In this day and age, if a brewery produces an imperial stout it’s a virtual given that it will release a barrel-aged version of that beer at some point in the future. Some breweries choose barrels from a favored vintner or distiller and apply a single barrel treatment to their beer roughly once a year. Others vary their suppliers, effectively creating a new beer for consumers whether it be an annual release or part of a running line of limited edition brews. In the case of the FiftyFifty Brewing Co., they’ve made a yearly event out of aging their popular Imperial Eclipse Stout in multiple barrels for a simultaneous release in 22-ounce bottles.
It all started in 2007, when Eclipse was aged in barrels of Old Fitzgerald, and it has continued in later years with as many as 11 different variants spending time in rum, bourbon and brandy barrels. For 2013, 11 such varieties were released in December, each identified by the color of the bottle’s wax seal.
- Silver – Maker’s Mark
- Black – Evan Williams
- Red – Four Roses
- Lavender Pearl – Java Coffee
- Tangerine – High West Bourbon
- Lime Green – High West Rye
- Yellow – Buffalo Trace
- Purple – Elijah Craig 12-year
- Fuchsia – 18-year Rum Barrel1
- Pink Pearl – Pappy Van Winkle 20-year2
There was also 226 bottles of a Vanilla Eclipse released at the brewery.
At a recent tasting consisting of eight of the above-listed bottles, minus those containing Pappy, rum and vanilla, I was given a choice of a full pour of any one of the selections. I went with the Maker’s Mark treatment because that bourbon has always been a favorite of mine when used in conjunction with other beers. Maker’s has at times been referred to as a gentle spirit because it offers subtle complexities with a softer finish and, to my taste, this makes it ideal for barrel aging when your ultimate goal is a balanced, barrel-aged stout.
Curiously, though, the Maker’s-Eclipse pairing represents the first time in recent memory that this particular bourbon has dominated the underlying beer. This was something not evident in samples of other bottles of Eclipse, especially the Java Coffee and Elijah Craig 12-year variants, which seemed to be beers of enduring complexity complimented well by the aspects of the barrels. In the Maker’s version, however, from the initial obsidian pour to the chalky and charcoal-like finish, the spirit grabbed hold of both flavor and aroma and simply never let go. Elements of cola, oak, vanilla and spice were nearly lost as they struggled to emerge from beneath the blanketing bourbon.
The boozy tone also extended to how the beer drinks, as there is a noticeable burn as it goes down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if there were more of the dark chocolate and espresso flavors evident in other varieties, the overall taste experience would be far better for it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of this beer needing more time in the cellar, as my tasting notes suggest a softer bourbon profile might allow more depth to be discovered.