Can you really transform brews into booze? Absolutely! In fact, all whiskey originates from beer – in a way. The alcoholic liquid used to produce the spirit is called “distiller’s beer,” and it’s quite different from the cold one you crack open after a long day. This “wash” is thin and sour, not something you would pay extra for on Dollar Draft Night. However, once it goes through distillation, it becomes a drink worth sipping and savoring. In other words, distiller’s beer is just a part of the process of making spirits, not a standalone drink.
That being said, more and more adventurous producers are choosing to forgo traditional wash and use craft beer to create whiskey. Why?
Running Beer Through a Still
The idea of running “beer” through a still is not new. Essentially, that’s what the process entails. However, the wash or distiller’s beer is quite different from full-fledged craft beer. When brewing beer, cleanliness and bacteria control are paramount. Craft and homebrewers are meticulous in their efforts to keep microorganisms out of their products. That’s why they often boil their wort before fermentation – to eliminate wild bacteria and yeast that could contaminate the final product.
Distillers can afford to be less strict, and most don’t bother to boil. They use commercial yeasts, which are filled with microorganisms, as well as lactic acid bacteria and acetobacter. These are the same microorganisms responsible for sourdough bread and vinegar, respectively. Additionally, many distillers use wooden wash backs, while brewers prefer stainless steel, which is easier to clean.
ACE Copper Still
The result is a funky wash that’s hardly palatable – even for those who enjoy trendy sour beers. But don’t worry, this is exactly what distillers want. As the fermentation process progresses, the yeast slows down, and lactic acid takes center stage. This helps develop the flavor of the whiskey.
This method has been widely used since the inception of whiskey. So why are distillers increasingly turning to the use of craft beer?
Clint Porter, co-founder of Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery, explains, “The philosophy behind it is simple: if you start with a good product, you’ll end up with a good product.” The company makes their whiskey using craft beer that is enjoyable on its own. It’s ready-to-go, and as Porter says, the resulting whiskey “takes on the essence of its parent beer.”
The “Godfather of American Craft Beer Distilling”
Meet Marko Karakasevic of Charbay Artisan Distillery & Winery. He is credited with creating the first whiskey distilled from an American IPA back in 1999. Using Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic, Karakasevic’s experiment sparked a brewstillery revolution. Like Porter, he believes that quality in equals quality out.
“When you distill something, you have a ten-to-one reduction. So if you start with something delicious, you’ll end up concentrating its complexities. You get the flavors of a delicious beer that you want to drink.” You can’t argue with the godfather of craft beer distilling! And you can’t argue with the smooth taste of his Charbay R5. Aged for 29 months in French oak, Charbay R5 embodies piney perfection with hints of Columbus and Cascade hops infused with oak and vanilla.