When a 43-year-old icon of the American craft beer industry announces that it’s about to release the strongest beer it has ever produced, a beer that spent an unprecedented SEVEN YEARS inside bourbon barrels, it’s safe to say that this is the kind of news we would deem “noteworthy” for the beer world. And that’s exactly what Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has a chance to announce today, as the reveal what will no doubt be an extremely hype-generating collaboration with Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor Bourbon brand. The product? Colonel E.H. Taylor Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Barleywine, and we’ve had a chance to taste it for ourselves. More details on that tasting below.
Sierra Nevada devotees will obviously know and revere Bigfoot—it was one of the original beers that helped to define the style of American barleywine, pushing the style away from its richer, sweeter, maltier English origins via a greater degree of hop balance, bitterness and alcohol. Putting the beer in bourbon barrels, on the other hand, arguably pushes it back more in the direction of the style’s origin, but these aren’t just any bourbon barrels—they’re even more hype-laden than the beer, thanks to the Buffalo Trace connection.
Indeed, this will be the first national beer release collaboration in the history of the E.H. Taylor brand, Buffalo Trace’s signature bottled-in-bond series of well-aged bourbons. This particular product spent an unheard-of seven years in barrels—six years in unnamed bourbon barrels, and a final years in barrels that previously contained E.H. Taylor Jr. Small Batch Bourbon. It exists those barrels at a skyscraping 15% ABV, which is the most potent beer that the Sierra Nevada brand has ever brewed. The resulting Bigfoot is being sold in 750 ml bottles, with online sales beginning today via the brewery’s online shop in select states. The company notes there’s a maximum of three bottles per consumer, at $29 per bottle—frankly, I’m surprised the limit isn’t one, because I can only imagine that these are going to sell extremely quickly. In honor of the collaboration, the 750 ml bottles come packed in the same style of tube that whiskey geeks associate with the E.H. Taylor brand.
The brewery describes the beer as possessing “rich flavors of molasses, caramel, and burnt sugar balanced by whole-cone Pacific Northwest hops found in Sierra Nevada’s cult-classic Bigfoot Ale. A seven-year soak in spirit barrels unleashes a world of flavor, and the distinctive flavor of Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch Bourbon shines through.”
“The time in the barrels has changed the beer and made it so complex,” said Sierra Nevada Product Manager Terence Sullivan. “We love collaborations. But something of this magnitude—some of the finest beer and some of the finest bourbon in the world—it’s really something special.”
Sierra Nevada Colonel E.H. Taylor Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Barleywine Tasting
Okay, let’s get some real talk in here for a moment. We have to at least acknowledge that there’s a level of marketing sizzle involved in any kind of collaboration with a prominent Buffalo Trace brand such as E.H. Taylor, which can obscure the ability for drinkers to evaluate a product objectively. The craze for Buffalo Trace products among bourbon geeks in particular is so all-encompassing and often absurd that it has rendered MSRPs as nonsensical, and incentivized package stores to gouge the consumer by putting “secondary” prices right on the store shelf. And note: This beer is aged for 7 years, but only the final year is actually in those E.H. Taylor barrels. They’ve left the door open for at least some cynicism here.
With that said, who wouldn’t be curious to taste a Sierra Nevada barleywine that spent a ridiculous seven years in oak? This amount of time is such an outlier that the big question and big fear becomes, “will this taste like anything OTHER than oak?” It’s easy to imagine this kind of beer becoming a big, tart, wood-dominated, tannic mess. It’s what I feared would happen as soon as I got the press release.
I am happy to report the following, in that case: This beer is actually really great. Leave it to Sierra Nevada to find a way to somehow turn what would really seem to be excessive aging on its head, defying what is considered common knowledge about barrel-aged beer. Against all likelihood, this Bigfoot really turns out swimmingly, which I can confirm after tasting it.
On the nose, this Bigfoot expression is rich in dark and dried fruit, along with the expected whiskey and oakiness, but it’s nowhere near as woody or tart as I figured it would be. Instead, the nose is more delicate than one would likely expect, with a hint of smoke and char meeting deep, malty sweetness and boozy fruitiness, along with a twist of vanilla. The ethanol is notably gentle for the 15% ABV, and you would never guess that this had been in the barrels for 7 years.
On the palate, the E.H. Taylor Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot is likewise far more balanced and approachable than one would expect it to be, displaying deep and complex flavors wrought by an unprecedented aging period. Residual sweetness is moderate, lending vivaciousness to dark malt and slightly oxidized, boozy fruitiness. It’s a little jammy, though many of the fruit flavors are dried fruit, evoking raisin and beyond. The harsher aspects of the ethanol, meanwhile, are incredibly well hidden, making this ridiculously easy drinking for its strength—I don’t think anyone tasting this blind would believe it was anywhere near 15% ABV. The overall impression is one of elegance, as the wood comes nowhere near overtaking the flavor profile. How they avoided picking up way more tannin in all those years of aging, I have no idea, but the end result here is lovely and balanced and shockingly easy to enjoy.
All in all, I have to give it up to Sierra Nevada for what I can only describe as a masterclass in barrel aging. Did this turn out significantly differently from how it would have if the bourbon barrels involved had been something other than E.H. Taylor? I have no idea, but it’s easy to see why the company would take advantage of the undying Buffalo Trace hype storm. Expect to see a lot of chatter about this release in both beer and whiskey circles in the near future. Thankfully, the liquid in the bottle will justify much of the excitement.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more food and drink writing.