feels like gin, which isn't particularly surprising, but while there's a certain distinct flavor, it doesn't feel entirely like the hops we all know and love, even if it shares some DNA or something. Seems like a nice change of pace for the gin fan, might make an interesting coctail with tonic or something (which I should probably try). That being said, it never really cohered for me, even if I think it's a pretty interesting dram. Certainly worth a look if you can snag a sample, but not really worth a purchase.

Vodka Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass.

Beer Nerd Musings: Obviously hops are a key component in beer, and to my mind, the various attempts to incorporate hop character in spirits or whiskey are fascinating, but wholly inferior to what can be done with beer. I would say that, of course, but something about the distilling process transforms the hops in ways that might be interesting, but also lossy. I'm no master homebrewer, but I've huffed enough fresh hops to know what unadulterated hops smell and taste like, and beer can really capture that in ways something like this vodka just isn't. I'm still curious what a sorta dry-hopping approach to vodka or whiskey would produce, but I'm not entirely sure that will work as well as it does with beer.

Well that was interesting, and I'll certainly continue to explore the various convergences between beer and liquor, even if they don't always work out. In the meantime, we'll return to non-alcohol land with tomorrow's review of... maple syrup? With a twist!

Laird's 12 Year Old Apple Brandy

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It's not all Bourbon and Wine here in this time of Beer Recession. We also like to tackle the weird, off-the-beaten path offerings, like distilled beer... (Yeah, yeah, "beer" is used in a more general sense in this distilling literature, but look where you are! I'm referring to commercial beer offerings like Racer 5 or Duvel. Get with the program, people.)

During last year's 6 Weeks of Halloween (an annual horror movie marathon centered around that bestest of holidays), I wanted to get something seasonal and an alternative to pumpkin-spiced everything. Looking at various available options, I settled on Laird's 12 Year Old Apple Brandy.

Established in 1780, Laird's bills itself as "America's oldest native distillery" and is based in New Jersey and Virginia. They make 6 expressions, one a standard Applejack (a blend of Apple Brandy and neutral grain spirits), a bonded Apple Brandy, an Unbonded Apple Brandy (still at 100 proof), an unaged edition, a 7.5 year old Apple Brandy, and the 12 Year Old that I'll be reviewing today. Apparently the Bonded Apple Brandy is the Van Winkle of the category, fueled by ravenous bartenders and their cocktail-swilling patrons. Alas, the 12 year old, while a fine pour, didn't quite scratch the itch I was looking for, feeling more like a light bourbon or maybe a generic brandy:

Lairds 12 Year Old Apple Brandy

Laird's 12 Year Old Apple Brandy - Pours a clear golden orange color. Smells oaky, sweet, and fruity, though I don't know that I'd peg this as apple brandy were I trying it blind. Maybe because I know this is apple brandy, if I do the olfactory equivalent of squinting, I can kinda see it as being apple-based. The taste is pretty well dominated by oak, maybe a faint hint of generic fruit, some spice, but really just dry oak all the way through and especially in the finish. Mouthfeel is light (perhaps owing to the lowish proof) and a little dry. Overall, this feels more like a standard bourbon than apple brandy, though it does have more fruity notes than bourbon. Frankly, I was hoping for a more clear apple character. C+

Brandy Nerd Details: 88 Proof, 44% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/26/17.

Beer Nerd Musings: I've had two beers that were aged in Laird's Apple Brandy barrels, both from Voodoo (whose barrel program is small but quite impressive). Gran Met uses a tripel base and took on a huge amount of Apple Brandy character, almost like a boozy apple pie in liquid form. The Apple Brandy Black Magick has a bigger, bolder stout base, but the Apple Brandy still comes through. As such, I think I'll need to track down some of the bonded/unbonded hooch to get that seasonal character I was missing in the 12 year old.

Fellow Travelers: I probably wouldn't even have thought of this if Sku's Recent Eats hadn't been tearing through various Apple Brandy products in October of last year (i.e. prime 6 Weeks of Halloween territory). Alas, I procured my bottle of Laird's just before he reviewed it, with similar results. Had I waited a little and saw his review, I probably would have tried to track down one of the "younger" products that seem to display more apple character...

A nice enough detour; up next comes more bourbon and maybe some tea. Also some syrup and hot sauce that... are more relevant than you might think. I know, I know, those last few aren't alcoholic. Whatever shall we do? I think we'll just have to get over it. Further out, we might have another unusual non-whiskey, beer-adjacent spirit on its way, so stay tuned.

