Kelly Taylor, founder of Brooklyn-based KelSo Brewing, reached out to the people who make Jameson Irish Whiskey to see if they’d be willing to work out a deal that would allow him to age some of his beers in their whiskey barrels. He was surprised when they returned his call, but also intrigued: “Jameson has such a loyal following here in Brooklyn,” he says, “and I felt the scarcity of the barrels and the strength of their local community feel would make for an interesting project and a great finished product.” Jameson shared his excitement, eager to collaborate with the family-owned business.
And so began a lengthy back-and-forth with David Quinn, Jameson’s Master of Whiskey Science (here I thought editor-in-chief was a cool title), about how the beer would take shape before making its debut at this year’s Northside Festival (which, full disclosure, is organized by this magazine’s parent company). Taylor travelled to Ireland, where Quinn taught him the ins and outs of their extensive barrel program. Jameson is a blended whiskey, meaning it contains a mixture of whiskeys that have been aged in different ways—some in sherry barrels and some in bourbon barrels. The two decided to go with strictly bourbon barrels for their collaboration, and ten of them were sent back to Brooklyn where they’d be put to work once more.
For many in the craft beer world, barrel-aging is an obsession. People regularly cough up $20, $30, sometimes even more for large-format bottles (basically two beers’ worth) of super high alcohol content brews that have taken on some characteristics of the charred wood. Flavors like vanilla, dark chocolate, molasses and coconut come through, along with an unmistakably boozy burn. The overwhelming majority of beers that get the barrel-aging treatment are stouts and porters—dark beers that are already pretty intense to start. “Barrel-aged porters and stouts aren’t particularly interesting,” says Taylor. “They’re delicious, but they’re not very interesting. I was relishing the opportunity to do something completely different.”
Taylor took things in an unusual direction, putting KelSo’s very popular 6% alcohol-by-volume IPA into the barrels to see what would happen. He remembered tasting Jameson for the first time at his wife’s urging somewhat late in life—he’d been a single-malt guy—and being struck by how much it reminded him of an IPA. “It was bright and floral and fruity,” he says. “It had a lot of sweetness, but it was dry. It didn’t have any bitterness, of course, but I’m not really a fan of bitterness in IPAs anyway. I think there’s more to hops than that. So this seemed like a natural way to go.”
And it really does work. On a recent trip to KelSo’s Clinton Hill brewery, I had the chance to sample the beer straight from one of the barrels. (There was what looked like a turkey baster involved.) It was room temperature and not yet carbonated, but characteristics of each component still came through: oak was immediately present, acting as a pedestal for abundant floral and citrus notes that are nicely rounded out by a pleasant sweetness from the bourbon. Taylor and his team at KelSo are producing enough of the beer for roughly 25 kegs, most if not all of which will be sold at various locations during the Northside Festival.
“Jameson is by no means a small company at this point, but it’s definitely a local company,” said Taylor, reflecting on the genesis of the project and why it makes so much sense. “But it was also a little daunting because you don’t want to screw it up, especially after going over there and spending a couple days with Dave. He’s in charge of so much of this liquor, this liquid, that really is the lifeblood of southern Ireland. And we’re just the vampires.”