Innis & Gunn tasting
Dougal Sharp speaking
Innis & Gunn has met with a divided reception among beer enthusiasts. Some really like it, some think it's not bad, and some hate it. Personally, I quite like it, and it's one of the very few beers that are oak-aged and fairly widely distributed. So when Dr. Jekyll's pub in Oslo announced a tasting with Dougal Sharp, the creator of Innis & Gunn, I signed up.
Working out which brewery is behind the beer is a bit tricky. The bottles describe the producer of the beer as as "Innis & Gunn Brewing Company," but there no such physical brewery. Instead, Belhaven, a Scottish brewery, brews the beer under contract. So that kind of makes Innis & Gunn a contract brewer (or "phantom brewer", as the Danes would call it), but one that only contracts a single brewery, at least at the moment.
The Innis & Gunn process is described as "unique", which may sound odd (and like a tired cliché), given that oak-aged beers are not that unusual any more. However, the process they use is actually different from what's usual. They buy oak casks that have been used to age bourbon in the US, ship them in pieces to Scotland, and reassemble them there. This means that the barrels are actually dry when they are used to age Innis & Gunn, and that none of the alcohol in the beer comes from the whisky. As far as I know they are the only ones to use this exact procedure.
Dougal said that each cask produces a quite different beer, which is similar to what other brewers have been saying about oak-aged beers. In fact, quite a few casks would produce vinegary sour stuff, which they would throw away. To get a somewhat consistent result they then blend the beer from the different casks after the aging. They also dilute the aged beer a bit, which they claim releases more flavour, in much the same way that adding water to whisky is said to do.
Dougal described the base beer (that is, the beer that goes into the casks) as "quite bland". The idea is that they want most of the flavour to come from the casks themselves, and only some from the beer. This is also different from the usual approach with oak-aged beer, where the aging is used more to wear off the edges of a sharp and powerful base beer than to really impart a major flavour to the beer. Mikkeller's Calvados beer is about the only exception to that I can recall.
I quite like the Innis & Gunn Original (at 6.6%), even though it's pretty mild, and tastes primarily of perfumy vanilla, which feels a bit artificial, partly because it's so prominent and distinct. This is the bit that many people hate, some claiming that it must come from vanilla essence. Whisky enthusiasts, on the other hand, claim it's perfectly reasonable for a bourbon barrel to produce this taste, and Dougal denied there was any artificial flavouring in the beer. There's not just vanilla in the aroma, though, but also quite a bit of nuts, caramelly malts, and smoky hints. I rated this at 3.8 out of 5.0, but that's an old rating, and probably too high. Today I estimate I'd give it 3.2 or thereabouts.
Since the base beer is so bland, it means that with different casks one could get quite different beers, and this is what Innis & Gunn have started doing. So at the tasting we were offered four different beers, starting with the new Innis & Gunn Blonde. This was paler than the Original and slightly lower in alcohol at 6%. It's milder than the Original and quite subdued. Still a bit of perfumy vanilla, but also floral hops and paper. In general I thought this one had too little flavour, and gave it 3.1 out of 5.0.
We then moved on to the Original, which I've already described, and after that to Innis & Gunn Canadian Cask (7.1%). For this they used Canadian whisky barrels, and it's interesting how different from the previous two beers it was. The vanilla and the artificial feel were just about gone, and now earthy floral chocolate predominates, with roasty dusty fruity notes. It was very harmonic and easy to drink, and I liked this one more than the previous two, rating it at 3.3 out of 5.0.
The best they saved for last: Innis & Gunn Rum Cask (7.4%). This one had some vanilla in the aroma, but the taste was actually slightly acidic and vinegary from the casks. The acid was quite mild, though, and the sweetness was still there, in an unusual combination I quite liked. The basic taste was floral metallic and earthy. This one I gave 3.5 out of 5.0, making it the clear winner of the four.
