It’s a Chicago tradition as old as wheat.
But it’s also a tradition that’s evolving — into the same glass, as a matter of fact.
In recent years, breweries and distilleries have begun wedding the two worlds in new and intriguing ways — including at Chicago’s own Koval Distillery, where they just released a single barrel whiskey in collaboration with Mikkeller, a renowned gypsy brewery stationed in Copenhagen.
You don’t have to be a certified cicerone to understand why beer and spirits get along so well. Brewers have been aging beer in whiskey barrels for more than two decades (h/t Goose Island).
What we’re seeing now, though, is the reverse: the practice of distilleries dumping finished craft beers into their stills (like Koval did with Metropolitan Brewery’s Dynamo Copper Lager to create a small-batch Bierbrand), aging their spirits in used beer barrels or — in the case of the Mikkeller collab — banding together with breweries to create completely new mash bills from scratch.
So how’d we get here?
With time and greenbacks, for starters. Bootstrapping a large-scale experiment that may or may not turn up a bust doesn't come cheap.
“The more we grow, the more cool projects we’re able to take on,” says Mark DeSimone, Koval’s VP. “Back in the day, we were lucky to fill a barrel. Now with bigger equipment, we’re able to do a lot more. I think this is just the natural progression of the industry and you’re gonna see more distillery-breweries popping up.”
DeSimone mentions Maplewood, Illinois’ first combination craft brewery and distillery. To which we’ll add New Holland’s spirit division and Three Floyd’s upcoming distillery expansion. Delaware IPA dons Dogfish Head are doing vodka and gin, while Oregon's long-beloved Rogue Ales is now Rogue Ales & Spirits.
Even Jameson has a brewing program.
At Koval, as is the case with the programs mentioned above, it’s all about bringing the characteristics of beer into the world of distillation.
Whiskey, after all, starts out as beer. In its most basic form — grain, yeast and barley — the science is essentially the same. Beer just adds hops into the mix.
“With Metropolitan, we took their finished beer, put it through the still and changed the state of it,” DeSimone says, “but with Mikkeller, we built a completely new mash bill.”
A mash bill — for those who don't have a dictionary at hand — is the list of ingredients from which a brewer obtains a wort that will later be fermented into alcohol. Think malt, barley, wheat, oats, rye ... the combinations are essentially endless.
“They tasted our Oat Whiskey and loved the mouthfeel, and mentioned it was reminiscent of their Beer Geek Breakfast,” a now notorious full-bodied oatmeal stout brewed with coffee. “That’s how it began.”
The eventual recipe supplemented Koval’s 100% Oat Whiskey with heavily roasted Briess chocolate malts. The resulting spirit is a creamy, single-grain whiskey in which the chocolate malt shines through to produce a nose of coffee and a deep finish.
Currently only available in Chicago and Copenhagen, the Mikkeller Single Barrel Whiskey is the first in a series of collaborations Koval will be releasing this year. It's available at select retailers, including Koval's Andersonville location and Ezra's in Lincoln Park.
If the first installment is any indication, well, we're in for a treat.