It’s been a couple years now since the first time I was blown away by tasting an array of distilled beers — which is to say, beers that have been distilled, aged in barrels and essentially turned into what is alternatively referred to as either “whiskey” or “beer schnapps.” Although the terminology hasn’t quite become standardized just yet, it’s clear that this field represents an exciting new frontier in terms of novel flavors. Just as there are near endless permutations upon basic beer styles, there’s a correspondingly great number of potential liquors that can be produced by distilling those beers—and the rise of microdistilleries make for obvious partners with craft breweries.
But there are beer styles you often see distilled, and then there are those I’ve never had a chance to taste. When I heard that the classic Bend, OR brewers had released a distilled version of their legendary Black Butte Porter, I knew that was something I needed to try. I’ve only sampled one other whiskey that was distilled from a mash with a percentage of dark roasted malt, and the results were utterly unique. I can honestly say that going into this experience, I had little to no idea how exactly a distilled porter would taste. Turns out, the answer is pretty damn great.
First, the basics: This whiskey is a collaboration between Deschutes and Bendistillery, made from a double distillation of Black Butte Porter, which is then aged in new, #4 char American oak barrels. It’s sold only via the Deschutes taproom and via Bendistillery, which means access is sadly limited. It’s a 94 proof spirit that was apparently aged around three years, picking up some pretty substantial color along the way. It carries a pretty steep MSRP at $80, but it’s a very unique bottle to be able to add to your collection.
Now, onto the tasting.
On the nose, it’s immediately clear you’re smelling something totally unique. I swear, I caught a whiff of cocoa just pouring this into the glass, a couple feet away from my face. It’s truly unusual to nose: I get toasted bread crust, sweet corn, ash, malted milkballs, vanilla, honeycomb and lots of dark chocolate. It smells rich and distinctly cocoa-y, without giving a ton of impression of sweetness.
On the palate, it’s much the same—tons of cacao nib and roasted nuts, vanilla and some brown sugar, almost call to mind eating a bite of raw cookie dough. As the nose suggested, it’s not really overtly sweet—much more of a bittersweet dark chocolate character, with some toffee as well. There’s maybe a bit of pine or grassiness on the back end, but the hops don’t make themselves felt very assertively—certainly not in the way I experienced when I tasted some distilled Samuel Adams Boston Lager, where they were greatly amplified. This one is all a celebration of those dark malts, but the impressive thing is that it channels them without any real degree of bitterness or astringency.
If I do have one nitpick, though, it’s the booze character—at 94 proof, this stuff brings a fair share and then some of alcoholic heat. I can’t help but think that you could have cut it to a lower proof—whether that was 85 or 80 proof—without losing any of that cocoa, and simultaneously made this whiskey more approachable to some drinkers. With that said, I’m perfectly happy to sip it at 94, but be aware that this packs considerably more of a wallop than most bourbon in the same ABV range.
All in all, though, my takeaway from Black Butte Whiskey is that this pretty much tastes exactly as a fan of Black Butte Porter would probably want a whiskey version of that beer to taste. It tastes like truth in advertising, and how can we not reward that, score-wise? It wins points for both uniqueness and how well it pulls off this concept, with only a slight ding for the intensity of its booziness.
if you have the means, and you’re a porter/stout devotee, then this is something you should go out of your way to try.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.