The Man Who Invented Beer: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

ky ale

Every week in The Man Who Invented Beer, Adam Cowden looks at the latest in craft beer, often with a history lesson for extra flavor.

Men drink beer…right? False. Real men drink whiskey and bourbon. Straight, or on the rocks. Or if you’re a real old man, scotch. I’m ashamed to admit that I still am not man enough to handle any of these straight-up without busting a severe grimace. A few months ago, I ordered a high-gravity beer that was aged in a bourbon barrel and couldn’t even finish that. But I’ve been trying to put some hair on my chest lately by working up my taste for the stuff, so I recently decided to order another (different) one of those intense bourbon barrel-aged beers. To my surprise, I finished the whole thing without so much as a single gag, and I don’t think it was due to any additional hair on my chest.

What’s the story?

Dr. Pearse Lyons was, apparently, “the first Irishman to achieve a formal degree in Brewing and Distilling from the British School of Malting and Brewing.” He’s also the only brewmaster I’ve heard of that’s also a “Dr.” Lyons comes from a family who for five generations supplied barrels to distilleries in Ireland, so it’s not entirely surprising that he found his call in the realm of booze. Alltech/Lexington Brewing company’s website gives no indication as to how or why Pearse decided to come ply his trade in the U.S., but it does reveal that he resurrected the former Lexington Brewing company after it closed its doors in 1999. The newly revived Alltech/Lexington Brewing company started out brewing Kentucky Ale and Kentucky Kolsch, and the invention of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale was a logical next step for a brewery located in a state that produces 98% of the world’s bourbon. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is now available in thirteen states, as well as China and Ireland.

I’ve seen Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale classified as both an American and an English strong ale. Both styles are, well strong, though not quite as strong as a barleywine. American strong ales tend to emphasize hops and push the beer’s bitter aspect to its limit, while English styles tend to be more balanced and complex in taste. English strong ales are usually based on red ales, while American strong ales are often based on porters, stouts, or IPAs.

Why should I drink it?

Hey — remember how awesome Guinness is? Well, turns out Dr. Lyons interned at both the Harp and Guinness factories. Enough said. That’s reason enough to take this beer seriously.

If you don’t share my affection for the black stuff, though, consider this: since 2007 the beer has won four silver and three gold medals. Most recently, it won the gold (in its category) at both the 2012 North American Brewers Association Beer Fest and the 2012 US Open Beer Championships. So clearly someone likes it.

What does it taste like?

You smell the bourbon more than you really taste it. The high alcohol content is very, very noticeable on the nose, almost enough to gift you with that nauseous/gut-wrenching feeling born from your repressed memories of the last time you decided to drink bourbon. Once you take a swig, though, it’s almost magical how un-noticeable the alcohol content is. I mentioned before that I’ve seen KY Bourbon Barrel ale classified as both an American and an English strong ale, but in terms of taste I’d say it actually leans more towards English side. The beer is prominently warm and toasty, contains a hint of that vanilla sweetness that I associate with English beer and contains just enough bitterness to balance it out. The bourbon taste is definitely all-American, but this is actually very minimal in the aftertaste and is almost suggested by the warmth of the alcohol content more than it is outright stated. There’s also none of that sterile, over-hopped, bitter quality you often find in American strong ales (and this is a good thing).

KY Bourbon Barrel Ale goes light on the carbonation, and I think this was the correct call on the brewer’s part. Any more carbonation might have completely masked some of the subtler bourbon/oaky flavors, and the non-fizziness adds to an already high drinkability for an 8.19% beer. In fact, I think soft carbonation actually feigns an English/cask-ale type feel better than some of those overly-nitro-carbonated beers that you can buy in a “draught can.” Be warned, though: the beer won’t take up much of your stomach, but it will take up a lot of your head. I only drank one (albeit quickly), and was pretty decidedly tipsy.

Should I try it?

It’s hard to have many complaints with this beer — it was very good, and I enjoyed it much, much more than I was expecting. Because I’m in critic mode, though, I have to put on my bitch cap for a second. Here goes: the one problem I had with KY Bourbon Barrel Ale is that it hardly tastes like bourbon at all! More than anything, it tastes more like a take on an English strong ale with some faint bourbon notes thrown in for added Americanized flair. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s just that if you really like the taste of bourbon or English-style ale, there are better (and cheaper) options out there, ones that won’t knock you on your ass after two 12-oz. bottles. Nevertheless, if you come across a single bottle somewhere, I wouldn’t hesitate to order or include it in a make-your-own six-pack. It was certainly the best option at the place I got it.

Rating: 7.5/10