BOURBON BARRELS are far and away the most popular sort for aging beer and spirits alike, since by law they can be used only once in their original roles before being discarded. Yet despite being the bourbon capital of the world, Kentucky has yet to produce a wealth of barrel-aged beers. Into that void about a decade past stepped Alltech, a brewing and distilling concern that purports to speak for “bourbon country” at large with their Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. They decline to specify the source of their barrels and cite an aging process of “up to” six weeks, but neither vagary has stopped the brand from medaling in esteemed competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup.
This praise is perplexing. In striving to be the paragon of beer and bourbon’s unique union, Alltech overshot their goal dramatically. The bourbon qualities supposed to define and elevate this beer end up as almost parodies of themselves and the ale itself is rather hard to pick out. The brewery’s use of the word ‘subtle’ to describe Bourbon Barrel Ale’s flavors is risible.
It’s nominally an English strong ale or somesuch, but pinning it down too precisely is a pointless exercise. Suffice to say it’s a malty amber-colored ale of around 8.2% ABV, modestly carbonated and immodestly sweet. The brewery promotes it as a digestif or late evening sipper, and it is indeed rich enough to serve for dessert. Yet it goes too far, invoking less of bourbon’s vanilla, oak, and rich grain crackle and more of confectionary like bubblegum or cotton candy. Perhaps also marshmallows or cookie, but those are too simple and pure a sugar for this sticky concoction. Though a number of traditional malty ale qualities are present early on the palate, their relatively thin presentation is enveloped by the sweetness in the nose and finish alike. English hop cultivars, technically present, are hopelessly overmatched. The actual beer here is just not robust enough in either body or mouthfeel to bear the weight of its adornments, which seem to impart more ‘flavoring’ than ‘flavor’. In other words, toppings instead of substance. Fluff instead of form. In small doses it may seem a satisfying indulgence for some cool autumn evening alongside a saucer of pecans and Camembert, but in retrospect it increasingly feels like sipping sugar from a snifter.
Served: On tap (The Village Idiot, Lexington)