An article by Noah Forrest
Last winter, Les Trois Mousquetaires released an epic beer called Baril Unique. Guess what? They are at it again! LTM regularly brews a Baltic porter — it’s rich, bold and delicious. Then, once a year they age this porter in a mix of bourbon and brandy barrels, blending them to create Porter Baltique: Édition Spéciale. It is a brilliant barrel-forward concoction that carries the perfect balance of body, sweetness and bourbon/brandy goodness. As if two versions of this beer weren’t enough, the sneaky folks at LTM went ahead and created a third and very special variant.
Earlier in 2015, Alex (head brewer) acquired a very special 37-year-old barrel of bourbon. Instead of simply including this rare barrel as part of the blend for the 2015 Porter Baltic: Édition Spécial, they decided to single out this cask and do a tiny, 200-bottle release of what they called Baril Unique. It was one of the most complex bourbon barrel-aged beers I’ve ever had. And six months later, they are at it again with a new epic variant, called Barils D’Exception. Instead of me trying to tell you about this latest one-off sensation, I spoke with Alex so that he could give us the scoop. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Beerism: Last year you released Baril Unique. It was your Baltic porter, aged specifically in one barrel of 37-year-old bourbon. This year we have Barils D’Exception, the same base beer aged in barrels that contained single malt scotch. Can you tell us the story behind what seems to now be a recurring series?
Alex: After the success of the Baril Unique release, we went on a search (or as I prefer to say, a magical quest) for another special and/or rare barrel. But we actually found two. Two barrels coming from a very special place on Earth (and in my heart): the Land of the Brave, a.k.a. motherfucking Scotland.
For most of my brewing career, I wanted to try aging beer in a scotch barrel, because I love scotch so much. I pretty much became a scotch enthusiast back in 2007, when I first tasted a Glenmorangie single malt in a small underground jazz bar in Québec City. It was love at first sip.
I actually came very close to securing scotch barrels two or three years ago, but the distillery finally decided to keep them. Bummer. The thing with scotch barrels is that the distilleries can keep them for a long time. A very long time. They are not forced to always use new oak barrels, as is the case with bourbon distilleries. If they feel that the barrels can still bring some goodness to their whisky, they will keep them for another filling. So we waited.
In November 2015, we heard that another scotch distillery in Speyside was finally releasing a limited quantity of barrels. We ordered two right away. At first, we were not sure which of our beers would fit best with a scotch barrel, but in the end Baltique was obviously the best choice.
B: Baril Unique was an impressive feat in barrel aging. The subtle nuances of the extremely old bourbon lent all kinds of wonderful subtleties that we don’t normally find in bourbon barrel-aged beer. What kinds of interesting flavours can we expect from this Speyside edition?
A: Single malt scotch whiskies have a lot of different profiles, depending on the region/distillery and the number of years they are aged. They have rich and profound flavors, each sip developing multiple layers of complexity. They are among the most sought after spirits in the world. The barrels we had came from a distillery in Speyside, a region known for producing mostly balanced single malts; nothing too extreme or gimmicky. This was perfect for us because when we age a beer in a barrel, we don’t want the spirit notes to dominate entirely. Think of it as a symphony, with all the instruments playing together in harmony. If the scotch that was aged in those barrels was a very peated one, the smoke notes would have been way too intense and would have hid almost all the other flavours of the Baltique. If we ever try to age a beer in a more intensely peated scotch barrel, the base recipe would need to be tweaked in order to achieve balance.
Long story short, the Speyside barrels were just perfect for the profile we had in mind: a little bit of peat smoke (but not too much), a little bit of sherry/caramel/dark fruit notes (but not too much). The two barrels actually had slightly different characters. In one the sherry notes were more intense, in the other the peat was more noticeable. Each one was interesting by itself but lacked something. So blending both created a superior taste in every aspect. Everything came into place, in harmony. I also find the final result to be very interesting because it is so different when compared to Édition Spéciale (bourbon and brandy blend), despite being the exact same base beer (Baltique). Gotta love the magic of barrel aging.
B: Every year your barrel program expands with new and interesting concoctions to tantalize our palates. Besides Barils D’Exception, are there any other new surprises that we can expect in the second half of 2016?
A: We do have some ”experimental” barrels here and there in the barrel room. You can expect at least one or two of these barrels to be released SOMETIME, either for a festival or maybe for Double IPA Day or even after … WHO KNOWS!? Maybe one of them is a second filling of the 1978 Baril Unique barrel, with something added? MAYBE! … Life is short. Stunt it!
As if I wasn’t excited enough to drink this beer, talking with Alex managed to intrigue me even further. That being said, let’s find out just how good this new sexy variant is.
Baril D’Exception pours out that typical black hue, with brown highlights. There is an ample head that dissipates pretty quickly. The aromas begin with beautiful notes of fresh dough, alongside vanilla and oak. It smells rich and inviting, with the barrel lending complexity, but not taking it too far from the base beer. Charred barrel and subtle peat smoke come through as well, but only add nuanced components that give the nose just a hint of meatiness. Chocolate and dark roasted coffee beans also chime in, adding more depth and dessert-like elements that complement everything nicely.
The flavour front is where this really shines. Baril Unique was rather barrel forward, whereas I find Baril D’Exception more subtle. Off the bat, there is more heat, but I like how that layers everything else, lending a sharpness that assists in drying the finish further. You have that Baltic porter base, with its dark roasted coffee, toffee-like sugars and high-percentage cocoa chocolate, but then this refined barrel and spirit presence arrives, providing layer upon layer of depth and complexity.
Just like the nose let on, the scotch launches a slew of flavours at your senses: vanilla sweetness, oak earthiness and a nice layer of heat. The smoked spirit malts provide the perfect amount of peaty layers, which only complement the beer as a whole. In spite of generally not really liking smoked beers, I find it works perfectly here.
The body has an ideal level of robustness, while still being very drinkable. The chocolate and coffee flavours dance alongside the barrel, while the nose and oak tannins dry it all out. As it warms, I get just a bit of black cherry and berry fruitiness, with a tiny nuance of crisp green apple. The finish is one of the best parts of the whole thing. It is perfectly dry, with a long, lingering scotch whiskey finish that rests on your palate alongside a slight ethanol burn. It’s reminiscent of sitting next to the fire, sipping on a beautiful glass of your favourite whiskey. Notes of vanilla, smoke and espresso rest on your palate, begging you to dive in for the next sip.
Baril D’Exception is a reminder of how the quality of a barrel can transform a beer, in this case to a tasting experience that is out of this world. If people are wondering how D’Exception fits next to Baril Unique, I would say it’s the same caliber. There will be some who prefer this and others who prefer the bourbon notes. Both are stellar. As I recall, Baril Unique’s nose was particularly noteworthy, to the point it almost overshadowed the beer itself. D’Exception also has a great nose, but the beer is the high-point, shining through in all its scotchy glory.
*Given the fact that this beer was made using only two barrels, its release was brewery only with extremely limited numbers.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest