Nearly 10 years ago, the craft brewing world was just a fraction of what it is now. IPAs were see-through and the more bitter they were, the better. Beer style guidelines were still very much a thing, and barrel-aged beers were gold. “Bourbon Barrel-aged” was all you needed to emit a Pavlovian-style response to the thirsty beer geek. It proved your street cred.
A lot has happened since those days, besides the obvious 10,000 brewery swell from coast to coast. IPA has gone through quite a few phases. Sour beer has made a big name for itself. Food and candy now have a near-permanent home in many brew kettles. Barrel-aged beer never went away, but feels a bit like it’s not the cool kid in school anymore.
At Wild Heaven in Atlanta, barrel-aging was never a trend, it’s something brewmaster Eric Johnson just did. Quite artfully, I might add. Hell, the brewery was at least 3-4 years into operations before releasing their first IPA because Johnson wanted intention as well as science to have roles in the beer’s creation. Not some trend mandate. Simply stated, doing something just to do it isn’t in his vocabulary (unless it’s drinking).
A Bourbon Opportunity
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey has become a household name in Kentucky Bourbon over the past decade. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bar that doesn’t have Bulleit on their shelf. If you were a brewer hoping to snag some wet barrels to throw your imperial stout into, you were out of luck. Years ago, founder Tom Bulleit told Beer Street Journal almost all of the distillery’s wet barrels were shipped to Scotland. Frankly, the idea of aging beer in Bulleit barrels seemed foreign to him at the time when we asked about it. Over the past year, that mentality has changed.
The distillery and the brewery incidentally share the same distributor in the Peach State, Georgia Crown. GC brought the barrel opportunity to Wild Heaven who eagerly agreed.
Other than collaborations with Guinness in 2019, this Bulleit and Wild Heaven creation is just the second barrel-aging collaboration that Bulleit has done (that we know of).
It’s 2020, and you COULD throw everything from chicken wings to gummy bears in a Bulleit barrel, rip off some throwback 90’s cartoon artwork, and call it a day. Again, that’s not Eric Johnson’s style, and probably not Bulleit’s either. “I wanted to go with beers that would really compliment the wood and the original spirit,” Johnson says.
Two beers are born out of this collaboration, using both Bulliet 95 Rye and Bulleit Bourbon barrels. Each one a classic beer style crafted to express what beer and bourbon can create together. “I liked the idea of pairing a big Scotch ale that featured dried dark fruits, smoky peaty notes, and hints of molasses with the warm spiciness with the Rye barrels.” The original bourbon barrels were home for months to an imperial stout that leans hard into rich chocolate and coffee.
“That one drinks like vanilla chocolate milk and is just downright dangerous,” Johnson adds.
The first of the two releases is 95 Shilling, aged in Bulleit Rye. 16-ounce cans and very limited draft debut this week.
437 Miles South Imperial Stout (the distance from the brewery to the distillery), aged in original Bulleit Bourbon debuts in December.
This is part one of a two-part series on collaboration. Image: David Cone Films