This Changes Everything: Bourbon Barrel–Aged Beer

Rachel Tepper Paley

All photos credit: Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company

What’s hoppy and malty and spends six weeks in an oak barrel?

Why, bourbon barrel–aged ale, a franken-beer that tastes like a cross between an English pale ale, Irish red ale, and bourbon. And that’s a good thing.

Lexington, Kentucky operation Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company began churning out barrels of its Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale in 2006, and the brew has been snatching up awards ever since. In 2012, it took home the gold at both the United States Open Beer Championships and the North American Brewers Association Beer Fest, and snagged a silver medal at the Australian International Beer Awards.

"I’ve had a whole lot of people in tastings tell me, ‘I wouldn’t drink bourbon, but this is great,’" Alltech’s master brewer Ken Lee told us. His beer has a balanced flavor—a malty character balanced by a flash of hoppiness—with a finish that smacks of bourbon but doesn’t knock you off your feet. Caramel-ly bourbon notes are delivered without that alcohol bite that some people are offended by,” Lee said. In fact, he often refers to it as a mild-mannered beer.”

Here’s how it’s made: The hops traditionally used to make English pale ales and the malt used in Irish red ale go into one base beer. (This un-aged beer, Kentucky Ale, is another of Alltech’s signature brews.) The liquid then spends at least six weeks in just-emptied bourbon barrels from nearby distilleries—those that produce Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, and Jim Beam, among others—at temperatures between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The relatively cool temperature of the liquid in the barrels, suggested Lee, mellows out any harsh, super-spirited flavors.

Alltech’s Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is available in 20 states and four countries—click here for a list of distributors, or ask for it at your local beer-centric bar or restaurant. And keep a lookout for other bourbon barrel–aged beers, such as Anderson Valley Brewing Company’s Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout, or Boulevard Brewing Company’s Bourbon Barrel Quad. There’s also the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout from Schlafly Bottleworks, and Allagash Curieux from Allagash Brewing Company.

They’re good to keep in mind for when you can’t decide between beer and bourbon. The two flavors can live harmoniously in the same glass.