Charbay R5

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We continue our temporary tour through other realms of boozy glory with a rather unusual whiskey. Charbay is a small distillery and winery located in Napa Valley, and amongst whiskey nerds, they are most famous for distilling beer. Now, technically all whiskey is distilled from something called beer and the process for making that beer is similar, but it's usually not hopped beer. With Charbay we're talking about finished, commercial beer, hops and all. In this case, the R5 is distilled from Bear Republic's flagship IPA, Racer 5, then aged in French Oak barrels for 29 months.

The process used by Charbay is apparently mildly controversial in that it's not entirely clear if the whiskey is just pure distillate or if they've actually added hops later in the distillation process. Hops are certainly a volatile ingredient, one that does not respond favorably to heat or time very well. I would not be surprised at all if they did some form of dry hopping after the distillation process is complete (i.e. after the heat is applied), but the details are not actually known.

Racer 5 is made with copious amounts of American C hops (Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial), which would leave me to believe the result would be citrusy and floral, with a little bit of hop spice and maybe some herbal character as well. A pretty standard American IPA profile. If it turns out that Charbay is dry hopping (or using some other technique), I would be doubly curious as to what varieties they're using. Not to give away the review, but I really enjoyed this whiskey. While very hoppy, I probably would not have guessed American C hops from what I get out of this whiskey. Could be due to the distillation and aging process, or it could be that they're dry hopping with noble hops or something (possibly all of the above). Not that this means anything, because my hop detection skills aren't that finely tuned. Whatever the case, they're doing something right, as this is some unique and tasty hooch.

This is naturally right up my alley. When I first learned of this concept and saw, for example, Sku's general enthusiasm, I was determined to track down a bottle of this stuff. It's a bit pricey, but I'm glad I took the plunge. Let's take a closer look:

Charbay R5

Charbay R5 - Pours a light golden yellow color with moderate legs. Smell has that distinctive new make character to it, but the hops come through strong. More floral up front than I would expect from all the American C hops in Racer 5, but that citrus is peeking in as well. And truth be told, I tend to think of Centennial and Columbus as being more floral than citrusy anyway, so perhaps that's not too surprising. Taste again features new make booze, but the hops save the day. Like the nose, the hops are floral and almost spicy up front, but provide a more citrusy honey-like note towards the finish. Mouthfeel has a nice spiciness to it, a little heat too. Maybe that's just may baby palate talking though, as all whiskey has a little harsh heat for me. Overall, this is a fascinating dram of whiskey here. The hops come through, but not quite in exactly the way I expected. Nevertheless, I enjoy drinking this and am quite happy with the purchase (despite the relatively high price tag). B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 99 proof, 49.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/8/15. Lot: R5 511A (this was the 2014 release).

Beer Nerd Musings: Aside from several other Charbay variants on the theme, there are a bunch of other spirits that are distilled from drinking beer. There's one called Son's of Liberty that claims it starts as an IPA (not specified whether it's a commercial version or one they make themselves) that is distilled, aged, and then dry hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace (which are some pretty fantastic choices). This seems to mostly be a small distillery thing, and I do have to wonder how more mature whiskey would react. Sku mentions a 12 year old version of distilled pilsner that was made for the LA Whiskey Society, and according to some reviews, the hop character has faded somewhat (or been overtaken by the oak, or both), even if it's still described as excellent whiskey.

I would be curious to see what other beers would make a good base for this sort of treatment. In terms of hoppy beer, I'd look at something like a Tired Hands or Hill Farmstead IPA. They both have super citrusy, juicy takes on the style (which I suspect is due partially to the yeast they use as well as the use of newer aroma hops). Would that character survive distillation? Or would that bright citrus turn into dank pine in time (nothing wrong with that either, to my mind)? Anchor made a spirit out of their vaunted Christmas beer called White Christmas, where I assume the spices would come through in the finished product.

I suspect the barrels used for this whiskey would not be the best to use for beer. The subtle hop character would get blown away by big, assertive stouts, or would get lost in the mix of a hoppy barleywine and new make whiskey doesn't quite integrate with beer as well as moderately aged stuff. That being said, there's really only one way to find out. I'm clearly not an expert on this stuff.

Well there you have it. Stay tuned for some wine reviews next week... and a couple weeks after that, a triumphant return to beer.

Duvel Distilled

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While beer is obviously my main squeeze, I do like to dip my toes into other realms of boozy glory. I'm far from an expert in these other worlds, but that's part of the fun, and it turns out that there are a lot of intersections between beer and other libations. Witness my near obsession with beer aged in wine or spirits barrels. But there are other intersections beyond that... one of which is distilled beer.

