Pushing the envelope has been a major trend in our modern era of beer. More hops, more booze, and more of the word “Imperial” in titles. This alcohol arms race has produced some of the most acclaimed and sought-after beers in the craft. Granted, there is a ceiling of sorts: push a beer too far and it stops being beer altogether. But what's wrong with that?
New Holland Brewing appreciates this beer-to-liquor transition so much that they fired up their own distilleries at New Holland Artisan Spirits in 2005. Long Island Spirits and Japan's Kiuchi Brewery have likewise linked the worlds of craft brewing and craft distilling with their own beer-based liquors. A selected brew-hooch hybrid from each of these alcoholic artisans have graced our glasses in what is by far our highest-ABV 2 O'Clock Tasting ever. Expect just the slightest hint of boozy heat.
New Holland's deceptively-named whiskey (not tequila) is the only entry of the three that did not begin as beer. Nevertheless, it has as much in common with its fermented cousin as a liquor can have. Hatter Royale begins as 100% barley mash, twice distilled and infused with Centennial hops.
The unaged whiskey pours an "off-lime" chardonnay, a clear, buttery yellow with a faint greenish tint. Through the alcohol, whiffs of pine and an herbal funk escape. The body is surprisingly thick, with a sweet opening followed by the flowery, herbal bitterness of the hops and a more neutral corn backdrop. The tequila allusion in the title beings to make sense as earthy, peppery notes emerge. An experiment of a spirit that pays off handsomely.
Japan's Kiuchi Brewery is most well-known for its owl-adorned Hitachino Nest line of beers, and it is their Hitachino Nest White Ale that serves as the foundation for the genever-like Kiuchi No Shizuku.
The witbier is distilled, and aged in oak barrels with coriander, hops and orange peel, for a total of seven months. The resulting spirit emerges an oily translucent blonde, with some short-lived legs. A crisp, almost soapy citrus, spicy coriander, and oak comprise its aroma The taste lives up to one reviewer's description of "gin without the juniper," with additional layers of complexity. A cool, seemingly mentholated lemon, fresh botanical sharpness, and Belgian spice all emerge before an exceptionally dry and bitter finish. A distinctive and unplaceable effort.
Long Island Spirits, founded in 2007, bills itself as Long Island's oldest craft distillery. It only makes sense that such trailblazers would find an ally in the more-established craft beer community. This ally came in the form of neighboring Blue Point Brewery, whose Old Howling Bastard serves as the seed-bearing cone that grows into Pines Barrens. The 10% ABV, 70 IBU barleywine is already a slow-sipper, so its 95 proof counterpart seemed more than a little intimidating.
Pine Barrens pours a caramelized marigold, which catches a faint green in the light. A bouquet of banana bread, mint, nutmeg, and other warm spices recall a cozy winter night, and lull the drinker into a false sense of security. Tasting reveals the whisky's rash youth; the first sip is undeniably hot. One we acclimated, however, bananas, pepper, and sweet grain arose from its delectably chewy body. By no means a smooth experience, Pine Barrens challenges its audience to leave their palate's comfort zone with jarring but respectable intensity.