Why Breweries Are Now Making America’s Most Interesting Whiskeys
How Dogfish Head, New Holland and Town Branch merge their brewing and distilling passions into something unique
There’s a fascinating intersection between brewing and distilling. Having enjoyed three whiskeys recently that originated from drinks brands far more associated with beer than spirits, I decided to talk to the teams at Dogfish Head in Delaware, New Holland in Michigan and Town Branch in Kentucky to understand what breweries can offer spirits fans, particularly whiskey lovers.
Dogfish Head notes that their core whiskey release, Straight Whiskey, is “delicately aged.” It’s certainly pleasant and doesn’t make too many waves. However, expand to their limited releases, like their award-winning Let’s Get Lost American single malt or the just-released Alternate Takes Volume 3 (a whiskey finished in apple brandy and apple cider barrels) and the flavors go from delicate to outright crowd-pleasing. The latter release — brand new — brings in cinnamon, apple and honey notes in a perfectly balanced tipple that approaches a cocktail in complexity and flavor. It’s already in the running for my favorite whiskey of 2022.
When Dogfish Head started in 1995, founder Sam Calagione had no initial intentions beyond brewing. However, a chance stop at a scrap metal yard during a trip back from Washington, D.C., helped inspire the brewery’s initial steps into distilling.
“That stainless steel hunk was the exact geometry of a pot still,” says Calagione. “So I bought it and we MacGyver-ed it to create a 150-gallon pot still.” From there, the brewery began to explore the use of culinary and locally sourced ingredients into its initial lineup of spirits, the same M.O. they attached to their craft brewing. (As far brewers getting into spirits, Dogfish Head came a few years after Anchor, but they were certainly at the forefront.)
Besides using the same yeasts they utilize in brewing, Dogfish Head also has the advantage of knowing where and how to utilize the raw materials that go into their booze. “I think we work with 150 different kinds of barley and grain, and we can take that grain knowledge and apply it to other areas,” says Calagione. “That battery of barley, wheat and oat opportunities to make our washes, it brings our whiskies a real complexity. Plus, we’re using all this technology from the beer world and from knowledge of fermentation as brewers and applying it in spirits.”
Given that the craft spirits renaissance is just about a decade old, Dogfish Head has actually earned a solid reputation in the spirits world, even if their bottles were hard to get outside of Delaware and a few other states (they recently expanded their spirits distribution to New York). “We’d already been going to spirits conferences for a decade when craft spirits starting really taking off,” says Calagione, while noting that they still get some qualifiers. “One of our whiskeys got a 92/100 from a publication, and they said something like, ‘for a brewery this is the best whiskey we’ve ever had.’ Which is fine, we’re known nationally for beer first.”
So why don’t more breweries get into whiskey making, or spirits in general? “I think there’s a real crossover opportunity. The DNA is so shared between the two, and I think more makers and drinkers are going to embrace doing both,” he says. “It’s like the Sam Shepard play [Fool for Love]. One character says, ‘It’s the same love. Just got split in two.”
Town Branch Distillery in Lexington was the first distillery to open in Kentucky’s second largest city since Prohibition. It’s also the first distillery in the state to distill a single malt since 1919 — so they have the whiskey bonafides.
But Town Branch is also part of Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co, makers of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, aka “The Beer of Bourbon Country” (they also do an IPA, pilsner and white ale). They’re the only brewery and distillery combination on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and their products are intertwined: the varieties of Bourbon Barrel Ale, for example, are aged it in freshly decanted bourbon barrels.
“We purchased Lexington Brewing Co. in 1999 to continue the city of Lexington’s history in brewing and distilling, which dates back to the late 1700s,” says Robert Krass, Director of Spirits at Town Branch. “Distilling started up in 2008 at the brewery and then formally Town Branch Distillery became the first new distillery built in Lexington in over 100 years when its doors opened in 2012. The first whiskey off our stills was actually a Kentucky Single Malt Whiskey, and today we have the oldest Kentucky Single Malt Whiskey stocks in the world resting in barrels.” (BTW, their core products are great, but if you can find ‘em, the recent limited-edition True Cask and Sherry Cask offer more robust flavor profiles and a higher ABV.)
For Town Branch, the connective tissue between brewing and distilling really does center on the barrel. “We’ll upcycle our barrels up to four times internally to use for production on the Town Branch Bourbon, but also Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, then back to age our 7-year Single Malt.” And the barrel doesn’t stop there; they’ll then be shipped overseas to be used in Irish whiskeys at Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin.
Admittedly, Lexington/Town Branch has an ownership that helps facilitate the crossover of brewing and distilling — the Lyons family also owns Alltech, an agriculture/technology firm that can help in all matters of grains, yeast and fermentation. But the synergy between beer and spirits is really available for any interested drinksmaker. “There’s always been a connection of brewing and distilling,” says Krass. “You’re essentially halfway there in the brewing process and for us, it’s most of the way there, since we specialize in barrel aging beers.”
New Holland Spirits is an offshoot of New Holland Brewing. Launched in 2005 in Holland, Michigan, eight years after the brewery (which makes an excellent bourbon barrel-aged Dragon’s Milk stout — the best-selling stout made in America, according to Nielsen), the distillery uses a Prohibition-era pot still to create unique spirits that transcend the world of booze and beer. Their most successful is their Beer Barrel Bourbon, which is bourbon aged in new American oak barrels but finished in the aforementioned Dragon’s Milk barrels, bring out some wonderful vanilla and dark malts. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a beer in a whiskey.
“Our owner/founder Brett Vanderkamp wanted to start offering high-proof spirits and cocktails in 2004,” says Adam Dickerson, Brand Manager at New Holland Brewing. “But at the time, it was illegal for Michigan distillers to sell anything that wasn’t distilled from fermented fruit juice. So we began by distilling brandy to a fairly neutral flavor as a vodka substitute while Brett started distilling a single malt while working to get those laws updated [which happened in 2007].”
Being trained brewers, the distilling team uses that knowledge to their advantage when making spirits. “We ferment our wash with a brewers’ yeast,” says Dickerson. “That takes time, but it adds richness and complexity to the flavors.” They also tend to feature high barley recipes, allowing for something like the Beer Barrel Bourbon, which is finished in Dragon’s Milk barrels, and boasts notes of chocolate and other “roast-like characteristics.”
As well, the New Holland distilling team — which also produces gin, vodka, rum and canned cocktails — recently released a 10-year old single malt called Zeppelin Bend. Aged in new American oak barrels with a heavy char and finished in sherry casks, it brings forward raisins, fig, cocoa and dark fruits. And that name? It derives from “the knot that tied [New Holland’s] brewing roots to [their distilling ambitions].” As Dickerson notes, they’re already veterans in the distilling game, having long since passed the novelty of being a brewery that also crafts spirits.
“As craft distillers like us begin to get older, keep an eye out for whiskey that will rival the large traditional distillers,” he says.
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