Have you ever received something that was so special that you didn’t know what to do with it? This can apply to a lot of things in life. Maybe someone brought you some rare saffron and now you have to decide what kind of dish to make with it, or perhaps you inherited a necklace so entrenched with sentimental value that you can’t bear to even wear it. This can apply to beer as well. As a beer geek, sometimes you land a really special bottle and you feel compelled to wait for the perfect moment to drink it. Maybe you won the Ann lottery at Hill Farmstead and as a result you now spend your evenings staring at this wax dipped masterpiece, debating on the right time to open it in order to rejoice in her contents.
Well, what about if it wasn’t a bottle of beer, but instead an entire barrel. And what about if the barrel wasn’t filled with beer, but instead was used to house bourbon for 37 years. This was the exciting dilemma that Alex (Brewmaster for Les Trois Mousquetaires) was facing when trying to decide what to do with this wooded beauty that just so happened to land in his lap. Ultimately, this barrel resulted in the creation of a new take on his Baltic Porter, called “Baril Unique”, which had a very, very, very small brewery-only release starting yesterday. Every year, LTM releases a bourbon and brandy barrel-aged version of their regularly available Porter Baltic. It’s a blend of aged and fresh beer, and it’s a beautifully crafted treat that many folks in the Quebec beer scene look forward to getting their hands on. However, amongst the many barrels, one stood out and needed to become its own, more special creation. Instead of me trying to tell you about this beautiful and sexy masterpiece, I figured Alex himself would do a better job.
So Alex, what’s the deal with this extremely precious and wonderful concoction that you call “Baril Unique”?
“When I first saw the barrel, I noticed it was different. The stencil the bourbon makers use to identify their barrels was not the same. I remember thinking “Oh well, the folks at Heaven Hill distillery decided to change their branding and have gone full hipster”… But I was wrong, so wrong. I took a picture of it and sent it to our barrel agent in the USA. His response was somehow unreal: “What you have here is a 1978 barrel. You better take good care of it.”
Heavy breathing ensued.
I was in awe. I realized I wasn’t even born in 1978. Disco music was everywhere. John Lennon was still alive. Most people had never heard of a microwave oven. And 99.9% of craft breweries were not gonna exist for at least a decade or two. I was being offered a glimpse of the past.
But still, the age of a barrel does not automatically mean that it’s going to give great flavors. I was super excited, but I needed the barrel to pass a reality check. So I removed the bung and directed my nose towards smell the inside. I smiled, then laughed uncontrollably. There was something very different here from every other bourbon barrel. You could tell it was way older. The vanilla and caramel notes common in bourbon barrels were still there, but lovely blended in a fruitier smell, somehow reminiscent of plums and apricot. I knew I had a barrel with great potential, but we still had to fill it with beer.
So the barrel joined all the others in the barrel room, next to the barrels for the Porter Baltique Édition Spéciale, with the 1978 date very visible to make sure we don’t lose its trace. At this point, I was not sure if I was going to use it in the blend or not. But as time passed, two or three months into barrel aging, it was becoming quite clear that this barrel was an absolute gem.
The first time I tasted it, it literally brought tears to my eyes. It was the very first time a beer ever did that to me. The emotion was just too intense. Those flavors were so unique, intense yet so harmonious. I knew I couldn’t blend this with the dozens of other barrels for the Baltique Spéciale. The uniqueness of the 1978 barrel would have just been diluted and faded. So we decided to do a single barrel, or Baril Unique. But with only 200 bottles, the question of how to sell it was quite a headache…
We considered many options, but finally it was just easier and better for everyone to just sell it directly at the brewery. I know some people will be upset if they can’t buy it… My hope is that those who will get their hands on a bottle will share it with friends and other beer enthusiasts. Make it a special moment. Reflect on everything that has happened in your life and on Earth since the flavours in this beer began their journey 37 years ago.
It’s a very special beer. It’s the best barrel-aged beer I ever tasted, and I don’t have any merit for it: the barrel from 1978 did all the magic.”
I was excited before, but now I’m just downright horny. I can’t wait to bury my face in this beauty. However, in order to amp up the anticipation that much more, I’ve decided to have a bit of foreplay and crack open three vintages of Porter Baltic Édition Spéciale, specifically the 2013, 2014 and 2015 editions.
Porter Baltique – Édition Spéciale 2015
As usual, this year’s special edition pours out quite thick, but not so much so that you can’t find its translucency. As it hits the glass, a thin beige foam froths up and rests atop this sexy black specimen.
The nose wafts a bourbon and brandy bonanza of aromatics, which rushes vanilla, oak and booze soaked cake into my nostrils. There is a nice fruity presence as well, with a sweet bread dough thing happening. The dark roasted malt flavours of coffee and chocolate are certainly there, but pale in comparison to the highly present brandy and bourbon notes.
Like the nose, the flavours are dominated by the spirits of the barrels that this hotness is aged in. However, at no point is it too much. Rather, they lend beautiful complexities, and the sharp ethanol presence really helps dry out the sugars, making for a overall balanced flavour profile. There is a great cooked caramel component that perfectly meshes with the very apparent vanilla bean bourbon bomb, and the bitterness in the finish really cuts things down nicely. It really drinks like chocolate bourbon-soaked cake, with a vanilla frosted icing (which I now want to eat!). Again though, this isn’t exactly dry, but isn’t too sweet either. Balance is everything, and this beer is definitely balanced.
