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When beer meets spirits at Niagara’s Bench Brewing

By Stephen Beaumont

When the publisher of this prestigious website asked me to begin contributing articles about beer and spirits, I figured it would be only a matter of time before the two intersected.

After all, when no less an international brand than Jameson is releasing beer barrel-conditioned versions of its whiskey and the largest brewing company in the world has a subsidiary best-known for bourbon barrel-aged stouts – respectively, the Jameson Caskmates line and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Goose Island Bourbon County Stout – it seems logical that brewing and distilling would intersect in as drinks company-dense a region as Niagara.

What I didn’t realize is that such a combination was already well underway!

Niagara beer

Some two years ago, when brewer Mark Horsley was still manning the kettles at Beamsville’s Bench Brewing, a collaboration was born between Bench and up-the-highway distiller Forty Creek. The latter would lend the former some of their prized Canadian oak barrels, which previously held the distillery’s excellent Confederation Oak Reserve whisky, provided that the brewery return them after having used them to condition their beer.

Thereafter, beer was brewed, barrels were filled and patient aging commenced. And Horsley left the company, replaced by current head brewer, Sarah Casorso, below.    

Buffalo Beauts defender Sarah Casorso.

A former pro hockey player-turned-brewer, Casorso was with Bench when the project, dubbed ‘Fortified’, was commenced, and so was familiar with the beers in the barrels. The majority was strong, blonde ale, while just eight barrels were divided up between strong dark and strong amber ale. The last two – already sold out – spent about a year in wine barrels before being transferred to the whisky ones and aged for a further year prior to bottling.

As for the blonde ale, well, that’s a more interesting story.

Describing the blonde as “a solid beer…a good base,” Bench’s master blender Matthew Jacobs says that he was drawn to the idea of using flavourings to evoke the idea of a cocktail, rather than trying to create a beer that tasted specifically like a cocktail. As such, he zeroed in on the taste profile of a Manhattan, concentrating especially on the spicy flavours found in Angostura Bitters, and began by adding sweet orange peel and cherries to the blonde ale for two weeks, then moving the beer to a blend of cardamom, cinnamon, and clove for further aging.

The three beers were all released under the Fortified label, both to make clear the alcohol pick-up from the barrels – about 3%, according to Jacobs – and allude to the Forty Creek connection, with their label colour and small print description being the sole means of identifying one from another. And while, as noted, two are already out-of-stock, what I found to be the most captivating of the trio, the Manhattan Sour Ale, is still available from the brewery at the time of writing.

Equally of note, the next two beers in the series have already entered fresh Confederation Oak barrels, according to Casorso: a malt-forward, Belgian-style dubbel and an unsoured strong dark ale, both expected to be released in the autumn of this year. Also to look forward to, Forty Creek whisky finished in the Fortified barrels, not as yet scheduled for release.

All excellent reasons to celebrate the meeting of beer and spirits in Niagara.

The Fortified Series

Fortified Manhattan Sour Ale Aged in Canadian Whisky Barrels (beige label, 10.5%) — Pinkish in colour, the first sniff is quite reminiscent of a Manhattan, or at least the whisky and bitters portion of a Manhattan. Lemon juice notes creep in shortly thereafter, followed by hints of both Bing and Maraschino cherries, plus a pleasingly earthy, barnyardy backnote. On the palate, this is less a beer that attempts to replicate the experience of drinking a Manhattan than a beer which suggests Manhattan-like qualities – a far superior approach, in my view. Notes of cherry both sweet and tart mix with a whisky-ish booziness and tangy notes of lemon and lime zest, growing oakier, spicy, and more warming as they progress to a dry, mildly tart and satisfying finish.

Fortified Dark Sour Ale Aged in Canadian Whisky Barrels (blue label – sold out, 10.4%) — Black in colour, this pours with an impressively dense and creamy head. While notes of coffee or roasted malt or chocolate could credibly be expected to define the aroma, what comes forward instead are aromas of blackberry and flamed lemon peel, backed by plum and a bit of dark chocolate. The palate presents an impressive mix of sweet and tart and oaky flavours, beginning with a sweet orange and berry fruitiness, then a tangier, woodier mid-palate, with some oaky tannins, vanilla and fruity whisky notes apparent, and finally a dry, lightly tart, slightly smoky finish. Not simple, by any means, but perhaps the most straightforward of the trio.

Fortified Amber Sour Ale Aged in Canadian Whisky Barrels (black label – sold out, 11%) — Amber, as billed, this definitely has the most whisky-ish aroma of the three Fortified beers, with vanilla, oak, and alcohol notes backed by red apple, dried apricot, and barnyard. The sweet and fruity palate entry leads to a balance of berry and apricot, wildflower honey and acidity in the body, ending in an off dry and lightly spicy, very pleasantly warming finish. The seamless progression from sweet front to dry-ish finish, combined with measured acidity, make this a solid and highly enjoyable aperitif beer.

About Stephen Beaumont

Stephen Beaumont is one of the world’s leading writers on beer and spirits, with 15 books to his credit, including Canadian Spirits: The Essential Cross-Country Guide to Distilleries, Their Spirits, and Where to Imbibe Them (with Christine Sismondo) and the upcoming, fully revised and updated third edition of The World Atlas of Beer (with Tim Webb).