BrewDog Paradox whisky beers
Smokehead (inspired by Boak and Bailey)
I don't usually do beer reviews on this blog, but I got "reviewer copies" of the BrewDog Paradox Smokehead and Isle of Arran, and thought they were worth writing about. Contrary to what you might think, this doesn't mean breweries have suddenly started to send me their beers, clamouring for me to review them. BrewDog sent them to Knut Albert, who kindly passed them on to me.
BrewDog, for those unfamiliar with them, is a small Scottish brewery started in 2007 that very quickly managed to become highly respected in beer enthusiast circles. They've achieved this through a combination of effective marketing, the excellence of their beers, and being the first UK brewery (that I know of, at least) to really run with the concept of a modern US-style microbrewery producing innovative, bold beers. I tend to think that they've found a vacant niche because, unusually, their beers have very quickly become available all over the Nordic countries (except, predictably, Norway) and even in the UK.
The two beers
Paradox is not a single beer, but a series of different beers based on the same concept: maturing an imperial stout in whisky casks. The idea being that the beer will take on flavour both from the wood in the cask itself and from the whisky still soaked up in it. This is a fairly recent idea, but BrewDog are not the only brewery to have done this. Another well-known beer of the same type is Fuller's Reserve, and there are others as well. One thing that's unique about the Paradox series, however, is that different batches have used casks from different whisky distilleries. So far there are some 20 beers in this series, all based on different whiskies.
At this point I must confess to being, quite frankly, not very fond of whisky, following some unfortunate experiences in my youth. My knowledge of whisky is therefore very limited, and, on the face of it, these beers probably shouldn't appeal to me since their selling point is the added whisky taste. But, let's see.
The Isle of Arran version (batch #016) uses whisky from the Isle of Arran Distillery, the newest Scottish distillery, opened in 1995, and one of the few that are still independent. Of the two, I imagine this is the one that is the closest to the taste of the original Rip Tide imperial stout that went into the casks. In fact, there is very little whisky taste here at all.
It looks like a normal imperial stout, and it smells that way, too: milky, roasty chocolate with some alcoholic traces. The initial taste is much the same: dry-sweetish chocolatey and roasty with milky licorice notes. The only surprise is a powerful salty tang, which is probably there in the original beer. There is a nice alcohol heat in the mouth, and overall the beer feels full, smooth, and clean. The aftertaste is dryish roasty licorice, which is again normal for an imperial stout. However, it leaves a faint lingering alcoholic whisky taste, which is the only definite trace I can make out of the whisky.
I'm not sure why this is so. Maybe Isle of Arran whisky is incredibly bland? Maybe they cleaned the casks too thoroughly? One whisky expert suggested the reason might be that since Isle of Arran is so new, the whisky probably hasn't soaked the wood in the casks as much as in the casks from older distilleries. I really don't know. In any case, if you're not very fond of whisky, but do like your imperial stout, this is the Paradox beer to go for.
It's an excellent imperial stout, round and smooth (no doubt helped by being matured in casks), and deliciously sippable. It's a real shame that these beers are not to be had in Norway. I gave it 4.0 out of 5.0 on the RateBeer scale, which is a very high score. In fact, it's in the top 75 out of 2500 ratings. Highly recommended! On RateBeer it's at 96%, which again is very good.
The Smokehead is based on Islay whisky (nothing is said about which one), which even I know is supposed to be characteristically smoky. Which is promising, because I'm a real sucker for smoky beers. Smokehead, in fact, could be my middle name.
So how is the beer? It looks exactly like its brother, but the aroma makes it clear that this is not the same beer at all. Intense smoky charcoal fumes rise from the beer, accompanied by notes of peat and chocolate. Lovely. The taste has the same salty-sweetness from the Isle of Arran, but is full of smoky burnt chocolate with alcoholic whisky and charcoal notes. So here the whisky has clearly made a deep impression on the beer.
It feels a bit thinner in body than the Isle of Arran, but has the same alcohol heat and smooth, clean mouthfeel. The aftertaste is lovely dry smoky whisky with a long lingering end of bitter wood and charcoal with some salmiak licorice. Overall very nice. Sippable, interesting, complex, smoky. Yum yum.
Clearly, cask-matured imperial stout has something to be said for it, and the combination with whisky is more than a mere gimmick, really adding something valuable to the beer. It helps, of course, that the underlying beer is a real high-quality stout. Of the two beers, I actually like the Smokehead the best, because it is more complex and interesting, but both are very fine beers. The rating came out the same, at 4.0 out of 5.0 on the RateBeer scale, but I still think the Smokehead has a slight edge. On RateBeer it's at 98%, a bit higher than the Isle of Arran.
My girlfriend's opinion is rather different. She asked for a taste of the Smokehead, but rejected it outright. Too powerful, too alcoholic, too much smoke. Pepper mackerel, was how she described the taste. Well, so much the better, because then I got all of it for myself. Thank you, Knut Albert!
Innis & Gunn has met with a divided reception among beer enthusiasts
Read | 2009-06-21 19:23
Knut Albert - 2009-02-15 11:21:20
You're welcome! As I got several bottles, I felt that these were so outstanding the message should be shared. Glad you enjoyed them as much as I did!
Derek Hoy - 2009-02-25 15:42:39
This bit disturbed me:
"At this point I must confess to being, quite frankly, not very fond of whisky, following some unfortunate experiences in my youth."
I like my whisky and it disturbs me to think that you have been put off by a bad experience.
"My knowledge of whisky is therefore very limited, and, on the face of it, these beers probably shouldn't appeal to me since their selling point is the added whisky taste."
The flavours you describe in the beers above are exactly what you'll taste in a good single cask/malt whisky. In fact the sea salt smokiness in the Smokehead is very characteristic of Islay malts (as you say). See http://www.smws.co.uk/shop/whisky/product.php?id_bottlings=2885 for example. (I enjoyed some of this about an hour ago- well, if you must have business meetings in the evening, they might as well be enjoyable)
So I think this is something we could rectify if we can get you over to Scotland some time? We seem to be missing in all your travel maps- did the early experience put you off all things Scottish?
About whisky barrels. They are often used before, a favourite being sherry casks. And they are used a different number of times, and for different periods of time. So each cask has different characteristics. It's hard to say just what you'd get coming through in the beer. So many factors, so little time to try them all...
Lars Marius - 2009-03-01 09:50:29
Derek, the experience was bad not because of the quality of the whisky (although that was poor), but because of the amount consumed. I'll say no more.
My problem is with the alcohol flavour. Anything with that much alcohol makes my neck muscles twitch involuntarily, throwing my head from side to side.
I can sip some whiskys (such as the Islay ones) very slowly, but don't really enjoy it very much. And given the amount of alcohol it seems better to just stick to beer.
I have been to Scotland before, on Interrail back in the early 90s, and have always wanted to go back. There's no real reason why I haven't, except there are too many potential places to go and not enough time. So I'd be more than happy to go to Scotland, but I don't think it's likely to convert me to a whisky drinker. :)
Derek Hoy - 2009-03-02 06:06:28
Well we could have some fun trying? Let me know if you are ever thinking of coming back.
I reminds me of my experience with rum at the age of 16. Maybe I should go to Jamaica and fix that.
Edward - 2009-04-10 14:06:59
Smokehead is in fact a whisky that's pretty good I think. I like smoky whiskies :) http://www.smokehead.co.uk/
Homebrew Japan - 2009-06-09 00:53:54
There's a Brewdog event later this month in Tokyo - I'll finally get to taste some of these beers!! Looking forward to it.
Homebrew Japan http://homebrewjapan.wordpress.com/