I have consumed beer just about every way you can: out of a Coors Party Ball back in the ‘90s while that was somehow a thing, from a can floating in the tepid water of an ice bucket (in spite of the hangover inflicted by its comrades the previous evening), and I’ve even had it served from a brite tank’s pigtail valve mere hours before the brew touched its first glass in the tasting room. So imagine my surprise when an all-new modality was presented to me.
When you get right down to it, most of the precursors to beer (namely grain, water, and yeast) are basically a whiskey in training. After all that ferments you’re only one distillation away from turning that malty booze smoothie into crystal-clear moonshine. Then, a few slumbers within a barrel later, you have whiskey. Granted, this explanation conspicuously overlooks hops, the unmistakable soul of beer, as a key differentiator. But what if it wasn’t?
The Germans call it bierschnaps. Most stories point to the practice of distilling beer being popularized in Bavaria, though its true origins are murky. Evidently, the sorts of individuals that focus on squeezing every last bit of alcohol out of their beer aren’t necessarily the most diligent historians. Regardless of its genesis, it’s a tradition that’s finding fresh footing in San Diego.
San Diego took early strides in merging the worlds of craft brewing and craft distilling with Ballast Point Spirits. They notably leveraged the same mash and yeast for many of their beers that found its way into their proto-whiskey. Today, San Diego Distillery is extending that idea even further in collaborating with local breweries to distill and package their finished beers.
While this is still a somewhat novel approach to producing spirits, it’s hardly a surprising move for the San Diego Distillery brand. Company president and distiller Trent Tilton was himself an avid homebrewer for years and uses that experience to inform his spirit recipes. For example, his popular American single malt whiskey is built upon a Russian imperial stout base. And while that combination does sound borderline treasonous, its deliciously pronounced notes of dark chocolate and espresso are enough to forgive such transgressions.
One of the best selling examples of this to come out of San Diego Distillery is Caffeinator, a collaboration with Home Brewing Company. The bottle specifies its contents as “spirits distilled from grain with natural flavors finished in oak barrels.” That’s hardly the sexiest of descriptions, but it’s a necessary one. Federal guidelines demand that anything designated as a “whiskey” must be 100% grain-based, so a coffee-infused doppelbock definitely shatters the categorical mold.
Coincidentally, the original beer was already a double collaboration unto itself before San Diego Distillery entered the picture. Home Brewing Company owner George Thornton developed the base recipe with Modern Times Beer, which was further blended with seasonal Modern Times Coffee. It was successful enough to warrant making a second batch, this time experimenting with a different seasonal coffee offering. Per Thornton, this small change in flavor was sufficient to tilt the doppelbock off its intended axis, deviating from the “original concept” of that brew. Undeterred, he had a new avenue to explore. “We took that opportunity to see what Trent could do with it,” said Thornton.
The resultant inebriation innovation noses a little fruity with notes of cascara, vanilla, and coffee. Those aren’t alien smells to the world of whiskey, but in Caffeinator they ramp with greater urgency and shine with higher fidelity than you might expect. It feels akin to a coffee liqueur without the accompanying sweetness. Despite its intensity as a cask-strength pour, the character of the respectively tranquil doppelbock still surprisingly emerges.
This example marks a curious dimension of this process: a “perfect” beer isn’t necessary to make a compelling beer spirit. Even a soured or out-of-code beer can enjoy a new life post-distillation, because no matter what goes into the still, a relatively narrow band of chemicals emerges on the other side. Ethanol, being the diva it is, typically steals the spotlight, but it is accompanied by all manner of other compounds known as congeners. Those congeners (including things like esters, fatty acids, and less egotistical alcohols) add complex flavors and aromas to the spirit, doubly so after prolonged exposure to the unique chemistry resident in a charred oak barrel. In some cases, Tilton will even expose a totally palatable beer to conditions that will cause it to become funkier, concentrating the antecedents of more congeners. Creating flavor is the name of the game.
Despite all the chemical manhandling that distillation imposes on the beer, I’ve yet to encounter one that lost sight of its roots entirely. I tasted a very young (i.e. only six months in the barrel) Coronado Brewing Orange Avenue Wit spirit and detected all of its familiar nuances, albeit crazily amplified. The aroma popped with orange peel and flowery coriander. The light citrus and peppery aspects of beer bloomed into cinnamon and red bell pepper, with light honey in the background. Despite a hint of astringency, it was already tasting like a fitting tribute to the brew that birthed it.
As intriguing as those beer spirits were, I wasn’t exactly floored that maltier fare managed to translate well from the source material. To me, the real test would be showing how more hop-forward styles would fare. San Diego Distillery rose to that challenge with Faust, the distillate of a hazy IPA from Electric Brewing Company in Temecula.
Tilton’s description of Faust as “polarizing” was entirely apt. It’s a collision of massive green pine tones and the rich caramel of a dulce de leche. The closest analog I can draw upon would be something neighboring a digestif, but this is definitely its own animal. I found that as I returned to it over and again, my experience mirrored early experimentation with aggressively hoppy beers — a flavor explosion that simultaneously confounded and tantalized my palate. There’s no denying it grew on me.
A quick visual inventory of the barrel racks at San Diego Distillery indicates that I am not alone in my intrigue. Thorn Brewing has a few barrels of their distilled Mystic Gnome IPA loitering about, which are presumably getting more mystical by the day. Resilience Butte County Proud IPA, the Sierra Nevada collaborative charity beer, has likewise been distilled (courtesy of kegs gifted by Mike Hess Brewing and Thorn) to curry donations down the road. In short, if you’ve been yearning for an evolution in IPAs that doesn’t involve lactose (because nah, right?!), it’s on the way soon.
It goes without saying that someone like myself with a matching admiration for both whiskey and beer would tend to view these options favorably, but how will the general public regard them? That’s difficult to say. Still, it’s a bet that Tilton is willing to take. “I consider this an evolution of whiskey… we’re making spirits that do not exist and I pride myself on that,” he said.