Innis & Gunn Brewery Drops a Pair of Smooth Ales
You hear the words “pale ale” and you start thinking IBU. Well, Scottish brewery Innis and Gunn’s two new seasonal releases – Barrel Rare Oak Pale Ale and Highland Ale – aren’t beers for that way of thinking. The time I spent in England and Ireland told me that ales in the U.K. are far more traditional, and “bitter” doesn’t always mean the same thing there. Heck, even an “Extra Special Bitter” isn’t as bitter and hop-dominant as most of the over-the-top IPAs many American craft breweries are producing.
But even with that knowledge I was surprised at just how smooth these brews are. Of course, they are beers made for spring and summer sipping – these are the opposite of winter warmers or those big beers meant for impressing your friends with hop content.
And while Innis & Gunn (Scotland Brewery of the Year, 2014 NY International Beer Competition) ages its beers in oak maturation vessels called Oakerators (kind of like coffee percolators), even the oak here is nicely subdued. The Rare Oak was aged on seldom-used Scottish Oak and adds an unusual Scottish herb called Sweet Gale; Highland Ale is lightly oaked over chips infused with 18-Year-Old Highland Malt Whiskey.
Anyway, here are my views on the new Innis and Gunn releases:
Barrel Rare contains mild carbonation and pours a medium white head on a golden body. It also possesses a wonderful ale nose with earthy hops and just a hint of oak and spice.
After the first drink, I noticed a heavier carbonation in the mouthfeel than visually, and an intriguing spice quality. The hops aren’t bitter but offer more of a piney, spicy quality to go with the earthiness. Interestingly, perhaps the rare oak comes into play here. Who among us knows what that oak did to beer 400 years ago when first used? The end result is an intriguing and enjoyable ale, one I would drink anytime.
Overall, it reminds me just a bit of an English ale, perhaps with a bit more sweetness from the caramel malts. But the drinkability of it, to me, is pretty universal. It’s one of those beers that would be hard to imagine anyone not appreciating.
The only thing I might have wished for here is just a tad more hop quality (yeah, that’s my American palate searching for something it has been conditioned to want). Otherwise, it’s just a really good light ale, with a medium dry finish, pleasant mouthfeel and a flavor profile that transcends a basic golden ale into something just on the other side of easy interpretation.
Rare Oak Pale Ale comes in $9.99 four-packs or on draft.
The Highland Ale pours with a high amount of carbonation, but it dissipates quickly, never to return, and head is minimal. The beer is copper colored and carries light oak notes on the nose. There is prevalent fruity sweetness mixed with vanilla, but the aroma of the base ale is there as well, if only subtly.
A first taste offers a tickle of carbonation and a light body – I expected something much thicker and bolder. But the beer is immediately extremely crisp and drinkable, with notes of vanilla, honey and of course the very light muskiness of the oak chips.
With more sips, the sweetness holds on throughout. There is just a hint of earthiness to it from the hops, but they take a back seat on my palate – I would like to taste more of the base pale ale. The best quality here is the drinkability mixed with the lingering fruit flavors. The more drinks I take, the more I sense a slightly dry finish to go with the fruit quality, a bit like a moscato wine. The oak lingers in every swallow but never overtakes the other elements.
As I drank further, I sensed the tiniest of bites on the finish. I could see enjoying this beer with a sweeter cheese of some kind. It is almost a dessert beer, truth be told, at least for my palate, which prefers bitterness, pungency and spice.
Bottom Line: If you are accustomed to drinking American barrel-aged beers, throw everything you know out the window. This is a different creature entirely. Are there barrel-aged moscatos?
I also should note that the packaging is impressive. In fact, the regal box and bottle of this limited edition brew may be more impressive even than the contents. Still worth a try if you can find one of these 660ml bottles, which retail for $7.99.