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Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

Lexington Brewing Co. (Alltech)
Lexington, KY
USA
http://www.kentuckyale.com

Style: American Strong Ale
ABV: 8.19%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Drinkable, but flawed)


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What does one envision when they think of Kentucky?

Most Beer Dorks would likely say Kentucky Breakfast Stout, one of the best and rarest beers in the Midwest. That’s not a bad answer, but here’s a reminder that Kentucky Breakfast Stout is brewed by our friends at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, MI … a few hundred miles from the actual state of Kentucky. Associating Kentucky Breakfast Stout with the state of Kentucky is much like associating Tony Montana with the state of Montana.

Eliminating KBS, many would turn to the Colonel Sanders and his famous fried chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken DID originate in Kentucky, though that was many decades ago. Now owned by Yum! Brands, which also owns authentic Mexican restaurant Taco Bell, authentic seafood restaurant Long John Silvers, and authentic Italian pizzeria Pizza Hut, KFC is but a shell of what the good Colonel started during the Depression in North Corbin, KY. While vestiges of his recipes live on in popcorn form, seemingly the only thing still tying KFC to Kentucky is the fact that Yum! Brands are based in Louisville.

Speaking of Louisville … Kentucky loves basketball and the rivalry between the University of Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino, and the University of Kentucky, also coached by Rick Pitino, is intense. If one knows a young man attending college for one year to play basketball before entering the NBA, there’s a good chance he’s going to “school” in Kentucky.

Other things unique to Kentucky: bluegrass (both the music and the grass), thoroughbred horses, racing thoroughbred horses, betting on thoroughbred horses as they race, drinking mint juleps while betting on thoroughbred horses as they race, wearing stupid hats while drinking mint juleps and betting on thoroughbred horses while they race, and Daniel Boone. The last thing has nothing to do with thoroughbred horses, but he did occasionally wear a stupid hat.

Many of us would point to Kentucky’s affinity for bourbon, a type of whiskey that 18th and 19th century Kentuckians perfected and modern craft brewers (much like Founders) utilize the barrels of to age fine stouts, porters, etc. Associating bourbon with Kentucky is understandable; a drive through the state reveals the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” an auto tour of bourbon distilleries that are so well marked on the interstates that you’d swear you were passing Mount Rushmore. Kentucky bourbon, while inexplicably named after a French royal family, is pure American; corn mash aged in white oak barrels, it’s a distinct flavor that one either loves or hates. Kentucky bourbon is second only to Scotch as the most famous and respected version of whiskey in the world.

The first leg of our spring 2014 vacation found us in the Bluegrass State, not for the distilleries or to bet on the ponies, but rather to see Mammoth Cave National Park. Located in south central Kentucky halfway between Louisville and Nashville, Mammoth Cave is very isolated, surrounded only by some small towns that exist solely due to the tourist industry provided by the largest known cave system in the world. We stayed in Cave City, the closest town to the main entrance of the National Park and located in Barren County, one of 57 dry counties in Kentucky. Cave City (population 2,272) passed an ordinance in 2005 that allows for sales of alcohol in restaurants as long as 70 percent or more of their revenue is derived from food sales, but beer is still a rare find.

Knowing that we’d be pulling in late on a Friday evening and spending two nights (one day) in the middle of nowhere Kentucky, not to mention the fact that the next three nights would be in Tennessee, we made sure to stock up with plenty of beer from home. One of the selections I packed was Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale … not because it’s an exceptional beer, but rather because I’m a sucker for kitsch, and it seemed like a good fit while in rural Kentucky.

I first sampled Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale on tap at a craft beer bar in Milwaukee, and my initial impression was positive. I later bought some in bottles and with each sample I’ve grown less and less impressed. Brewed in Lexington, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale stays close to its Kentucky roots. Lexington Brewing Co. is a division of Alltech, which is both a brewery and distillery and from the research I’ve done, seems pretty artificial on both fronts. Alltech/Lexington brews are available throughout much of the Midwest, so this is by no means a beer you need to head to Kentucky to find.

Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is hard to classify. I most often see it listed in the vague American Strong Ale category, which is probably the best classification. It is strong (8.2 percent ABV), it is American, and it is an ale. The base brew of KBBA is Kentucky Ale (Kentucky Ale aged in bourbon barrels becomes Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale? Seems logical … ), an amber ale that I’ve never tried but is readily available. Kentucky Ale is aged for up to six weeks in what the brewer describes as “freshly decanted bourbon barrels from some of Kentucky’s finest distilleries.” Not sure if those fine distilleries include Alltech, but I suppose that’s not important.

When pouring Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, throw out your preconceived notions of what a barrel-aged strong ale should look like. It’s a clear, coppery hue with a creamy head light in color that permeates on the pour, looking much more like a golden lager than anything potent and aged. The foamy head is about an inch thick but quickly dissipates, leaving a nominal lace at the top. Once settled into the glass, KBBA looks very approachable … if I were to guess the style based solely on appearance, I’d likely guess maibock or English IPA.

Aromas make it very clear that you’re not about to sip your standard amber ale. Huge aromas of sweet bourbon prove they aren’t lying when they say it’s aged in freshly decanted bourbon barrels. The aromas one expects from beer (grain and hops) are completely hidden behind bourbon. Most bourbon barrel-aged stouts/porters have the hint of roasted grain and other dark malts that remind you you’re drinking a beer. Not the case here, all you’ll sense is bourbon and sugar, and it’s a powerful aroma to say the least. The fact that bourbon is so prevalent in the aroma makes one wonder if the base brew is perhaps a bit on the weak side … at no point do you catch a whiff of any type of grain, hop, or yeast, though at times there is a suspicious staleness that trickles to the forefront.

The flavor is fine but it’s important one realizes what they’re getting with KBBA before they dive into it. I’m not a bourbon drinker, but I do enjoy bourbon barrel-aged beers. That’s likely the reason my first impressions of KBBA were positive … the sweet sugars, the woody undertone, the warming presence of alcohol are all there, which I enjoy. But once one digs deeper into the flavor, the true beer drinker begins to realize that the ale backbone is virtually non-existent. Rarely do you see such a standard, tame style as amber utilized in a bourbon barrel-aged beer. There may be a reason for that … without the strong beer backbone, it really tastes as though you’re drinking a bourbon soda. But, even with all of that having been said, KBBA is not a total loss. The flavors imparted by the barrel aging have some strong points, including the sweet, caramel-like sugars, nice hints oak, a touch of smoke, and a slight warming hint of alcohol. I found it quite pleasing on a spring night in central Kentucky. At home, I find it a decidedly average attempt at a strong ale and would much rather choose from a plethora of tasty barrel-aged beers with actual backbone from brewers closer to home.

Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is clearly the jewel in the Lexington lineup. I’ve also sampled Kentucky IPA and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout and found both to be absolutely awful, pathetic attempts at their respective styles. If one loves bourbon and is interested in seeing what bourbon barrel aging does to a mild ale, give Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale a shot. It’s not undrinkable by any means, and imparts plenty of tasty flavors and aromas at various times. However, the chances that this will become a regular in your lineup are slim. There’s a reason one doesn’t associate beer with Kentucky. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is the most recognizable beer brewed in the state, and essentially proves Kentuckians have perfected the art of distilling, but have a LONG way to go in catching up with the art of brewing.

Cheers!


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on July 14, 2014.
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