Dougal said that not only did each barrel produce a different beer, and some of them were much better than the others, and they were kind of sad about having to blend these in with the rest. In the future they were thinking of doing some special single-barrel bottlings of Innis & Gunn, so that people could try these beers separately from the main bottling. I found that to be an intriguing idea, and would quite like to try it, especially if I could compare two different casks to each other.
Overall, it was definitely worth attending the tasting, and hearing the story behind the beer (which you can get on their web site) directly from the source of course added to the interest. I should have had a picture of the Innis & Gunn beers, but stupidly did not do it before the tasting started, and once it got under way I was much too busy taking notes to even think about it. After the tasting we headed over to Olympen for more beer, so the final photo is from there instead.
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Knut Albert - 2009-06-25 10:03:27
I think the guy behind his shoulder is the one who's adding vanilla when he looks the other way.
Jerry kredyt gotówkowy kalkulator - 2009-07-02 06:37:16
I think that Innis & Gunn is quite good. I don't like this perfumy vanilla taste, though. I would recommend Caledonian. Some people say that it's a bit plain, but still I like it very much, even though the taste is not that complicated.
scott young - 2009-09-12 18:10:21
i'm am inface related to dougal gunn sharp. he is my uncle in law.
Kirk DeRuyck - 2009-12-05 16:02:01
Well let me put it to you straight. I am a Canadian where strong beers are common place. We have a wide variety of flavors up here. Only the best are imported from other countries and Innis and Gunn is the most expensive of them. I tried this beer about a year and a half ago and have not cared for any other since. The incredible blend of vanilla and toffee flavor is simply mouth watering. I have recommended this beer to many and have never heard a sour reaction. It is very smooth and without question the best beer on the planet, irregardless of the actual brewery. True it loses its lustre after drinking it for awhile, but it is still worth the price. Up here there is no other beer that is even slightly similar. I would not rank this beer out of 5 because it is easily a ten. I am not a beer specialist but in a continent as big as Europe, I was ready to give up on finding a different taste.(Excpet Guinness - which I don't consider to be a beer at all). These two guys deserve my thanks. As for you, what beer is ranked as your highest? I would love to compare Innis and Gunn to that!
Lars Marius - 2009-12-06 11:07:34
Kirk: Personally I find that the normal Innis & Gunn is a bit too dominated by the vanilla, and that the vanilla is a bit flat and one-dimensional. If it had just a little more complexity I think this would be a much better beer than what it is. It's by no means a bad beer, but I much prefer all the other Innis & Gunn variants over the standard.
As for what beers I like the most: there's a separate posting about that.
Paul Brown - 2010-04-22 16:05:05
I was given an Innis and Gunn about 2 years ago and have since spent about $5,500,00 on it. Enough said
Steve Johnson - 2010-06-23 06:14:52
Innis & Gunn is a fine beer
Don Diamond - 2010-08-18 14:11:42
Where can I purchase some of this beer in the United States. I live in California, but am trying to purchase some to send to a friend in Colorado.
Jon Vanasselt - 2011-03-04 18:15:33
I am also Canadian. It is true - this is quite possibly the finest imported beer every to grace our great country. It is nothing short of delicious in every aspect. This beer costs twice the amount of traditional Canadian fine beers and is worth every bit of it - ENJOY!
Terry Sawchuk - 2011-03-14 00:15:39
I agree with Kirk,you give me a list of 5 beers that come close Innis and Gunn beers in the same range Lars...You rate this beer a 3.5?... Come off it man!
Gord - 2011-04-08 23:29:21
Just finishing a bottle of original now and agree it is a fine beer. I think 3.5 is fair for this distinct flavor. I am going now to compare to something from the Canadian brewer Unibroue, perhaps unfair given the very different nature of these beers, but will enjoy a close race. Cheers.
Nelson Menezes - 2011-05-27 07:54:30
Just discovered this beer "by accident" at The Nighthawks Diner in Oslo. It really is something; I'm definitely a convert now!