“All whiskey starts off as beer” is a common phrase you hear tossed around in distilling circles. That’s technically true of most whiskey. Whiskey starts off with a mash of ground grains, water, and yeast — just like beer. But then most beers are hopped whereas whiskeys get distilled and aged. Still, the basic foundation of whiskey and beer are very similar, so much so that you can actually use finished beer to make whiskey. Those beer-based whiskeys are what we’re going to dive into today.
The idea of using finished beer as a base for whiskey is a rapidly expanding category, and that makes it exciting. Before we dive too far into the deep end, let’s clarify a few points, though. We’re not talking about beer-barrel aged whiskey. That’s a different category altogether. We’re talking about whiskey that has been made from beer, or, at the very least, uses a combination of beer products in their mash. Products like brewer’s yeast, brewing malts, and/or hops. (If we’re talking about single malts, you can assume beer is the mash. Single malts are a base of 100 percent malted barley, water, and more often than not ale yeasts. That’s beer, folks.)
The ten bottles below are all American whiskeys made with beer specifically. Some of them are using finished beers from partner breweries. Others are using beer ingredients to make their own mash for distilling or even brewing their own in-house beers to distill. Overall, they’re all pretty damn tasty and worth trying out right now.
The Arcane Whiskey
Distillery: Arcane Distillery, Brooklyn, NY
Beer Base: IPA
Average Price: $45 (half-bottle)
This is an interesting expression from a small New York distiller. They gather IPAs from the New York craft brewing scene and then go in a modern science direction with their distillation process. The beer is put into a glass vacuum still. The vacuum allows the beer to boil at a mere 86-degrees Fahrenheit. This ultra-modern technique allows every nuance of the beer to pass into the spirit. After the beers are distilled, they’re blended into this unique expression of whiskey.
I’ve only tried the IPA Batch 2. There are five batches out there. In my experience, this whiskey greets you with a full nose of frothy IPA fragrance. It’s very West Coast with a nice balance of pine resin dank and citrus fruit. That dank carries through the sip as the fruit turns mildly tropical and is undercut by a clear sense of Christmas spices and echoes of wildflowers.
There’s a honeycomb sweetness, a hint of an old apple orchard, more spice, more pine, and a shudder of ersatz bitterness on the end.
Balcones Texas Bock
Distillery: Balcones Distillery, Waco, TX
Beer Base: Shiner Bock Beer
Average Price: $37
One of Texas’ best craft distilleries teamed up with one of Texas’ most iconic beers to make a new whisky. This straight malt whisky starts with a base of the classic Shiner Bock mash bill with the brewery’s proprietary yeast strain (and a 51 percent malted barley base). After distillation, the juice goes into American oak for a two-year rest in the Waco rickhouse.
This is an interesting sip and very emblematic of what we’ve come to expect from Balcones. Big Texas flavors of cinnamon glazed pear doughnuts mingle next to sense of malt with orange zest lurking around. Those notes carry on and are bolstered by candied walnuts dusted in Christmas spices, hints of maple syrup, grenadine, a sourdough funk, and a rush of toasted oak. The sip leans into tartness with as a raspberry pie essence with a nice and buttery baked crust that mingles with the warming spices and the feel of well-worn leather alongside a note of brine on the finish.
Corsair Citra Double IPA
Distillery: Corsair Distillery, Nashville, TN
Beer Base: Citra Double IPA hops
Average Price: $58
This whiskey from Tennessee pushes the lines of what a beer whiskey can be. The base is a traditional malted barely beer much like other single malts. The ripple is that Citra hops are added to the vapor basket in the same way botanicals would be added to a gin during distillation. That doesn’t make this a gin but it does technically make it a “flavored whiskey.”
This is a subtle sip. There are notes of bright citrus next to fresh spices upfront. Next, the dram hits on a savory herbal note that’s cut by squeezes of fresh orange, juicy grapefruit, and tart lemon. The sip picks up some mild notes of bitter dark chocolate in the background alongside fresh ginger and nice flourish of spring flowers before a hint of malt brings about a short finish.
Westward American Single Malt
Distillery: Westward Distillery, Portland, OR
Beer Base: Breakside Brewery (ingredients)
Average Price: $80
Portland’s Westward American Single Malt starts off with a base of local mountain water, two-row barley grown in Washington, and American ale yeast. That’s the start of a pretty stellar beer right there. The beer is twice distilled in pot stills and aged for two years in new American oak. The finished juice is then small-batched from no more than six barrels per bottle.
