When IPA Meets Whiskey

Corsair barrel
Corsair barrel

All photos by Kevin Gibson.  I’m a beer guy through and through, but as a resident of Kentucky I’m sort of beholden to also pay attention to bourbon and whiskey. And so it was that, while in Bowling Green, Ky., recently for an authors’ conference my girlfriend suggested we visit Corsair Distillery.

Hey, I’m always game to take a tour, sip a few whiskey samples and get another stamp in my Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport. But this small-batch distillery, which also has operations in Nashville, Tenn., had a bit of a surprise waiting for me. OK, several surprises, three of them in the form of whiskey distilled with hops.

That’s right, hops, the stuff brewers use to finish beer. And I’m an IPA-loving hophead, which is to say that I nearly squealed when I saw in Corsair’s impressive lineup of a trio of whiskeys made with three of my favorite hops, respectively: Galaxy, Citra and Mosaic.

Now, while I had heard of Corsair before we stopped in, I had not tried any of the products and didn’t realize the depth of the small distillery’s innovation. Whiskey made with oats? Yeah, that’s a new one, and it was quite a unique experience. Red absinthe? Check. Smoked whiskey? Yep. Spiced Rum and Artisan Gin? Uh-huh. And it’s difficult to not love a distillery that offers a product called Ryemageddon.

But I was most interested in the hop spirits, so I set out to do a tasting following my tour of the small, two-still facility that cranked out 12,000 cases (or about 72,000) bottles of spirits last year, gaining plenty of recognition in the process, including being named to Fast Company’s "10 Most Innovative Companies in Food for 2015" list.

When I had my first taste of Corsair’s products, I understood why. That said, I’ll start with my least favorite of the three hop whiskeys I tasted and work my way up.

Citra Double IPA: While a hint of Citra’s fruity essence is detectable in the nose of this whiskey, I was a little disappointed that the big finish wasn’t there. Citra famously packs notes of pineapple, grapefruit, mango, lime and more, with a nice spicy undertone. The spice was present in the whiskey, but that may owe more to the finish of the grains. Regardless, this one was worth it just for the aroma, conjuring thoughts of a bold double IPA.

Corsair Hops Whiskeys
Corsair Hops Whiskeys

Galaxy: Now we’re talking. My assumption is these whiskeys were created with the idea of mixing, but the Galaxy hop version is a spirit I could enjoy straight. It’s a sipper, especially for anyone who loves an IPA made with this flavorful New Zealand hop. It is so floral on the nose, in fact, that I could have stood there in Corsair’s tasting room for half an hour just taking in the aroma. The signature grapefruit essence steals the show here, and it continues when you take a sip. What’s not there in abundance is the accompanying bitterness one finds in an actual IPA – the bitterness is only hinted at in the warm finish of the whiskey, with the big citrus character carrying through.

Mosaic: This one was my favorite. Imagine the most floral smelling IPA you’ve ever discovered, and that’s roughly what the aroma of this fine craft spirit conjures. This is one that has been referred to as “Citra on steroids,” but the Simcoe descendant is more earthy, with plenty of pineapple, mango and lemon/lime, but also plenty of pine. (Victory DirtWolf Double IPA is one of my favorites brewed with heavy doses of Mosaic hops.) What really made this one for me was the slow finish that enabled the flavors to linger and give way to a touch of spice and the signature pine. Near perfection.

Chances are, you’ll have to go to Corsair’s tasting room to get your hands on these, and they start at $65.95 per bottle. But Corsair’s website indicates these are just a few of the hop spirits that have come out of the distillery, along with Amarillo and Hop Monster.

Let’s hope these get popular enough for higher production, as Corsair distributes to 32 states, recently moving into Texas. I would love to be able to find these at my local spirits store.

*Editor's note: To read more on hopped whiskey, please take a look at a previous article on the subject here.