All whiskey starts out as a beer—but that's where the connection typically ends as the two drift apart with distilling and aging. Now, a collaboration between a western Massachusetts micro-distiller and a number of craft brewers across the country is reintroducing whiskey and beer at the end of the process.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers of Sheffield has partnered with 10 craft brewers to create limited-edition Bourbons that have been finished in recently emptied beer barrels. The company, which has already been working with Boston Beer Co. to concoct whiskey made from its Sam Adams lager, started rolling out its beer-barrel-finished whiskey project with barrels supplied by that brewer. The finish—a period in resting a different vessel than the original cask—was for three months.
The first wave also comprises examples of the process using barrels from Georgia's Terrapin Brewing Co. and Pennsylvania's Tröegs Brewing Co. Soon to be released versions are made in conjunction with Michigan's Founders Brewing, Florida's Cigar City Brewing, Montana's Big Sky Brewing and Washington's Hale's Ales.
Other partnerships earmarked for future release are from Full Sail Brewing in Oregon, Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York, and Smuttynose Brewing Co. of New Hamphire. The limited-release whiskeys will each be available only in each brewer's region.
Chris Weld, who founded BMD on a former apple orchard, dreamt of making his own spirits since the eighth-grade science project of building a still was nixed. About this latest, cask-finished project, he has said, "We are looking forward to seeing what subtle changes each different style beer will impart on our Bourbon."
Despite reaching clear across the country on this project, the company's whiskey-making modus operandi has usually stuck to a locavore ethic. A spring on the property is BMD's source for water, which was once prized for its supposed healing properties. The corn in its whiskeys comes from farmers growing within three miles of the distillery.
BMD‘s Bourbon is triple-distilled in copper-pot stills. It also makes New England Corn Whiskey, a rare, aged example of a category defined by a mashbill with at least 80 percent corn. The genre is typically released as a white whiskey.
Berkshire Mountain's other products include gin (Greylock and the barreled version Ethereal), Ice Glen vodka, and Ragged Mountain rum.
We decided to see how the standard release BMD Bourbon would fare when finished with the smoke of some good cigars.
(Cigar pairings on next page)
Berkshire Bourbon (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $42.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep honey color, quick thin legs.
NOSE: Caramel/toffee/vanilla notes come up front, but the bouquet releases some honey and fruit as it wears on.
PALATE: That fruit from the nose expands immediately on the palate and defines itself with an interesting mixture of pears, apples and tropical fruit with an undercoating of honey. Some of the caramel/toffee/vanilla continuum lingers from the bouquet.
FINISH: It ends with a medium-to-long finish that softens out as it goes. The tanginess of the fruit gives way to honey and, finally, to that toffee of the nose.
CIGAR PAIRING: Camacho Connecticut Churchill (7 inches by 50 ring gauge, $6.75, 88 Points, June 2014, Cigar Aficionado) Covered in a lightly hued wrapper, this Churchill draws and burns evenly. The smoke is bright and creamy with touches of leather and lemon zest. The cigar's spice draws a similar character from the whiskey, while its cream mellows out the Bourbon. The Berkshire, in turn, builds on the toast of the Camacho, giving it more depth.
El Centurion Belicoso (5 1/2 inches by 54 ring gauge, $7.40, 88 points, September 10, 2013, Cigar Insider) A darkly wrapped belicoso with prominent notes of heavy wood that underscore a floral character with fruity intonations of apple and pear. The finish is a touch flinty. The whiskey immediately brings out sweet notes on the cigar, filling it out. The Berkshire's toffee qualities come to the fore in the mean time, enhancing the toasty taste of the El Centurion, which shows a nuttiness not originally in evidence.