This blog documents my attempt to drink a beer from every country in the world and every state in the United States.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

State #25: Kentucky

Beer: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

Brewery: Alltech’s Lexington Brewing Company, Lexington, Kentucky

ABV: 8.2%

Chefs and foodies get very excited when a dish’s flavors vibrantly represent a particular geographic region. Different kinds of tomatoes with different kinds of flavors—say, sweet or tangy—may grow in different regions of Italy, and the sauces of that region’s cuisine may be reflect the region’s tomatoes. Oenophiles take this idea a bit further, as those with well developed palates can sometimes pinpoint the precise valley in which a wine’s grapes were grown, based on the characteristics of the soil, and how the slope and aspect of the valley might have influenced the sunlight that struck the vines. Collectively this concept is known as terroir

Where champagne comes from. There are people out there who can taste a glass and tell which of these colored map splotches the stuff came from. THAT'S terroir.
It’s rare for beer to have instantly noticeable terroir. German beer is made with distinctive Bavarian hops, but they can be dried and compressed into pellets and shipped just about anywhere.  Belgian beers are made with particular strains of yeast, which impart a precise, tangy flavor to the beer, but these strains of yeast are also portable, and can be cultivated in labs anywhere. Aside from the obvious German and Belgian examples, the idea of terroir in beer might be better expressed by the inclusion of added flavorings that speak of a region. A Hawaiian beer with coconut is a good example, but precious few ingredients compliment beer’s natural flavor, so these examples are few and far between.

Less likely Kentucky terroir possibilities. You can't make a beer taste like an open-faced, cheese-smothered turkey sandwich (photo credit here), but if a product like this exists, I could see chicken flavored beer.
If a brewer in Kentucky wanted to jazz up a beer with a bit of local terroir, s/he wouldn’t have many options. It’d be pretty difficult to make a beer taste like fried chicken, and even harder to make it taste like a hot brown sandwich (see above). So that leaves us with bourbon, the sweet, fiery water of the Appalachians, named after the French House of Bourbon, which bestowed its name to a county in Kentucky, among other drunken places. The brown stuff has been distilling and then aging in oaken barrels in factories, sheds, and under porches in The Bluegrass State for over 300 years straight, prohibition be damned.

I know that they were trying to evoke imagery of Kentucky's thoroughbred racing history, but when I see this I think of chess first. And then Khartoum from The Godfather.
So, some enterprising Kentuckians, knowing that beer needs to spend some time sitting in barrels too, decided to take barrels that don’ had some bourbon innit, an’ put that there beers in them barrels. Result: beer that tastes like bourbon! I’m not a huge fan of bourbon, but these folks nailed it. The smell and the taste of the ale instantly evokes bourbon, and in a good way for those who really do like the stuff. It’s basically an amber ale that spent a few weeks soaking in the residue of booze left behind on the inside of old wood, picking up the sweet vanilla and smoky woodiness of the whisky. The brewery also operates a distillery that makes bourbon, but their website advertises that the beer spends time in barrels from "some of Kentucky's finest distilleries." This, to me, means "other distilleries." So, maybe stick to Maker's Mark for the real stuff, whether they start diluting it or not. But for beer that tastes like bourbon, look no further than these guys.

From the brewery's website. Looks pretty bucolic, but nothing says charred, oaken barrels and centuries of tradition less well than a name like "Alltech."
Its alcohol content, north of 8 percent, might indicate that it has literally picked up quite a bit of actual bourbon. Just like bourbon, you wouldn’t want to plow through a six pack of this stuff in one night, but it makes for a delightful sipping beer, and I imagine it tastes even better in a rocking chair on a rickety old porch.

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