There’s a whiff of nuts roasted in honey next to sweet brown bread malts. Blips of dark spices, toasted oak, and oily vanilla pods mingle with a hint of red berry tartness, more malts, and a very thin billow of smoke. The end lingers for a while as the spice, oak, and sweet malts slowly dissipate.
ASW Maris Otter Single Malt
Distillery: American Spirit Works Distillery, Atlanta, GA
Beer Base: English Maris Otter Malts
Average Price: $55
This hard-to-find and award-winning expression marries together Scottish whisky-making, Kentucky bourbon barrel aging, and craft beer ingenuity. The base of this whiskey took master distiller and former brewer Justin Manglitz a decade of homebrewing to perfect with the much-beloved English Maris Otter Malts at the recipe’s heart. The brew is twice-distilled in Scottish copper pot stills and then aged in new charred American oak like American bourbon.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
“Black cherry, Cardamom, Fudge, Lemon.”
Berkshire Mountain Two Lanterns American Whiskey
Distillery: Berkshire Mountain Distillers, Sheffield, MA
Beer Base: Sam Adams Boston Lager
Average Price: $100
Yes, you can drink distilled Sam Adams. This expression takes the iconic Sam Adams Boston Lager and triple distills it in the Irish whiskey style. The juice is then aged for four years in American oak before blending and being bottled in small batches.
The sip greets you with a flourish of toasted malts next to bourbon-like caramel and a hint of wildflowers. From there, the dram leans into the malt and wood as a clear “beer” sense drives through the taste with a note of green spice and bitter hops. The quick finish leans into the caramel, spice, and bitterness.
Charbay R5 Whiskey
Distillery: Charbay Distillery, St. Helena, CA
Beer Base: Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA
Average Price: $80
Don’t let the “Hop-Flavored” designation on the label mislead you. This is a whiskey distilled from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA. The beer is twice-distilled in pot stills. The juice then goes into French oak — Charbay is also a winery — for just over two years. The whiskey is then small-batch bottled.
Hoppy beer, savory herbs, and rich brown sugar lead the way. The sugar turns more molasses as the hop bitterness kicks in. Echoes of dark fruit and flowers flutter in the background as the sweetened malts come to play on the long end, which is touched off by a mild hint of French oak funk.
Brewer’s Whiskey HUB
Distillery: New Deal Distillery, Portland, OR
Beer Base: Organic HUB Lager
Average Price: $40
This very small release from Portland’s Hopworks Urban Brewery utilizes the craft brewery’s much-adored Orangic Hub Lager. The juice is twice distilled by New Deal Distillery who also ages it in a variety of American oak barrels. The whiskey is then blended and bottled with no age statement.
An apple orchard with hints of dark spices greets you. There’s a puff of dry tobacco smoke that leads to less apple and more dried herbs and dark spice wrapped in an old leather pouch. The sweetness leans towards brown sugar as a distant hint of bitter dark chocolate arrives before the swift and mild final note.
Pursuit Distilling Northwest Craft Brewers Series 2.0
Distillery: Pursuit Distilling Co., Seattle, WA
Beer Base: Scuttlebutt Brewing Hoptopia
Average Price: $70
This small yet dialed-in craft brewery in Seattle does some great work with an all-Washington grain-to-glass experience. The latest edition to their Northwest Craft Brewers Series (NWCBS) is a collaboration with Everett, WA craft brewer Scuttlebutt Brewing. Pursuit Distilling takes its un-hopped Hoptopia IPA and distills it. They then age the juice for 23 months in American oak, creating an American single malt.
Tasting Notes (from the distiller):
I’ve only tried the Series 1 but Series 2 is what’s available now. This is what the distiller has to say about Series 2: “Red Fruit and Strawberries. Spice and Biscuit. Vanilla and Caramel. Smoke and Malt.”
Seven Stills Chocasmoke Whiskey
Distillery: The Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery, San Francisco, CA
Beer Base: Seven Stills Chocasmoke Chocolate Oatmeal Stout
Average Price: $40
This tiny San Francisco distillery/brewery takes their own Chocasmoke Chocolate Oatmeal Stout and distills it. They then distill a very peaty malted barley and mix it with their oatmeal stout spirit. That juice is then aged for a short six months in small-format oak (which works faster than larger barrels). The final product is small batched and bottled in a bottle adorned with art from local artists.
Bitter chocolate dances with toasted oats and sourdough malts. The sip keeps those flavors as a foundation for notes of vanilla, stone fruit, honey, brine, caramel, and peaty smoke. A dark and sharp spice warms this velvety dram on the end as the peat, salty caramel, and vanilla slowly fade away.