I love barrel aged beers. One of my first forays into barrel aged beers was on a trip to Kentucky, where I got to sample the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and upon the first taste of vanilla and bourbon I was hooked. Beer has been aged in barrels for centuries, but it is only recently that brewers have decided to select used barrels from various fermented and distilled beverages to lend an extra layer of complexity and taste. Bourbon barrels seem to be the most commonly used, but any barrel will do, from plain old oak barrels to wine barrels and more.
One of the more interesting barrel aged beers available right now is the t' Smisje Calva Reserva, given to me by my good friends at Bruisin' Ales. This is a fascinating beer, a Belgian Strong Ale that has been aged in Calvados barrels for six months. What is Calvados? It's French Apple Brandy, having been distilled in France for almost 500 years. The beer certainly has hints of Apple Brandy, and some vanilla that is picked up from the oak barrels. It is a big beer at 12 percent, but it is well hidden behind a wall of taste including dark fruits and candi sugar. This is one to definitely seek out for a special purchase.
Speaking of special purchases, one of the finest examples of barrel aged beers that I have tasted recently was just released in the past month, and it is definitely a treat. The Scottish brewery Harviestoun has released a series of ales that are a marriage of an already fine beer, the Old Engine Oil, with the drink that most people associate with Scotland, which is naturally Scotch Whiskey. The three beers in the series where aged in 12, 16, and 30 year old Highland Park Scotch barrels, producing a superb beer that is complex and begs to be paired with hearty foods, strong cheeses, or a nice cigar. I have had both the 12 and the 30, and they both were fantastic beers, and it is interesting to see the differences. The 30 year does seem to be more complex, but both beers have quite a bit of Scotch Whiskey presence, that goes really well with the chocolaty roasted malts of the Old Engine Oil. The Scotch makes it presence known with a taste of vanilla, some peat, and a hint of spiciness. This beer is on the expensive side, but if you like Scotch and beer, or you just want to try something unique, I suggest breaking open the piggy bank to sample one of them.