Years ago, when I first began to taste spirits distilled from craft beer —back at a time when the market was so new that there was often disagreement about whether to call these spirits “whiskey” or something like “bierschnapps”—I was immediately fascinated by the category thanks to the sheer breadth of experience it could potentially offer. After all, with various beer styles being so inherently and vastly distinct from one another, the distilled beer field could be just as wide and just as exciting. In the years that followed, my prediction came to pass—far more breweries have teamed up with distilleries to turn various styles into whiskey, or instituted their own distilling programs. And this has given me ample opportunity to taste styles that I never knew one would be able to distill into a palatable whiskey, from IPA, to Belgian quadrupel, to porter and stout. With the latter, I once wondered if the roasted malt in porter or stout would make for an unpalatably astringent and harsh whiskey, but I’ve since had excellent entries that showed it is quite possible to make a good distilled stout.
One thing I’ve never really seen in the world of distilled beer, though? That would be a cask-strength release. Most distilled beers are quite assertive to begin with, and are thus presented at somewhat more approachable proof points. That’s what made an eyebrow raise when I first saw a press release for Stone Brewing’s new Imperial Whiskey, distilled from the brand’s classic, formerly retired Stone Imperial Stout. Fittingly for a whiskey born from imperial stout (at least thematically), this new distilled beer is being released at a quite burly cask strength of 63.5% ABV (127 proof). I couldn’t help but be curious, because I’ve never had any other distilled beer even close to that potent in the past. How might the flavors of distilled imperial stout be reflected at such a mighty strength?
First, some additional specs. This release is a collaboration between Stone Brewing, which rebrewed and is rereleasing its classic Stone Imperial Stout, and Des Moines, Iowa’s Foundry Distilling Co., who distilled the beer. The distilled stout was then aged in smaller-than-usual 30 gallon charred oak barrels for a reported 30 months (2.5 years), with the smaller barrels accelerating the aging process thanks to greater surface area interaction. This process is often considered something of a shortcut in the whiskey world, but when it comes to distilled beer it’s hard to say what is “traditional.” The MSRP appears to be roughly $100, though I’m seeing pricing fluctuate at different online sellers.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how this imperial stout has been transformed.
On the nose, the profile is pretty similar to what I would have expected. I’m getting charred oak here, along with dark chocolate. There’s an impression of caramel, but it has a uniquely floral tone to it, like caramel blended with wildflower honey. There may be traces of coffee here as well, and there’s also a suggestion of more herbal elements, some resin and something akin to rye spice—interesting, given that there presumably isn’t any rye in there. The alcohol is actually pretty gentle here on the nose for this proof point, and the nose is pleasant overall.
On the palate, however, it begins to feel like things are getting unbalanced and somewhat chaotic. It’s very sweet and syrupy up front, but also quite fruity—I’m getting something reminiscent of strawberry and cherry, or Twizzlers-like candy. The booze is very much accentuating those flavors, and it feels rather young and wild, with the booze pushing the fruitiness more into the forefront than may have been intended. There is some of the roastiness, char and coffee from the nose here as well, but it’s not a star flavor, and it becomes easy to forget that this is an embodiment of imperial stout—it’s like the whiskey is capturing the boozy elements of the stout rather than the malty and roasty ones. The ethanol is considerably more aggressive here on the palate, with a hot, prickly character that feels a little overwhelming when I’m visiting it neat.
All in all, it’s easy to understand the desire to present this distilled imperial stout at cask strength, but I’m not sure the flavor profile can really stand up to that kind of strength. Obviously, the consumer is free to add water or ice in order to proof it down to their desired strength, but the brewery and distillery must also acknowledge that many whiskey geeks will choose to consume it neat. I have a feeling that the more desired notes in this flavor profile would likely have presented more clearly and cleanly at a more measured proof point. As is, Stone Imperial Whiskey feels a little off-balance.
Distillery: Foundry Distilling Co. (with Stone Brewing)
City: Des Moines, Iowa
Style: Malt whiskey (distilled beer)
ABV: 63.5% (127 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $100 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.