Beer for Whisky Lovers: Innis & Gunn
The joke I always make to people about my drinking preferences is that I am bi-spiritual, meaning, I equally enjoy wine as much as I do spirits and cocktails. However, the category that has mostly eluded me is beer. I like it fine, but I don’t really nerd out on it the same way I would about bourbon or a white Moroccan Faranah or a good Negroni variation. There are occasions nothing else will do in a moment, though, especially on a hot day, or with fragrant, spicy foods like curries. In fact, the first time I tasted Innis & Gunn beer was in Edinburgh, Scotland with Indian takeaway. The friend I was visiting pointed to it in the fridge at the shop and said, “You have to try this. These guys are really doing something special.”
It was their Rum Aged beer I tasted that day. (Actually, we didn’t drink it with the curry, but as we were waiting for its preparation.) This was the first beer I ever tasted EVER that made me consider beer as something more creative and interesting to drink than a typical bread soda quaffer. The flavor was full and rich, nuanced with different directions of taste from sweet to spicy to aromatic. This was a real whisky lover’s beer.
If you are a drinks nerd like me, you know it’s a challenge to age anything in a rum cask and present a consistent product. This is simply because, unlike bourbon or many styles of wines or Cognac, rum producers tend to use the same barrels over and over again. There just aren’t many used rum casks out there, and when you do find them, the barrels vary wildly in terms of how much seasoning they’ve absorbed doing their job over the years.
Recently at Parker and Quinn in NYC, I sat down with Master Brewer, Dougal Sharp (the company was founded with his brother Neil and the name is a combination of their middle names), and he explained how they are able to achieve this feat of rum cask aging. They actually have to season the barrels with specially sourced rum themselves before aging the beer! Genius! And also quite arduous.
Innis & Gunn was actually founded primarily because of Sharp’s keen sense for barrel aging and meticulous brewing. He was already well into his career as a brewer when a local whisky distiller in Scotland approached him to age his beer in casks that they would then use to finish their Scotch. The beer was supposed to be discarded before the whisky went into the barrels, but one day, after a few successful batches, people at the distillery decided to taste it. From then on, there was no way anyone would dare waste a drop of that delicious, oak-aged brew!
The Innis & Gunn Original oak aged, having won them Scotland Brewery of the Year in the 2014 International Beer Competition, and also the one that started it all for them, is a bit lighter than the Rum Aged, and probably a better bet for your curry matchup too. Bold enough to satisfy a selective palate, but also very approachable. Toasty with flavors and aromas of vanilla, toffee, cardamom and cedar.
The newest release is the Toasted Oak Aged IPA. IPA is a category that tends to lose me. Everyone is doing it on the craft beer scene, and everyone seems to want to out-hop each other. That sharp, bitter piquancy is often too overwhelming for me. I liked this one, though. Yes, it’s definitely hoppier than the others in the range, but the bitterness is well under control. That signature toastiness is present, blooming into floral directions, cracking in warmth and spice.
Besides taste, there are other great reasons to drink this beer. The bottles themselves have been redesigned so they use less glass and therefore, take up less room in the shipping and handling process, allowing more bottles to be packed at once and thus shrinking their overall carbon footprint as they are imported from Scotland. Sharp also went into detail about their employee benefits which include extensive vacation and holiday time to balance out the hard work. There's also a fun way to show employee appreciation - each new team member gets their signature on the label running for six months of production, just to give them an appropriate shout out for all that they do.
My original taste of Innis & Gunn was four years ago. Since then my beer palate has evolved a bit, but this one brand has a soft spot with me, since it’s my first true beer love. How exciting that my life has taken a turn where I get to drink it back in my home city with the charming man who made it! We may not all have this privilege, but luckily these delicious brews are now all available here for our consumption.