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Carolyn Smagalski's picture

The Influence of Whiskey and Wood

Dougal Gunn Sharp Innis and Gunn

Although not the first to use oak to impart flavors to beer, a practice that goes back to at least the 19th Century, Innis & Gunn became the first to inspire a line of oak-matured beers that have subsequently become a modern style across the beer landscape.

In the early part of the 20th century, Scottish men commonly drank “half-and-half,” a mix of half beer and half whiskey. Back then, cheap whisky was a nasty drink that could set a roiling fire in the throat, but adulterating it with malty sweetness tempered the heat with palatable results. 

Those old-men traditions may have disappeared, but the lingering desire to create a whisky with ale character was pursued by Scottish distillers. Many tried to create the right formula, but time and again met with defeat.

Shortly after the start of the new millennium, to fulfill the quest of an ale-finished whiskey William Grant & Sons looked to the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, a newly resurgent brewer. 

Russell Sharp, a meliorist (or one who believes society is improved by human effort), had resurrected Caledonian shortly after its closing in the mid-1980’s. Dougal Sharp joined the family business after graduating from university and took up brewing under the tutelage of the legendary Allan Hay, head brewer of Timothy Taylor’s Brewery in Yorkshire. By 2002 the Caledonian Brewery’s Deuchars IPA was hailed as The Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival.

Grant’s challenged Dougal Sharp to create an ale for the purpose of marrying the flavor to the soul of its whisky. The concept for beer-enhanced whiskey was elegant – start by first aging beer in the oak barrels. Discard the beer and use the same barrels for aging the whiskey.

The younger Sharp had an advantage when it came to this assignment beyond his brewing experience and a degree in chemistry. He already knew about oak and its influence on taste. His father Russell, when employed by Chivas Regal, had been involved in oak aging of whiskey and was accustomed to the nuances imparted by Quercus robur, a European Oak from Picos d’Europa, and its counterpart, Quercus alba, White Oak from the Ozarks of the United States.

Sharp designed a sweet malty beer of Scottish style, with a mild hop profile to try to enhance the oak barrels for the whiskey. Once the beer was tossed out as a by-product and replaced by whiskey, the result was a soft, ale-like vignette added to the whiskey. 

But all of the beer wasn’t being jettisoned. Word got back to the distillery manager that his workers were drinking this by-product. It was analyzed for technical and organoleptic attributes and it had, indeed, transformed into a different beast. Sharp recognized massive potential and by 2003 had entered into a joint venture with Grant’s. They called the company Innis & Gunn, an appellation derived from the middle names of Dougal and his brother Neil. Five years later, Dougal Sharp led a management buy-out from Grant’s and retained ownership of Innis & Gunn as an independent, family-owned brewery.

Starting with the master brewer, several of Scotland’s traditional trades are encapsulated in this distinctive barrel-aged beer, including barrel cooper, warehouseman, and master blender.

In artisanal form, the barrel cooper fashions perfectly milled staves, held together by hoops, without employing nails, glue or sealants. In the case of Innis & Gunn, the wood for the barrels is imported from the U.S. Although American laws permit a one-time use of Kentucky bourbon barrels for aging, there is life in those spent casks.  The used white oak vessels are broken down and shipped dry to the Innis & Gunn cooperage in Scotland, where they are re-assembled. White oak has a closed cellular structure, giving it strength, density, and resiliency.  The wood is both water and rot-resistant, but each cask can breathe in air, taking on the terroir of its surroundings.

The base beer is contract brewed at Wellpark Brewery on the outskirts of Glasgow using a formula designed by Sharp.  Optic malt, a local barley variety with highly aromatic qualities, serves as the anchor, mashed-in with water naturally filtered by Scotland’s volcanic landscape. English Goldings hops add delicacy, along with Innis & Gunn’s own house yeast.

 In these barrels, the beer undergoes a lengthy primary maturation at one of the William Grant distilleries, within a traditional warehouse of microclimates and macroclimates that infuse life into the wood.  Prior to this maturation, Innis & Gunn is a blank canvas. In the barrel, it develops a creamy, sweet character from the bourbon-infused wood grain, with flavors of coconut, vanilla, earth and light smoke. 

A master blender pulls samples with a valinch, nosing each one to find the most complementary blend for further maturation in the marrying tun. In 47 more days, luxurious flavors of nougat, coconut and vanilla will expand.

Since its launch, Innis & Gunn has grown its portfolio to include styles matured in Rum and Highland Single Malt Whiskey casks, as well as Limited Reserves of Triple Matured beer at 7.2 % ABV and a special brew for Canada Day.

Aging beer is here to stay as tradition merges with evolutionary process to expand the range of complexity for those who crave gustatory pleasure. With its process using Kentucky bourbon barrels, Innis & Gunn has been a leader in opening this field of play.