Beer: Racer 5 Brewery: Bear Republic Brewing Co. Style: American IPA ABV: 7 percent
Brewing beer and distilling whiskey are closely related enterprises. To make beer, all you need to do is add yeast to a boiled blend of malted barley and hops called wort. To make whiskey, you take hops out the equation to get a mixture called wash, then distill this soup down to about 40-proof.
That's usually how it's done, anyway. But the geniuses at St. Helena, Calif.'s Charbay distillery take the connection a step further with R5, a whiskey made through the distillation not of grain, but of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.
The winner of a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009, Racer 5 holds a well-deserved spot among the top IPAs in America. This is because its hop bill -- Chinook, Cascade, Columbus and Centennial -- delivers a lemon/grapefruit/grass/honey aroma as bright as a Fourth of July sparkler. The flavor is a potpourri of pine needles, grass and dried, sugared lemon peel, with just enough crackery malt to back it all up.
To make R5, Charbay's magicians distill 6,000 gallons of Racer 5 for nine straight days in double copper alambic charentais pots, a type of onion-shaped still usually used to make brandy and cognac. After distillation concentrates those 6,000 gallons to about 590 gallons of spirit, the stuff's aged for 22 months in French Oak.
The result is a spirit that lives in the realms of both whiskey and beer. The scent of alcohol in R5 is, of course, strong -- get too close and it'll singe your nose hairs off. But beneath the booze is complexity: fresh apple, caramel, vanilla bean. The hops spice the whiskey as they do the beer, though while the beer contained mostly lemon and pine aromas, here the notes they impart are more like lime and mint -- and this carries into the flavor. Before the swallow, R5 tastes like a standard whiskey, albeit a good one. But the swallow! This is when the hops show themselves, absolutely exploding on the tongue with flavors of lime, mint and green apple. It's like a mojito made with whiskey.
The close relationship between beer and liquor is nothing new. Several craft breweries across the U.S. -- including Rogue and Ballast Point -- have already begun producing their own lines of spirits, and Bear Republic plans to launch their own craft distillery sometime this year. For a beer lover, it's exciting to see this unity between alcohols that seem so different and to experience multiple dimensions of the same beverage. Isn't booze fun?
Racer 5 can be found at any decent beer store; R5 is more limited, but is available at some specialty shops, like AJ's. It'll run you about $75, but if consonance between beer and liquor is your thing, it's a must-try.