Barrel-aging in craft beer and spirits can be like an ouroboros; an endless cycle of re-use and repurposing—or perhaps a mobius strip is a more accurate comparison?
Regardless, oak barrels tend to lead interesting lives these days. There was a time when the idea of putting beer into a freshly emptied bourbon barrel seemed like the most extreme, novel idea imaginable, but now such things are old hat even to drinkers who are barely in the periphery of craft beer. Now it’s about where your barrels go after that first use, among other things.
Enter Firestone Walker and Alexander Murray, an independent Scottish distillery that wondered what might happen if whiskey barrels used to mature beer were then used to further mature some single-malt scotch whiskey. And thus, a year later, we received a bottle of the resulting collaboration: Polly’s Casks, named after Polly Firestone Walker herself—the woman who linked together Adam Firestone and David Walker to make one of our favorite breweries a reality.
Specifically, Polly’s Casks involves whiskey barrels that have previously been used by the brewery to age batches of their Double Double Barrel Ale. The brewery shipped those barrels off to Scotland, where they rested with a single malt from Alexander Murray for an additional year. There’s no age statement on the final product, which suggests it’s probably on the younger side, but that does tend to be the way the whiskey market is going these days. The resulting collaboration certainly isn’t cheap, either, as the price reflects the collaboration of resources from both brewer and distiller, plus the transfer of the product to and from Scotland. If you can find a bottle, you can expect to drop $100 for it.
The nose on Polly’s Casks is fruity and complex, with honey-like sweetness, some grassy/herbaceous character and a fruit character that made me think of red berries. It has a richness reminiscent of some port or sherry or madeira-finished whiskeys I’ve sampled before; a dark fruitiness mixed with ever-present booze that I tend to associate with those fortified wines.
On the palate, the whiskey brings forth malty sweetness and honeycomb flavors, along with a spice that is a bit anise-like. The burn is long and lingering, but there’s nothing harsh about it. Any smoke-like character is quite subdued, which makes this feel more like an easy-drinking scotch, rich and butterscotchy without being cloying. As I continued to taste it, there was also a very pleasant sort of darker, cocoa-like richness that presented itself, which helped give the final product some much-needed individuality.
In the end, it’s a bit difficult to ascertain exactly what portion of the final character is contributed by those former bourbon/Firestone Walker beer barrels, but at the very least you have some solid Highland single malt scotch whiskey. It may be more of a product for Firestone Walker completionists than serious whiskey collectors, but it would certainly make a hell of a birthday gift.
Distillery: Alexander Murray
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: Limited, 60 barrels.