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Tactical Nuclear Penguin: Failure to Launch

Kevin (Dark Lord of the Stout) has once again come through in a big way .  A few weeks ago, he gave me a nip of 2009 Sam Adams Utopias, and I gushed about it.  This time it was Brew Dog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin, another ultra rare hyper-ABV beer.  Unfortunately, it was a totally different experience than Mr. Koch’s amazing brew.Tactical Nuclear Penguin starts life as Brew Dog’s tasty Paradox imperial stout, which is double cask-aged, spending 9 months in a spayside cask, then 9 months in a smokehead cask. Then it’s frozen for two weeks, after which the frozen liquid (the water) is removed, leaving behind a concentrated brew with a  whopping 32% ABV.  At the time, Brew Dog claimed this was the biggest beer in the world.

While this might be true, it’s not the tastiest.  Actually, it was really unbalanced.  Imagine a decent imperial stout that’s been mixed with whiskey and grain alcohol and you’ll have an idea of what a sip of TNP is like.  Even the nose is unbalanced, with the alcohol overpowering the more subtle flavors.  Compared to Utopias, it’s a pretty crude brew.  A few months in a port cask would probably do wonders for this beer, as it lacks a sweetness and roundness of character that a little port flavor would bring to it.

After a moment of reflection (and basically trashing the beer in front of Kevin who was nice enough to share it with me), I realized TNP is exactly like the extreme rides Jessie James and his crew used to build on Monster Garage.  Sure, a rocket powered grocery cart dragster looks cool, but it probably not the most satisfying vehicle to drive.  By comparison, the Utopias was a Bugatti Veyron; rare,  powerful and mind-numbingly exquisite.  A quick whiff of Kevin’s decanter of Utopias cemented this comparison for me.  TNP is a fun idea, but not really a great beer.

So Tactical Nuclear Penguin falls squarely into the category I call “stunt beers”; brews crafted to have a high ABV at the cost of taste, balance and refinement.  After trying TNP, I’ve come away even more impressed with Utopias, which strikes an amazing balance of flavors in a beer with an ABV that’s through the roof.  It’s obviously an incredibly difficult feat that, in my opinion, TNP comes nowhere close to achieving.

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Categories: Beer

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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19 Comments on “Tactical Nuclear Penguin: Failure to Launch”

  1. February 8, 2010 at 7:47 am #

    Yeah, Kevin is a pretty generous guy with some of the Rarities. I would have joined you guys, but drove up to Captain Lawrence Brewery for some Golden Delicious instead. I had a feeling it might be something like that, but I’m still looking forward to try TNP.

    • February 8, 2010 at 9:45 am #

      It’s definitely worth a try of course, but I was really disappointed. You’d think a beer with an ABV this high wouldn’t be hype-worthy if it wasn’t tasty, too.

  2. February 8, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    I had Paradox not long ago and was really unimpressed. I’m glad I got it for a discount, because it certainly was NOT a 10 dollar bottle of beer. In all honesty, I have yet to have anything by brewdog that makes me believe the cost is worth it, which really bums me out because I want to love them.

    • February 8, 2010 at 9:47 am #

      Yeah, I have a few Brew Dog selections in the garage, and I’m looking forward to trying them. But I have to say that after my TNP experience, a little of the luster has been lost.

  3. @BeerPoet
    February 8, 2010 at 11:06 am #

    The beer might not be worthy but the moniker “stunt beer” is priceless! I may have to use that one, Jim.

    • February 8, 2010 at 11:18 am #

      It’s a phrase that popped into my head when I first ran across Dogfish Head’s 120, which has an ABV of around 20 or so. It’s an interesting brew, but you can taste that the beer was designed to hide the alcohol flavor. It’s the kind of beer that you dare to try, hence the moniker. Use it in good health, Chad!

  4. February 8, 2010 at 1:09 pm #

    Great review, but are you really surprised? You’re comparing a $35 beer to a $200 one. TNP is specifically designed to maximize the alcohol content (ie, they freeze the water out and leave the alcohol), while the Utopias are intended to be one of the most elegant beers ever created. With TNP, the alcohol is the target; in Utopia, it’s just a byproduct.

