Sometimes beers that breweries have sent me get lost in the shuffle, migrating slowly to the back of the beer fridge where they are unfortunately but consistently overlooked. (Hey, I drink for a living! These things happen.)
I have just tasted two such beers, and interestingly enough they speak as much about each other as they do themselves.
First up is Innis & Gunn Bourbon Pale Ale. Now, I&G do not, in my opinion, get anywhere near the respect they deserve in prime beer circles. Sure, the back story is a bit too cutesy and the barrel thing is a tad overdone, but the company has still managed to turn out some damn impressive ales, including the Highland Ale they debuted this past fall. Unfortunately, the Bourbon Pale Ale shall not number among these desirable beers.
Coppery light gold in colour with a decidedly woody aroma, supported by ample vanilla, soft mandarin orange and other citrus notes, this beer immediately screams its barrel lineage. Which is also what happens on the palate, unfortunately, with way too much bourbon barrel trampling over the gentle hoppiness and what could well be nice and round fruity notes, finishing harsh and barrel-ish. In my view, this is a great example of what not to do with a bourbon barrel, or rather, as it says on the label, “American oak infused with bourbon.”
Contrasting the I&G beer is St. Arnold Brewing’s Bishop’s Barrel No. 9, an “Imperial pumpkin stout aged in bourbon barrels” that is, quite plainly, delightful. Pitch black and intensely aromatic, this high-strength ale offers an aroma of roasted and slightly burnt malt, chocolate, vanilla and pumpkin spices, especially nutmeg and allspice. The body has a sweet, vanilla-ish and spicy chocolate chip beginning, leading to a big and full body dominated by spice – peppery allspice, loads of nutmeg – but not to the exclusion of robust dark chocolate notes and a fading though still present bourbony vanilla. The finish is dry, peppery, boozy as heck and really quite enjoyable.
Where the bourbon barrel simply shines in the St. Arnold Stout, the bourbon-infused oak serves as a detrimental flavour in the Innis & Gunn beer, taking what could be a nice if mild-mannered pale ale and turning it into a jumbled mix of bourbon and woody flavours. A telling example of when too much of a good thing can turn very bad.