Into the wood: the new barrel-age in Australian whisky and craft beer

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Walk into the cellar door at Loch Brewery & Distillery in South Gippsland and you quickly get a taste of the evolving relationship between Australian whisky and craft beer. Behind the bar, rows of Loch single malt whiskies and spirits stand to attention. To the right, you see four beer taps pouring Loch’s English-style ales and a hand pump drawing straight from the keg. If you’re game, you can then order a boilermaker paddle and see how Loch’s core beers have been transformed into Loch’s sought-after single malt whiskies.

To up the game further, you can even try Loch ales that have been aged in ex-Loch whisky barrels. And if you get that far (and you’re still feeling classy), there’s the Loch single malt whiskies that have been finished in ex-Loch beer casks.

‘It can get a bit confusing, and sometimes you do have to explain the whole process around how we do things here and why,’ says Craig Johnson, Loch’s co-owner, brewer and distiller. Craig and his wife Melinda opened Loch in 2012 to push the boundaries of what was possible making beer and whisky at the one site.

‘We look at it all from the same perspective. What flavours you’ve got in that whisky and that barrel, how they can contribute to enhancing our beers, and vice versa for the whiskies. And when you see people make the connection for the first time, and actually taste it, it’s awesome. It really does bring it back to education rather than just sitting there slugging down hard booze.’

 

Supplied

 

While Loch have the luxury of doing all of this in-house, other Australian distilleries and breweries are revelling in collaboration by swapping barrels to mature each others products. One of the first whisky distilleries here to take advantage was Melbourne’s Starward. The distillery, based in Port Melbourne, has always had brewers among its ranks  founder David Vitale even considered opening a brewery before shifting to whisky making.

Sam Slaney, Starward’s production manager, is a prime example. He originally trained as a geologist but then got swept up in Melbourne’s craft beer revolution, pivoted to brewing and then made the final jump to distilling. When Starward bottled their first whiskies in 2013, Slaney saw a rush of brewers get in contact hoping to barrel-age their beers – often heavier stouts, porters and Belgian-style ales – in ex-Starward whisky casks.

‘We were into it straight away,’ says Slaney. ‘Given the background of our team, the fact we’re in Melbourne surrounded by breweries, our love of beer and knowing what we could do with it. We had a whole bunch of barrels going out maybe 2012-13 to White Rabbit, Dainton, then obviously Boatrocker.’

 

Boatrocker Brewers and Distillers – Supplied

 

The relationship with Boatrocker in particular started to blossom with the 2013 release of Boatrocker’s Ramjet aged in ex-Starward whisky barrels. The cult Starward Ginger Beer Cask collaboration followed later, and now Boatrocker have even jumped into distilling. Perth’s Hippocampus Distillery relocated to Boatrocker’s brewery in 2017 forming Boatrocker Brewers and Distillers. Under owners Matt and Andrea Houghton, the Boatrocker barrel room has become one of the country’s leading programs for barrel-aged beers with ex-whisky casks featuring prominently and a range of experimental distilling projects now coming online.

But Melbourne hasn’t been the only location to promote this marriage of malts. Whisky barrels from the Lark Distillery in Tasmania have long been used to age Australian craft beers. Seven Sheds Brewery in Tasmania’s north was one of the early adopters. Lark then started a barrel-exchange program with Melbourne-based Wolf of the Willows in 2018. The exchange has turned into an annual release, where barrels are shipped across Bass Strait before being canned, bottled and presented side by side in tastings across the two states (although this year’s Lark Wolf Release was a bit more controversial than previous iterations).

 

The Wolf Release 2020. Photo – Lark Distilling Co.

 

The tasting side of these collaborations has become even more complex. Increasingly, the beers and whiskies are paired together so you can taste how each product has influenced its counterpart. In 2019, Pirate Life Brewing in Adelaide teamed up with Limeburners in Western Australia to take advantage of this, hosting tastings and events across the country, often featuring food pairings as well, to show the relationship between Pirate Life’s whisky barrel-aged stout and Limeburners single malts.

Nowadays, when distillers and brewers sit down to design these ‘collabs’, the boilermaker experience is front and centre of their thinking.

Andrew Baker from Melbourne’s Bakery Hill Distillery, whose Blunderbuss collaboration with Hop Nation Brewery earlier in the year was a roaring success, explains.

‘It was both ours and Hop Nation’s intention that the beer be enjoyed alongside the whisky. Matching beers with whiskies is a science in itself, with the goal being that both products are enhanced by the presence of the other. It’s not as easy as it sounds to properly match, but thankfully the job of trying is pretty satisfying!’

 

Bakery Hill The Blunderbuss and Hop Nation The Kalash – Supplied

 

Loch’s Craig Johnson offers his own take on the exercise.

‘The art of the boilermaker is that sipping between the two, that interplay,’ he says. ‘For us, it’s all about the malt and the marriage of those malts between the two different drinks. The hops are a defining part of the beer obviously, but they’re not the only part. We lean more towards that malt profile rather than the hop profile, and I think when you’ve got hop-forward beers you really have to find a specific whisky to make the boilermaker sync.’

What’s simpler, is how fruitful these exchanges have become. Andrew Baker sees the Australian whisky and brewing industries as intrinsically linked, presenting a raft of opportunities moving forward.

‘Brewers and distillers tend to be cut from the same cloth… so I can definitely see the collaborations continuing and growing. The brewing scene has really blazed a trail that craft distillers are now following with marketing and promotion, and the rise of brewpubs and distillery cellar doors and bars. Craft whisky fans also tend to be craft beer drinkers, so there is a real crossover with our audiences.’

If you’re in either audience, there’s no shortage of barrel exchange boilermakers to look out for, with The Gospel Distillers, Chief’s Son Distillery, Hobart Whisky and Old Kempton Distillery all teaming up with breweries to offer tasty explorations of the two styles. But one final note of caution: these are potent pairings, so consume responsibly.

 

Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. A freelance writer and author, Luke's the chief judge of the Perth Royal Distilled Spirits Awards, a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, and his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.