The allure to a beer aged in a spirit barrel is immediately easy to grasp. Spirits such as whiskey, after all, contain much more powerful and intense flavors than can be found in even the most syrupy imperial stout. Stick a beer like that into a used bourbon barrel, and you’ll be picking up plenty of oak, and booze, and all the flavor compounds associated with the whiskey. It creates what became a very well known and understood commodity in the last few decades: “bourbon barrel beer.”
Going in the opposite direction, though—finishing a spirit in a “beer barrel”—is a process that I’ve seen a number of distilleries attempt, but it’s much more difficult to put a finger on the relative merits of the process. How much flavor can the remnants of a beer really impart on a much more assertive spirit? It’s difficult to say, but it’s an intriguing concept.
It’s also the concept that Maryland’s Sagamore Spirit is exploring with its new “Brewer’s Select” series of rye whiskeys, the first of which is dubbed “Rye Ale Barrel Finish.” Working in conjunction with collaborator Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Sagamore Spirit has built a product that is a top-to-bottom celebration of the rye grain in particular.
A word on the distillery, first: Sagamore Spirit produces what they like to refer to as Maryland-style rye, a rather archaic rye whiskey offshoot that is typically claimed to be a bit sweeter and less spicy than other rye styles. The company has long sourced its rye from the monolith that is MGP of Indiana, like so many other craft distilleries, but they differ from most in that they source two different rye mash bills from MGP (the famous 95/5 rye-to-barley recipe, and likely a 51% rye) and blend them together, cut with Maryland water. Sagamore Spirit has also been distilling its own whiskey since 2017, so a day is likely coming in a the near future when they’ll be able to switch over to their own distilled product … but as for now, my bottle of Brewer’s Select Rye Ale Barrel Finish still reads “distilled in Indiana.” You can probably expect Sagamore to release their first house-distilled bottles with plenty of pomp and circumstance in the future.
Now, as for this whiskey, it’s a blend of 4 to 5-year-old MGP ryes of both mashbills, aged in barrels that previously held a rye ale from Sierra Nevada—possibly the Ruthless Rye? These were Sagamore’s own barrels, meaning that this rye essentially just went back into the same barrels it was initially aged in, albeit after the beer had spent some time in there. The question is, what effect that does really have on a 90-proof rye whiskey? The people at Sagamore say the following:
“Like us, the team at Sierra Nevada believes in doing things differently, and doing things right. We learned last year just how well our approachable Maryland-style rye complemented their red ale, and now they’re returning the favor,” Brian Treacy, President of Sagamore Spirit, said in a statement. “It’s the first time we’ve finished our whiskey in beer barrels that we originally owned, and the result was well worth the wait.”
Let’s give it a taste for ourselves and see.
On the nose, this is a pleasantly familiar dram, with elements that I know and appreciate from many other high-rye whiskey recipes. I’m getting moderate caramel, lots of rye grain (slightly dusty in nature), cracked peppercorns and a bright twist of orange citrus. It then segues into territory that actually may be more related to the beer, with a slightly bready, malty quality and hints of sweet baking spices. All in all, it seems a bit more warm and toasty than most MGP ryes I’ve sampled, although the lower-rye mashbill may also have something to do with that as well.
On the palate, I’m getting significant citrus, along with some toasty malt and subtly nutty cocoa impressions that give it welcome complexity. Big, bold, spicy rye grain flavors are again the star of the show, but there’s also some greener accents: Mint, grass and dill all have little flashes in the mid-palate. The toffee character also grows on repeated sips, making the residual sweetness creep up into a more moderate territory.
All in all, this feels fairly familiar to me, and it’s difficult for me to perceive what aspects the beer barrel finish might have contributed to the final product, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. I’ve always thought Sagamore’s base product was already a quality spirit, and this does nothing to dissuade that notion. The influence of the beer will perhaps be more clear in future editions of this Brewer’s Select series, especially if one is able to compare them against each other. For the sake of science, I’ll be curious to do exactly that.
Be aware that at $69.99, this carries a significantly higher MSRP than the roughly $40-45 you can expect for the standard Sagamore Spirit rye, but it at least compensates by increasing the proof slightly, from 83 to 90.
Distillery: Sagamore Spirit
City: Baltimore, MD
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $69.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.