The benefits and transformative effect of placing a craft beer into a spirits barrel is immediately obvious to anyone who has ever tasted a barrel-aged imperial stout, and it’s not hard to understand why. Compared with the likes of bourbon, beer—even something as brawny as imperial stout—has a lower threshold of flavor intensity, and a much lower alcoholic strength. This allows the beer to be transformed in a dramatic way by placing it in a former bourbon barrel, where even a small amount of remaining spirit (plus the oak itself) can radically alter the flavor profile.
Finishing spirits in “beer barrels,” on the other hand, is a proposition I remain somewhat unsure of even now, after having tasted many examples of just that. It’s a less intuitive transformation, because you have to question how much power the trace amounts of beer left in the barrel have to alter the flavor profile of a much more assertive bourbon. Likewise, let’s not forget that these are bourbon barrels to begin with, and transferring a bourbon into a used bourbon barrel doesn’t inherently provide a ton of flavor. These factors make me skeptical of some “beer barrel” whiskeys, to the point that I tend to believe that only a really assertive beer is likely to have much impact on a whiskey, especially if you then bottle that whiskey at robust proof point.
Bardstown Bourbon Co., though, was not deterred by that sort of thing in conceiving and executing its latest limited release, Bardstown Bourbon KBS. As beer geeks will no doubt recognize, this is a collaboration with Michigan’s Founders Brewing Co. and its legendary Kentucky Breakfast Stout, one of the OGs of the barrel-aged beer revolution. It makes for a very natural distillery collaboration, and I’m immediately more amenable to that concept than say, “IPA barrel-aged whiskey.”
As for the actual specs of this release, this is 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon, presumably from Dickel judging from the mash bill, that is finished for 15 months in KBS barrels and then bottled at a robust 55% ABV (110 proof). That’s the same as the recent Bardstown Bourbon Co. Ferrand, which I thought was one of the best BBC releases to date. The MSRP is a quite steep $160, which I can’t help but feel is a tough ask, particularly considering that Tennessee whiskey is generally less expensive. To pay more (the MSRP is $35 higher) for this expression than the Ferrand, the KBS will really have to be spectacular to justify the increase.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, I’m getting inviting notes of chocolate and orange, like a chocolate-covered mandarin. It has a pleasant maltiness to it as well that does project a “beer-like” vibe, albeit in a different way from something like Woodford Reserve’s Five-Malt Stouted Mash, which is much more intensely “stouty” due to being distilled from a grist that contained actual roasted barley varieties. Rather, this nose has elements of husky grain and toffee, with occasional flourishes of citrus and char. Ethanol is nicely subdued, for the proof.
On the palate, things turn sweeter, with lots of toffee and roast elements, along with tons of spice. I’m getting big notes of ginger candy and orange citrus, along with more of that sweet malt and brown sugar. Rye spice makes an appearance, and the spices tingle on the palate, suggesting cinnamon fried apples. Things then turn darker, with plenty of roast, char and French roast coffee. Oak is fairly subtle throughout, playing a background role to more assertive elements of roast, which are pleasantly without astringency.
All in all, it’s hard to say whether I prefer the more subtle beer character one gets out of aging whiskey in a “beer barrel,” or the more direct emulation of something like Five-Malt Stouted Mash, which is more akin to taking stout beer and then distilling it. What I can say is that although I enjoy this profile on its own merits, it doesn’t strike me as unique or special as something like the Ferrand release did, and the $160 MSRP will remain pretty difficult for the consumer to justify, outside of BBC and Founders superfans. Here’s hoping we don’t see prices on Bardstown’s Collaborative Series continuing to climb in the future.
Distillery: Bardstown Bourbon Co.
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Tennessee bourbon
ABV: 55% (110 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $160 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.