Beer: Velvet Merkin Brewery: Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Style: Oatmeal Stout ABV: 8.5
While the hair that grows around ladyparts is today mostly thought of as something to be avoided, back in the 15th century, pubes were the bee's knees. A prostitute with an impressive undercarriage could command an army -- or at least make a pretty good living off one. Hygiene levels on an overgrown bush, however, were notoriously hard to maintain -- and pubic lice were everywhere -- so many ladies did a little trimming. But again, pubic hair was the hottest fashion of the season. A fix was necessary, and it came in the form of the merkin: a wig worn to cover bald genitalia. The 1400s were a silly time.
See also: Firestone Walker 16
A few centuries later, Matt Brynildson, head brewer at Firestone Walker Brewing Co., was finishing up a batch of a new oatmeal stout and, chuckling away, decided to name it Velvet Merkin. Apparently enough time had passed since pubic wigs were en vogue, as the name made it past whatever gatekeepers exist at inside and outside Firestone. Velvet Merkin became a popular beer at Firestone Walker's taproom and went on to win medals at both the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival, leading respected competition directors to say, on stage in front of several thousand people, "And the medal goes to . . . Velvet Merkin," with serious faces and full sincerity.
The fun didn't last forever, though. When Firestone Walker put the beer into regular production, the name was adjusted, and the naughty Velvet Merkin became the nonsensical Velvet Merlin. Which, let there be no confusion, is a delicious beer, as smooth and subtle as the fabric in its moniker. But the original name lived on -- while the Merlin version contains a small percentage of bourbon barrel-aged product, the Merkin was reborn as a 100 percent barreled brew. Along with becoming a major in component in many of Firestone's yearly anniversary beers, Velvet Merkin began making appearances at special events and beer festivals, popping up like pubic lice and drawing attention whenever it did. Names are one thing, but popular demand is another, and now we're seeing the release of the Merkin in bottles.
According to local Firestone reps, Velvet Merkin is four times as expensive to make as Merlin, which would make sense -- it's aged for about a year in retired bourbon barrels, including those from Heaven Hill and Four Roses distilleries. In a snifter, above the coal-black, completely opaque liquid, an airy, sand-colored head gets to be about an inch tall before receding quickly, leaving behind some thin lace trails and an impressive ring of froth.
The aroma is incredible. The usual barrel-lent notes of toasted coconut, charred oak and buttery vanilla are all here, but backing them up is what also makes Velvet Merlin great: roasty, chocolatey goodness. Cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, marzipan, toffee, coffee beans. The fragrance is so smooth, so sweet. Damn near perfect.
After the aromatic opera of the nose, it would be hard for any flavor to live up to. Merkin makes an attempt, with sweet toffee and vanilla bean followed by definite alcohol notes and oodles of vinous new oak. A simple wave of poor-quality chocolate rolls in mid-palate; notes of bitter coffee and sweet toffee settle in the back; soft oats join after the swallow. This is the first barrel-aged beer Firestone Walker has released that's below 10 percent ABV, which would explain why I feel there's not quite enough of the stout flavor to back up the whiskey. The beer's still very tasty, however, and the medium body, boosted by oats, has nice viscosity, like whole milk.
There's no shortage of silly-named beers on the market, but they often overpromise, the label revealing itself to be more impressive than the beer within. While I actually prefer the smoothness and subtlety of Velvet Merlin, the Merkin is powerful and flavorful enough to live up to its name. Grab a few bottles when they hit shelves in mid-September.
And, as always, watch out for pubic lice.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.