    This is like comparing Jose Cuervo to Cabo Wabo, or (in beer-friendly terms) Dogfish Head to Bud Light.

    • Don
      February 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

      I think the reason Jim did that comparison, and he can explain more too, is because the same person gave him a glass of each brew. So in his mind they are linked. You make a good point, and basically the same one Jim made, that TNP was a stunt beer, and Utopias is a well thought out and lovingly crafted brew. High alcohol content is not always everything it is cracked up to be.

    • February 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

      I appreciate your POV, but I can’t say that I agree. I think my comparison is spot on.

      Fist off, TNP can cost over $100 a bottle when you figure in cost (£35 is roughly $70), plus shipping (up to another $50), etc. It’s super pricey, putting it in the same league as Utopias, even if it’s not more expensive per ounce.

      Secondly, the first rule of brewing should be “make great beer.” This one isn’t even good – it’s just tolerable. Other breweries could probably acheive the same thing (these guys didn’t split the atom here) but might not want their label on such an unbalanced brew.

      But you’re right in saying it’s like comparing Dogfish Head to Bud Light. One is a well crafted beer brewed with passion, the other is a driven by business considerations (profit for Bud, publicity in the case of Brew Dog).

      I understand that the approaches might be different, but Brew Dog “took on” Utopias for the title of Strongest Beer In The World when they crafted TNP. They may have acheived that goal, but it was at the price of taste, and ultimately, the person drinking the beer.

      I think we can all agree that’s not the way to go.

  5. February 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    I kind of had this suspicion of TNP. I was actually going to write an article (and still might) about the alcohol race. Seems a bunch of breweries are just in competition to hold the title as “worlds strongest beer.” Does one become a brewer to make “great” beer or does one become a brewer to make “strong” beer? I’d prefer the former.
    I still want to try TNP though.

    • February 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

      It’s definitely worth trying, but I’ve come to the conclusion that any brewery (or homebrewer) can make an ultra-high ABV beer – making one that tastes good is the hard part.

      Dogfish Head’s 120 walks up to this line and doesn’t cross it (very drinkable for a 20+ ABV beer). I’m sure they could make a 240 (or whatever) but wouldn’t want their name on it.

      There’s something very frat boy about TNP that’s bugging me…

      • February 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

        I’m glad you brought up Dogfish 120, because I actually think it’s swill. For 10 bucks a bottle it’s definitely not worth it. I’d much rather drink 3 bottles of 90, than one of the 120. It’s drinkable, certainly, but the 90 is the better beer.

        • February 8, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

          I agree that compromises were made to get the DFH 120 to top 20% ABV, Brian. But it’s drinkable. I actually have a friend who gets a craving for one now and again. It shows that DFH has standards, even if the 120 doesn’t suit everyone’s taste.

          I’d rather have a DFH Fort. That’s one tasty big ABV beer. Those raspberries are put to great use. Reminds me of Mad Elf.

      • February 8, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

        @Brian

        120 is a good beer on its own, but it tasted more like brandy than a beer. I didn’t think it was swill, but I do agree that the 90 is much more drinkable. I know more than a handful of people that will never try or drink 120 again. However, I thought DFH was completely outdone by Bell’s HopSlam. I’ve reviewed both:

        DFH120 -http://www.beersurfing.com/blog/2009/12/10/of-hop-and-hefs/
        HopSlam -http://www.beersurfing.com/blog/2010/02/03/hopslam/

  6. February 8, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    I’m envious that you got to try it. I’d love the chance to be disappoint, in this case. Oh, well. I’m brewing a really big beer right now that I hope will be pretty damn huge (but taste great).

    • February 8, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

      I was lucky to get a taste, that’s for sure. I probably would have cut them more slack if I hadn’t tried Utopias first.

      I’m a fan of imperial anythings and I’m always drawn to high ABV beers, but they have to taste good. Otherwise, what’s the point?

      Maybe Brew Dog will get it right for the next batch.

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