From memory, I feel like this 2015 vintage is a balance between the 2013 and 2014 editions. The 2013 was a bourbon bomb, whereas the 2014 was more balanced and subtle. This years seems to the be best of both worlds, marrying both the intense spirit and oak flavours with a well rounded flavour balance.
Porter Baltique – Édition Spéciale 2014
The nose begins with loads of vanilla, some charred malt, and general fruitiness – maraschino cherries in particular. Sweet milk chocolate is present as well, mixed with a candy-like mocha aroma. The spirits are quite dominant, with huge bourbon and brandy notes lending lots of layers to this intoxicating nectar.
Off the bat, the 10.5% ABV is completely nonexistent and perfectly integrated. Like the nose, it’s rather fruity, with cherries and figs playing a role alongside a milk chocolate middle. The oak tannins and residual spirit remnants help really dry it out, leaving a long boozy finish, but without that sharp ethanol edge. The vanilla presence is huge, especially in the lingering booze-soaked oak aftertaste.
The age has helped refine this beer even more, ironing out any sharp edges. However, with time, it’s lost a bit of body, and the bitterness has been reduced substantially. That spirit-induced bitter oak finish is keeping it going though, and the sweetness is not overpowering in the least.
It’s hard to say whether a year in the cellar has really “improved” this beer, but it is certainly still amazing. It has changed in ways that particular individuals will prefer and others might not. I’m excited for the 2013 now.
Porter Baltique – Édition Spéciale 2013
From what I recall, the 2013 edition was a bourbon and brandy bomb, wafting massive amounts of sexy vanilla and oak goodness. My memory suggests that the spirits and the barrel were that much more present in this edition when compared to the last two years, however it’s also quite possible that my palate has just changed since my experience with barrel-aged beers has expanded substantially.
The nose wafts big sweet chocolate aromatics, alongside that beautiful bourbon vanilla thing that this beer is known for. The extra age adds some depth and a general, more rounded aroma.
Just like the fresher examples above, this bad boy is a vanilla bourbon bomb, with toasty cocoa and coffee nuances alongside some deep red fruit characteristics. However, where it differs is that it is certainly the sweetness of the bunch, which is to be expected given that the minimal hop bitterness has faded, allowing the sugars to appear more apparent. That being said, the age has allowed new and complex flavours to emerge, like leather, sherry, and a plethora of dried fruits. The sweetness gives this a chocolate fudge thing that’s beautifully delectable and would go amazingly with dessert. Although having two years on it, the body has stood tall, not falling into “watery” territory at all.
If I had to choose, I may prefer this beer a bit fresher, but there are also all these great subtleties that arise over time that add fun layers to the whole thing. This was my last 2013, but maybe I’ll hold onto some fresher versions and try aging them again.
Porter Baltique – Baril Unique – Single Barrel
Now for the big guns! I shake in anticipation. Single barrel pours out with that usual slightly translucent, but still rather opaque black velvety body. I can smell the bourbon from several feet away. The aromas take over the entire room as I take photos. I almost pass out from delight.
The nose is an amazingly potent bourbon bomb, with huge vanilla and oak flavours, and a complex depth that’s hard to explain. It’s also quite fruity, with macerated cherries and other stone fruits coming through. It’s hard to make out the usual roasted malt porter components with so much of this amazing bourbon leading the way. It overtakes the nose, and overtakes me in the process.
Wow. I’m pretty floored and I don’t know where to begin. Well, for starters this is dry, like really dry in comparison to the “regular” Édition Spéciale. The oak is far more prevalent, lending bitter tannins to the mix. The bourbon on the nose overpowers everything with all its beautiful vanilla goodness, but on the taste front, it just integrates with the beer and is a softer, more refined flavour that doesn’t rest on your palate with the same intensity as the others. It’s incredibly complex, but still straightforward, with big notes of leather and tobacco that you don’t find normally. This fruity component is also incredible, with cherries, figs and other fruit, like dried apricots. The 10.5% ABV is undetectable and integrates perfectly with all the flavours.
I’m no bourbon expert, but this barrel clearly lends an extra refined presence to the beer. The flavour has a bold richness that is subtle and intense at the same time. Upon every sip, more nuanced flavours come through, adding new depth to the tasting experience. As it breathes, cooked caramel and toasted sugars start to emerge, as well as the usual chocolate and espresso bean porter flavours. The vanilla is huge, with a sweet yet dry presence that is so robust and wonderful that it is simply impossible to put into words. It so rich, yet so dry all at once, with a big caramel thing and just so much wonderful bourbon.
I can’t get over this nose, I’m just sitting here, breathing it in more and more, with my eyes rolling back into my head, in an almost orgasmic state of being. There are elements here that remind me of Utopias, which explains a lot, given the quality and time it takes to produce it.
So there it is, Alex’s latest masterpiece. I’m so glad that LTM decided to do this, and I’m extremely grateful that I had a chance to taste it. It’s pretty humbling to drink something that is older than you are. It helps put things into perspective. Especially as you sit, basking in the beautiful nuances of something as amazing as this bottle of beer.
Article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest