Upper Hutt’s Kererū Brewing is the new home of a barrel collection with international heritage.
This year Kereru owner Chris Mills has accumulated 106 barrels with a unique history – they have all been used to store and flavour New Zealand’s-own Wilson’s Whisky for more than 20 years.
Barrel aging is nothing new, and many Kiwi brewers are building collections of barrels sourced from local wineries. Kererū’s whisky barrel collection has a much deeper pedigree – some of these barrels are more than 50 years old, and have been infused with wines, bourbon, whisky, and now beer.
“It was the Dunedin Craft Beer & Food Festival 2014 where I bumped into Grant Finn at the New Zealand Whisky Collection stand,” says Chris. “I had a taste of a number of different drops and the ’92 Wilson’s single malt just sang out to me.”
“I started buying a few of the American oak barrels that had had the ’92 whisky in them, and used that for the Night Spirit Imperial Stout. Ultimately I went to Grant and said I’d like to have all of the barrels! It was a daunting concept because it’s not for the faint of heart to go and buy that many.”
The 106 barrel collection has an interesting history. For the past 25 years or so it has stored Wilson’s Whisky. Wilson’s went out of business in 1997, and for years the full barrels sat almost forgotten in an aircraft hangar near Dunedin. Then, in 2010, the New Zealand Whisky Collection acquired them and moved them to a historic bond store in Oamaru.
“From the look of it, the Whisky Collection was at a crossroads where it had kept the whisky on oak for as long as it could and it was time to empty the barrels,” says Chris. So the whisky was bottled and the barrels shipped north to Upper Hutt while they were still wet.
Wilson’s Whisky had a poor reputation in the past, but is now appreciated as a lost Kiwi treasure. Chris believes this could be due in part to a new respect for New Zealand Made. “And then there’s the fact that whisky can improve when you put it an aircraft hangar and forget about it for 30 years. Time makes it truly better. That’s what we’re tasting here – a coastal maritime environment leaving its thumbprint on the whisky over decades.”
But those barrels were decades old before they even reached New Zealand. After scraping some paint away from a butt, Chris found some more information and a date: J.T.S. Brown & Sons, 1962.
J.T.S. Brown & Sons was a bourbon distillery founded in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1855, and was later bought by Heaven Hill. The Bardstown distillery burnt to the ground in 1996, destroying the bourbon and the barrel collection. Kereru’s barrels may be the oldest JTS Brown barrels remaining.
“I contacted Heaven Hill and they were thrilled to hear about them, but they couldn’t tell me anything more.”
Kererū has 40 of the ex-bourbon barrels, all made from American oak and holding 195L. The rest of the Whisky Collection stock are French oak, and were wine barrels before they were filled with Wilson’s.
Chris says this history appeals almost as much as the flavours the barrels bring to his beers.
“The history is extraordinary, and that’s what excites me the most. We have something that is exclusively New Zealand, that whisky aficionados will know, and people who like craft beer will recognise.”
“The beers that go into these barrels change. The Night Spirit picks up vanilla from the oak and comes out a different animal. We have a barley wine in French oak barrels and that will take a little bit more time to fully develop. We have our Scotch ale aging in French oak, as is some of our Belgian Quad.”
The Scotch Ale and Belgian Quad are part of Kererū’s range and are also available without any barrel aging. Other beers are being brewed exclusively for the barrel-aging programme.
“It’s certainly not about hops. It’s about malt balance, crystal malt flavours that will complement and accentuate the notes of the oak and the spirit and the wine that were in the barrels previously. They’re typically looking at north of 9% (ABV). Night Spirit went into the barrels at 10.5% and came out at 12% so there’s a fair amount of whisky it picked up. We’re looking at about 14% for our barley wines coming out of the barrel.”
Chris sees his aging programme as yet another stage in the life of his barrels, and there’s no reason why it should be last.
“I really like what the barrels have to offer. We can brew and produce a uniquely Kiwi flavour. It’s a way to take a forward look for three to five years. What those barrels become after that is also exciting. We’re looking at a stone skipping across the water from regular beer, to whisky barrel aged, to sour beers and on down the track. I’m feeling pretty patient about the long term prospects.”
Kererū Brewing’s Whisky Barrel Collection includes Night Spirit Imperial Stout (Beertown.NZ tasting notes – Layers of Wow. Seek out). Paloma NZ Whisky Barrel Aged Barley Wine Style Ale (14.3%) will be launched at the Dunedin Craft Beer & Food Festival, Saturday 11 November and is available for pre-orders right now here