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A Barrel of Fun

You have to love a good barrel aged stout, eh?  Brew a base stout, stick it in (usually) a whiskey barrel for a few months and bingo! A few have been on local shelves over the last few months: Mourne Mountains’ Hoops & Staves, Beer Hut’s Intergalactic and of course Galway Bay’s annual offering of Two Hundred Fathoms.

All very enjoyable BA stouts but not being reviewed here. Instead I want to focus on two brews that come from opposite ends of the production scale – one you can purchase in a supermarket and the other I was only able to find in one off licence. Let’s start with the latter.

Ards Brewing has been in operation since 2011, a time before the craft beer scene really hit Northern Ireland in 2014/2015. Charles Ballantyne is the one person behind the brewery, the ‘Quiet Man’ of NI brewing as I call him. You’re unlikely to meet a more engaging, kind and softly spoken soul in the local industry. How apt then that his limited edition 8.4% ABV Irish Whiskey Barrel Aged Stout was maturing in a Quiet Man whiskey cask for 10 months before being poured into these quirky 330ml bottles. Ah yes, look at that bottle! Simplistic and stunning. It resembles a vintage medicine bottle from the ’50s. Who needs fancy graphics or branding when you can have that jumping out at you.

There’s a soft wood quality emanating from its luxuriously smooth stout backbone. The whiskey is bang on the money for me, not hidden and not overpowering.  A little bit of honey sweetness with just that ever-so-faint edge of vanilla and black pepper spice. It’s sumptuously decadent and was one of my favourite beers of last year.  I hear there’s a Bushmills version out soon.

If you fancy indulging in a bottle or two of his stout, I think there’s a handful still on sale at Wineworks off licence in Newtownards. In fact if you want any of the Ards brews, that’s the best place to get the range.

At the other end of the production scale from the hard-to-find Ards brew is Vocation‘s Imperial Kirsch, an 11% chocolate and cherry stout as part of their barrel aged series. I’m good at reading the front of a can, see. Vocation from Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has been very visible over the past few years with most of the core range in Tesco but I was very pleased to see this tucked away in a corner during one of my few visits to Tesco Extra in Carrickfergus. 

It pours like slick engine oil from the can and I can already smell sweet, ripe morello cherry from the glass. The taste buds have been duly tantalised. Glass to lips and … holy moly. Wow! There’s a sweet and light tongue tingling cherry sourness followed by a full on frying-pan-to-the-face smack of delicious, deep dark chocolate. The cognac residue is faint but it’s there. However the brandy is very much the little third element of the three.

It’s as rich as Alan B’stard (too obscure for anyone over 35?) and as glossy as Nigella doing that TV cookery thing that she does.  It won’t appeal to everyone – if you don’t like a strong barrel aged cherry stout, then you probably won’t like this strong barrel aged cherry stout. I have to say I love it. I love that it’s a big, bold hitter and it’s a big, bold hitter sitting on a supermarket shelf.

An 11% chocolate cherry barrel aged stout in Tesco? Imagine saying that a few years back?

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