Can a brewer make good whiskey?
You’d think so, at least on paper. After all, the first step – fermentation of grains – is the same in both processes. Things diverge meaningfully from there, though. While a few adventurous brewers have distilled from beer proper (Charbay being the pioneer in this field), we see relatively little whiskey produced by the notable craft breweries that dot the landscape.
Why might that be? Beyond the additional technical expertise that is required to run a still, I suspect that comparative economics plays a role. First, there is the investment in distilling equipment. Then, there’s the purchase of barrels in which to age the whiskey, as well as finding warehouse space in which to let those barrels mature. Finally, there is time, in the sense of time being money. The production cycle for a beer is relatively short compared with how long it takes to meet even the minimum standards for aging whiskey.
Speaking from a purely financial perspective: I’m not sure that I would like to be in the business of brewing beer (those aforementioned factors mean that barriers to entry are lower and thus competition more plentiful), but I’m fairly certain that I’d prefer to be in the business of brewing beer rather than in the business of distilling whisky.
A number of beer producers have explored crossovers with whiskey, some of which we have considered in this space. Glenfiddich had their IPA crossover, while Jameson matured some whiskey in barrels from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing. However, I believe this is the first time anyone at Malt will be reviewing a whiskey distilled by a concern which is first and foremost a brewery.
This whiskey came to me serendipitously. During my couple years of residency in Michigan, I had a chance to visit a few breweries and taprooms near where I lived in the western part of the state. Though Michigan’s beers travel far and wide, some having garnered national acclaim, I hadn’t previously tried any at their source.
Among the breweries I visited was New Holland, located in the town of Holland, Michigan. We stopped for lunch and a pint at their restaurant, and I took the opportunity to investigate the offerings in the adjacent shop. I was surprised to learn that New Holland was distilling whiskey in addition to brewing beer, and pleased to see that they had bottled some in smaller-sized
I reached out to New Holland for more information on this whiskey, but they have yet to return my email. I’ll reserve this space in case they ever decide to get in touch.
Without any official input directly from them, I have done my best to piecing together the relevant specifics using the facts on the bottle and those available from New Holland’s own site. Technically this is “bourbon whiskey finished in oak beer barrels.” The label adds that this was “[r]ested in new oak barrels before a 3 month beer-y slumber.” However, New Holland produces a range of beer styles, but there are no specifics provided about which types of beer barrels were used for finishing. However, consulting the site’s description for the standard Beer Barrel Bourbon expression (as opposed to this single barrel variant) reveals the following:
“A unique, first-of-its-kind bourbon. Beer Barrel Bourbon is aged in new American oak barrels before finishing in our legendary Dragon’s Milk barrels. The Dragon’s Milk barrels provide a softer, more rounded flavor with notes of vanilla and smooth dark malts.”
Dragon’s Milk is a flagship New Holland product, being a barrel-aged stout coming in at a whopping 11% ABV. They produce a few variants on the style such as the Solera (pictured in the lead image) and other limited edition releases. I’m a Dragon’s Milk fan in a general sense, though the boldness of the flavors and the potency make it an occasional treat rather than a daily sipper.
Specifics on this particular whisky: this is Barrel #20L7-038, “Selected on” June 9, 2021 and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). Price for a 375 ml bottle of this was $25. The brewery’s standard Beer Barrel Bourbon retails for $35 for a 750 ml bottle, though that expression is at a lower proof of 80 (40% ABV).
New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon Single Barrel – Review
On the nose:Indeed, this has a beery-ness to it, specifically the sweet malty note that pervades the nostrils on entering a working distillery. There’s some exotic spice in here (star anise, ginger, and chili pepper) married to some tart fruit notes of grapefruit and lychee. Another very beer-adjacent note, this time the warm yeastiness of freshly baked bread, makes an appearance as well. Not sure I’ve ever nosed a whiskey like this one; color me intrigued.
In the mouth:Starts with a disappointingly watery texture and muted flavors, though this quickly improves. The whiskey takes on that lychee flavor again as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. The ginger accent is slightly prickly here, with some additional woody notes reminiscent of Japanese whisky. The finish starts with a woody and nutty mélange before fading rapidly, leaving a malty aftertaste that lingers alongside a sedate alcoholic heat.
This doesn’t have any conventional bourbon flavors, but that’s OK. On both the nose and in the mouth, the beer barrel influence comes through. I’ve frequently maligned craft whiskies that do a pale imitation of Kentucky bourbon, delivering a fraction of the quality for a multiple of the price. This, on the other hand, seems content to be its own thing, though I’m unable to say whether that is by design or happy accident. It’s comparatively fairly priced (in the broader spectrum of craft whiskey), and it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I am happy to have given this a try. In total, a score in the middle of the range seems warranted.