I was chatting with Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch not to long ago for a Today Show piece I was writing (double name-drop in a single sentence – woot!).
Jim likes to talk, as do I, and our conversation wandered away from topic at hand and into some of the innovations he and his brewers have brought into the craft beer scene. Among them was something I didn’t expect – the creation of the first-ever beer aged in a used spirits barrel.
He recalled a time about 20 years ago, when he was shopping at the Home Depot and saw used Jack Daniels Whiskey barrels being sold as planters. Jim had been contemplating making a barrel-aged brew, but the costs were prohibitive. New barrels ran upwards of $400 a pop, which added roughly one dollar to every 12-ounce bottle of beer produced.
But the used barrels at the Home Depot were far cheaper, which gave him an idea.
Jim contacted Jack Daniels, who were happy to give him all the barrels he wanted for $25 each – the shipping costs were more than the vessels themselves. Suddenly barrel aging made financial sense and the rest is history.
Jim claims that his brewery was the first to age a beer in any kind of spirits barrel (be it whiskey, whisky, Bourbon or rum), something that legendary beer scribe Michael Jackson mostly agreed with at the time, telling Jim that he had heard whispers of a brewery in Northern Scotland doing such a thing before, but he wasn’t sure. Michael drank a lot of beer.
A little research will show that Goose Island has laid claim to the title of “first Bourbon barrel aged beer,” with the creation of Bourbon County Stout in 1992, which argues against Mr. Koch’s story. I don’t know who really came first, I’m simply reporting what I was told from a very reliable source.
What’s more striking to me is that professionally brewed Bourbon or whiskey aged beers have only been with us for 20 years. Much like the time when that absent-minded guy with the chocolate bar first bumped into that fella holding the peanut butter, I thought this wonderful marriage of flavors went back much, much further than when Tom Hanks first yelled, “There’s no crying in baseball!” and Roseanne ruled the airwaves.
Having histories as long and intertwined as these two noteworthy beverages do, it’s a travesty that whiskey aging didn’t happen far sooner. I think, as a species, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves: what took so long, humans? Seriously, we figured out cell phones before booze-aged beers? Where’s the priorities?!