I read a fair amount of beer blogs, but I also check in on a fair amount of whiskey bloggers. One of my favorites is Sku's Recent Eats, and as it turns out, he has a penchant for distilled beer. This has always intrigued me, so when I saw his recent post on Duvel Distilled, I commented that I'd love to try the beer and the distilled version together, just as an experiment. Well it turns out that the fine gentleman who sent Sku his samples saw my post and arranged to send me some samples as well. A month later, and I get to partake in that experiment. Many thanks to Dimitri for sending me this sample (and a few others, which I'm sure I'll post about at some point as well).

I've had a somewhat rocky relationship with Duvel in the past. I was distinctly unimpressed the first few times I had it, but I've had it twice in the past year and in both cases, it turned my head. Perhaps I had gotten bad bottles before. Whatever you may think of this, Duvel is generally known as the quintessential ur-example of a Belgian Strong Pale Ale (this is a pretty generalized category, but that's Belgian beer for you).

I'm no expert on this aspect, but as fodder for distillation, Duvel doesn't seem particularly well suited. It's mostly pale barley malt and very lightly hopped with mild European hops (i.e. very little inherent flavor from those ingredients). Instead, Duvel gets its distinct character almost entirely from the Belgian yeast - huge fruity esters and spicy phenols, with a high attenuation (resulting in a highly carbonated, dry beer). So what we have here is distilled Duvel that is then aged for six years in bourbon and sherry barrels. It's apparently somewhat rare and highly sought after, so it seems extra thanks should be sent Dimitri's way.

I know from reading Sku's posts that heavily hopped beers retain their hoppy character in the finished product. So the question is whether or not Duvel's yeast character will survive the distillation and aging process. Alas, it appears the answer is "not really".

Duvel and Duvel Distilled
(Click for bigger image)

Duvel - Pours a slightly hazy straw yellow color with several fingers of fluffy white head. Smells fantastic, primarily a Belgian yeast joint with huge fruity esters and spicy clove in the nose. The taste follows the nose with big spicy yeast notes, clove and the like, with some fruitiness peeking through. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated and effervescent, but light bodied and dry, making it a good match for food. Overall, definitely better than my first few tastes, and clearly a classic Belgian Strong Pale. I keep upgrading this every time I have a bottle, and so we're up to a B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 8/6/14.

Duvel Distilled - Pours a very, very light yellow color. The nose smells pretty bland, definitely light on the fruity malt presence and heavy on the booze. I get none of the great fruity or spicy notes of the beer in the nose at all. It feels like that generic booze I first sampled as a teenager (not an entirely unpleasant memory, but then, not a particularly trustworthy one either). The taste doesn't change all that much, lots of general alcohol flavor, some grainy malt presence, but that's about it. None of the fruit or spice from the beer, nor any real discernible barrel character either (Sku's comment: "It's hard to believe this was aged in six years unless it was in seventh fill barrels or something like that."). Mouthfeel is actually pretty harsh and boozy, almost rougher than that 60%+ single barrel Four Roses stuff I got a hold of recently. Perhaps that's a bit unfair, but at least the Four Roses has some semblance of balance or at least an intensity of flavor that matches the booze level. Here, the balance is off... Overall, this is a bit of a disappointment. There's no way I'd peg this as being related to the beer at all, and even as a spirit in itself, it feels like a young, unrefined potion. There's nothing inhernently wrong with it, and it's certainly drinkable, but it's not something I'd recommend seeking out. This apparently has a cult following and fetches high prices on the secondary market, but I'm not entirely sure why... C

Spirit Nerd Details: 40% ABV bottled (sample size). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 8/6/14. 2013 vintage (I think?)

Despite not being in love with the actual Duvel Distilled product, I have to thank Dimitri yet again for the opportunity, as I love exploring these intersections between my potion of choice and the rest of the booze world. I felt a little bad about this until I realized that both Sku and Dimitri mentioned that they weren't the biggest fans of this stuff either...

Now if I can just get ahold of some of that Charbay whisky (distilled from Bear Republic's excellent flagship Racer 5 IPA), things might turn around. And some day, I really want to try New Holland's Beer Barrel Bourbon (which is bourbon finished on a third use barrel, with the first use being Bourbon and the second use being New Holland's Dragon's Milk Imperial Stout).

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Other Spirits category.

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