Whiskey is famously made by distilling beer, but any distiller will tell you that the “beer” that goes into the still bears little resemblance to the commercial stuff you sip on game day. While it won’t kill ya, those who drink the fermented wash before it is distilled hold little respect in the eyes of the distilling community.
Today, a growing number of distilleries are working to change that. The idea? Distill from a true and genuine beer, either one made by a partner brewery or, increasingly, one that is made on site. Either way, the goal is to see how the characteristics of the beer carry over into the distillate—and the results can often be impressive.
Distilling from Commercial Beer
With most distilleries, distilling from genuine beer was born through partnerships with outside breweries. Chris Weld at Berkshire Mountain Distillers linked up with Samuel Adams in 2012 with the idea of turning its beer into commercial whiskey. In 2016, the Massachusetts-based distillery released Shays’ Rebellion, a whiskey made from a distillate of Samuel Adams Cinder Bock Beer. It was triple distilled in 2012 and aged for three and a half years in casks used to age beer. The first edition of Berkshire’s Two Lanterns whiskey, distilled from Samuel Adams’s classic Boston Lager and aged in Berkshire’s previously-used bourbon barrels, was released in November.
“The impetus for this is that I love beer,” said Berkshire founder Chris Weld. “The first experiments we did four years ago were partly for marketing, partly for research and partly for fun. Now we’re kind of in this deeper than any other distillery.”
Weld is talking about his Craft Brewers Whiskey Project, an ambitious plan that has Berkshire partnering with some blue-chip names in New England craft brewing, such as Harpoon, Smuttynose, Ommegang and Yards, to produce 15 whiskeys from different commercial brews. Weld said 11 of these are already aging in barrels. “It’s been fun seeing how the beers translate into spirits, both from new make and in aging,” said Weld. The goal of course isn’t just to create a bunch of unique spirits, but to kick-start the way they’re marketed. Samuel Adams has been heavily promoting Berkshire’s whiskey, and Weld’s hope is that the other 14 distilleries will do the same, creating a more robust sales environment for everyone in the pipeline.
Distilling from commercial beer does have its challenges, the biggest of which tends to be actually getting the beer. “From a technical standpoint, it can be a pain in the ass,” said Weld. “Transporting a lot of carbonated beer that comes in around 32 degrees is not ideal. In a perfect world, we would get a version of the beer that isn’t extra-carbonated, and if we’re friendly with the distillery we might ask a brewery to pump up the alcohol in their recipe a bit, which makes it easier to distill from. But other than that, working with beer versus a whole grain mash is nice. It pumps easier, it’s less messy, and it’s easier to get rid of afterwards.” Weld also said that working with beer usually means taking deeper heads and tails cuts during the final spirit distillation.
Napa County-based Charbay Winery and Distillery was one of the pioneers of distilling from beer in the USA. Head distiller Marko Karakasevic said the company’s first batch of bier schnapps was produced in 1999, distilled from 21,000 gallons of pilsner trucked in from nearby Bear Republic Brewing. Ten cases of two-year-old whiskey sold out immediately upon release in 2001. “People were begging for an extra bottle,” said Karakasevic. “I didn’t have one.” Today Charbay makes whiskey from three of Bear Republic’s brews, including the pilsner, a stout and Bear Republic’s widely loved Racer 5 IPA.
What’s unique about Charbay however is that it doesn’t openly promote the source of the beer it uses. Charbay’s Racer 5-based beer is simply called R5, for example. Turns out this wasn’t by design. Karakasevic said he wanted to promote the brewery back in 2001, but rules of TTB predecessor the ATF prohibited “comingling” the brands. “They had no idea what to do with us back then, so they classified us as a hop-flavored whiskey.”
Karakasevic said he has too much else going on to bother trying to change anything. “I haven’t had any thoughts of rebranding it,” he said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t talk about Bear Republic. Everyone already knows what’s inside.”
Distilling from “Homebrew”
One needn’t purchase commercial beer in order to make whiskey, of course. A distillery can make its own—and many find they already have a lot of the components they need to do so.
It helps of course if you’re already a brewery to begin with. Anchor Brewers and Distillers has a 120-year history as a San Francisco craft brewer, but its distillery arm didn’t open until 1993. While Anchor’s distilling focus has largely been on traditionally-made whiskeys and gin, head distiller Bruce Joseph said it was experimenting with distillates of its beers since the earliest days.
Then, several years ago, Anchor distilled its seasonal Christmas Ale and bottled it as a white whiskey, alternately marketing it under the names of White Christmas and Christmas Spirit. “The inspiration,” said Joseph, “was to bridge the gap between our early products—a rye whiskey and a gin.” The concept was that Christmas Spirit would be distilled in January from the prior year’s Christmas Ale, then released later that fall to coincide with the next Christmas Ale release, giving customers a look at two sides of the holiday beverage. Christmas Ale’s recipe changes every year, so the whiskey (made from last year’s beer release) isn’t a perfect analogue for the current year’s ale, but it’s a fun idea nonetheless.
For 2016, Anchor didn’t release Christmas Spirit because the distillate was put into barrels to age for the first time. “We’re not sure what the plans are for it yet,” said Joseph.
Joseph said he likes working with the product each year, namely because it is so much easier not to have to deal with solid by-products of the distilling process. That said, it does present some challenges. “The alcohol level is fairly low—5½ percent vs. 8 or 9 for our rye wash—so working with it is quite a bit different. It’s highly hopped and also dry hopped—so the distillate picks up significant flavors, as well as flavors from the specialty malts. We have to take heavier cuts to assure we end up with a delicate whiskey,” said Joseph.
You can also go at brewing the other way around. Mike Reppucci, owner of Rhode Island-based Sons of Liberty, has been craft distilling for five years. “We finally got our brewer’s license,” said Reppucci, “allowing us to sell our beer.” Reppucci’s grand vision is to make beer, distill it into spirits, and sell both, so consumers can experience the same product in both a beer and aged distillate version. Barrels may be shared back and forth between the two versions as well.
Reppucci said he envisions “family trees” of products by 2018, where a drinker can see “where everything in the glass came from”—mashes, distillates, barrels and so on—and trace the lineage of the product no matter what form it’s in.
Finally, there’s no reason a distillery needs to limit itself to just one business model. San Francisco’s Seven Stills is pursuing both avenues, simultaneously. All of its whiskeys are born from beer. The small distillery is outfitted with a complete brewing operation, which is used to produce beer for the core lineup of spirits. These include Fluxuate, made from a coffee porter, and the distinctly flavored Chocasmoke, distilled from a chocolate oatmeal stout. Seven Stills sells the products both ways, as a beer or a whiskey, in its small tasting room.
For experimental and one-off collaborations, Seven Stills trucks in commercial beer from partners, which feature prominently on the label. As with Berkshire’s Weld, the goal is to encourage cross-promotion, particularly when it partners with breweries that have a cult following. One of last year’s seasonal collaborations was Stocking Stuffer, distilled from San Luis Obispo-based Libertine’s Wild Sour Stout. The finished distillate is aged in new oak and finished in Libertine’s own sour beer barrels, making for a truly unique whiskey that couldn’t be made using a traditional mash.
Co-founder Clint Potter said he and partner Tim Obert got into distilling in 2013 by way of homebrew, so the idea of distilling directly from beer was part of the model from the start. What started as a hobby inspired by craft brewing took on a life of its own as Potter discovered that familiar tastes could take new and interesting directions through the magic of distillation. “It really is 100 percent about the ingredients,” Potter said.