If you ever found yourself stranded on the proverbial desert island with an offer of one style of drink to keep you sated for the rest of your days, what would it be?
I’m guessing you’d choose beer - after all, this is a blog about beer on a site owned by NZ’s finest purveyor of beer (he he).
As good as sipping a cold ale under a coconut tree with the sun beating down and the waves lapping hypnotically at the shore sounds - I’d still be a touch conflicted if I am honest; the thought of never tasting whisky again just sounds quite tough in my opinion.
But, as luck would have it, today we have a beer that might even keep me happy.
Rook & Leer is a whisky barrel aged stout from the Dutch brewery De Molen. The name translates to Smoke & Leather and is a play on smoked beers, a style that fell out of favour with the onset of the industrial era and the adoption of the hot air kiln to dry barley.
Prior to the kiln, malted barley would sometimes be dried over an open flame where it would come into contact with smoke, imparting smoky flavours to the resulting beer.
Of course this process of essentially smoking malt is still alive and well in the whisky industry and especially so for some of the distilleries on the Isle of Islay such as Bowmore, whose casks were used to age this stout.
The Islay distilleries commonly use peat as a source of fuel. This is a weird and wonderful thing formed from layers of grass, heather and moss that are compressed over thousands of years. It imparts an array of medicinal, iodine and savoury notes into the barley (which are actually not that dissimilar to flavours caused by Brettanomyces now I think about it) and which make their way into the final whisky.
Peating barley in this way is now often done by large commercial maltsters, but Bowmore is one of the few to do it themselves. The process still involves kilning - but the kiln has a mesh surface that allows for the malt and smoke to intermingle and get to know each other.
The smoky and medicinal flavours from peat are pretty polarising in the drinks biz (just like Brettanomyces too, now I think about it) but, personally, I love a lick of peat when I am in the right mood.
As luck would have it - I’m in the mood right now - so let’s crack it open!
It pours a dark inky red-brown with a red rim. The nose is super intriguing and dark, with molasses and burnt demerara sugar notes over a platter of sweet and sour pork ribs that have been doused in soy sauce. The palate is crazeeeeeeeee (as if the nose wasn’t!) and is super bright and a lot less heavy than I expected from the dark and devious nose. There’s flavours of sour red cherries that have been flambeed in whisky and then drenched in lemon juice and oodles of bitter hop notes. The tickle of peat in the finale combines nicely with the bitter element lifting the experience further towards those high notes.
This is one of those beers that, although it might not be to everyone’s taste, I feel like everyone should try.
So there we go; an intriguing, challenging and, yet, rather drinkable beer-whisky hybrid of sorts that brings peat into the fray more successfully than the few other peaty brews I have tried.
All I need now is a desert island…