American whiskey culture is in a golden age of experimentation. In the last decade, we’ve seen (and drank) whiskeys aged in rare woods, and in barrels that formerly held everything from wine to tequila. But whiskey may have found its next great trend: stout cask finishing.
Distilleries are always looking for new things to try. Even the most spartan brands have launched experimental releases in recent years. But while some experiments haven’t been so successful, stout casks have caught the attention of a number of master distillers.
Stout casking is a fairly simple process. Distillers lend used whiskey barrels to breweries, many of whom use those whiskey barrels to age beers like imperial stouts. “Brewers are always looking for whiskey barrels,” says Westward master distiller Miles Munroe, “so we’d passed some along in the past, never expecting them back.”
But as the demand for new experimental products has grown among whiskey nerds, some of the trading between brewer and distiller has become circular—once the beer is emptied out of the barrels, the barrels go back to the distillery, to be filled again with whiskey that has already been aging. The whiskey (usually a few years old already) will be put into these barrels—which held beer days before—where it will rest for months or years, taking on the beer’s essence.
For Munroe, who had worked previously at Portland-based Migration Brewery, the idea came when he wanted to see what happened to Westward whiskey after resting in a barrel that had aged one of his favorite beers. “Migration asked for a barrel [for its Belgian chocolate stout]. It occurred to us that Westward has this great chocolate kind of roasty finish, and that stout might wonderfully complement it.”
So Munroe loaned them the barrels under the understanding that once Migration was done with them, Westward would get them back. A year later, Munroe received the empty barrels, and put 5-year-old whiskey into them for a year-long finish.
The results were delicious—and popular. “We sold out of it in no time,” explains Munroe. “It did just exactly what I’d hope—it actually turned out even better, in that it sort of dried out the whiskey with those roasted notes, and then it added this florality that I was just not expecting.”
After a few more tests (and partnerships with several more breweries), Westward eventually released Westward Stout Cask late last year. The whiskey is loaded with aromas of chocolate-covered cherries and nutty sweetness. On the palate, it’s rich, silky, and syrupy, with tons of creamy vanilla fudge notes, but balanced with a pleasant dryness, preventing it from feeling like a “dessert whiskey.”
The finish is prominent, but it doesn’t overshadow Westward’s character—something that’s by design, according to Munroe. “I want the finish to complement the whiskey,” he says. “I want the finish to showcase certain aspects of the whiskey, rather than be a flavoring that masks something in the whiskey.”
A few hundred miles away in Seattle, Westland Whiskey has been doing similar projects concurrently, though its have come along with less of a laser focus. “We’re not giving the breweries any direction [about how to use our barrels],” says Westland Master Distiller Matt Hoffman. “We want them to use the casks as they would normally see fit. It’s our job to work with what’s presented. I think that’s a much more compelling approach.”
Westland has, through this approach, been able to work with two stout projects so far: a Russian Imperial stout finish (from Kulshan brewing), released in 2018, and another last year, finished in coffee stout casks that were blended with casks used by the same brewery (Black Raven) to age a cherry sour.
Westland has produced two very different whiskeys with them. “With the Kulshan,” explains Hoffman, “the impact was an extended bit of richness; it made it even more decadent. And then when it came to the Black Raven one, we were going to do them as two separate releases, but what we found was that, putting them together, you ended up with this almost cocktail-like flavor impact. It was like having a Manhattan with chocolate bitters.”
Hoffman says they knew the whiskey was a winner because the brightness of the sour and the deeper richness of the coffee stout balanced each other so brilliantly. “We believe very strongly that, if you have a balanced whiskey, it’s better whiskey.”
Whiskey has always been a utilitarian product: the first distillers were ostensibly just finding a way to preserve (and sell) excess grain at the end of a season. And as whiskey has evolved over the centuries, most of the innovations have been born from convenience: an empty sherry barrel led to the first sherry finished Scotch; an excess of used bourbon barrels led to them being sold to makers of tequila, rum, and other whiskeys to be used again for aging.
Used beer barrels are just the newest iteration of this convenience model of innovation. And it seems to be happening everywhere, including a release from the Jameson Caskmates series of beer-finished Irish whiskeys.
Both Westland and Westward produce American single malt whiskey in the Northwest, but the story was similar in Tennessee where, last year, Jack Daniel’s released a small amount of Tennessee Tasters Barrel Reunion #2: Jack Daniel’s whiskey finished in oatmeal stout casks from a local brewery.
Barrel Reunion #2 is clearly a Jack Daniel’s whiskey, but it seems to rumble more on the low end: the oatmeal stout lends a mouth-coating and silky texture, and layers of vanilla, while softening rye spice notes and butterscotch.
The Tennessee Tasters line of whiskeys is a small-production line of experiments that are only sold within the state, so most of the bottles of the half dozen releases have never left Tennessee.
But Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett was so blown away by the results from the first run that he’s cautiously optimistic there will be more to come. “I feel like it set a pretty high bar as far as what I can get out of a project like that,” says Arnett. “I think stout is definitely high on my list [to return to].”
At the moment, most of these whiskeys will be difficult to find outside of collector’s circles, though there is some good news: Westward’s Stout Cask is still available for about $90, and a new release from Rogue (which had prominent notes of chocolate covered cherry and tootsie roll) for about $70. More batches of both are likely to be available annually, and it’s clear we’ll be seeing similar releases from other distilleries in the coming years.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!