As breweries around the country explore the world of cocktail-inspired beers, a new generation of drinkers emerges.
Any comparisons between craft beer and cocktails or spirits have long been quite basic — uninspired, even. They’re often flavor descriptors that drinkers stumble upon after the fact, like realizing a fruited sour has some Margarita-adjacent notes. Or, the simple similarities are printed right on the label: “This bourbon barrel-aged stout has notes of bourbon.” A subcategory of more intentional cocktail-inspired beers has been growing, though, and recent offerings from some of the country’s most influential breweries have helped generate serious buzz for the limitless creativity cocktail flavors can bring to brewing.
Leicestershire, England-based Partizan Brewing was a trailblazer, debuting a Negroni Red IPA in 2015, followed by a White Negroni Saison in 2018, and a trio of cocktail-inspired beers in collaboration with Guinness Open Gate Brewery in 2019. In Montréal, Beauregard Brasserie Distillerie releases an edition of its Old Fashioned imperial stout each year. More recently, and stateside, Firestone Walker Brewing Company rolled out a series of cocktail-inspired beers including Gin Rickey, a blonde barleywine aged in gin barrels; Royal Street, inspired by the Sazerac; Mezca-Limón, inspired by the Mezcalita; and Gold Rider, an ode to the Sidecar. In 2023, Sierra Nevada and Allagash Brewing Company made well-received contributions to the category, the former unveiling an Old Fashioned addition to its Trip in the Woods barrel-aged series and the latter launching Day’s End, a barrel-aged ale inspired by the boulevardier.
The cocktail ultimately guides the concept of the beer through the recipe-building and brewing process, but these brewers see cocktails and spirits as a field of inspiration, not as something to create exact copies of.
“With Day’s End, the idea was to be inspired by the Boulevardier, not necessarily replicate the cocktail,” says Allagash senior communications specialist Brett Willis. He points out a current developing trend in craft beer, in which both brewers and consumers are thinking more about what flavors they want to experience rather than worrying about the details of strict style definitions. In chasing fresh, evocative flavor ideas, looking to cocktails opens up new possibilities. The magic exists in how the leathery, oaky, citrusy, dried-cherry, and spicy notes of a Boulevardier will express themselves through the ingredients of grain and hops, as well as the process of fermentation. For example, brewers can add more sugar to boost their beer’s alcohol strength, giving it a perfumey warmth similar to a boozy cocktail’s. “Cocktails are all about ingredients,” says Firestone Walker barrel production manager Jordan Ziegler. “ A true cocktail beer isn’t about simply highlighting adjacent spirit flavors from barrels, but actually creating a beer with ingredients, or adjuncts, that provide a true cocktail-like sipping experience.”
"Especially now as the craft beer industry struggles with competition from other beverages as drinkers prioritize flavor over style definitions, offering a spark of familiarity from across categories can be an effective attention-grabber. "
So, what does this cocktail-to-beer translation process look like? To capture Boulevardier flavors without actually adding its signature ingredient of red vermouth, Campari, or bourbon, Allagash brewers worked in Lambrusco grape must, Angelica root, and bitter orange peel, which also nails the cocktail’s garnish. To channel the whiskey's warmth, the 9.5% ABV ale is aged in bourbon barrels for eight weeks. At California’s Anderson Valley Brewing Company, brewmaster Fal Allen says their G&T Gose used all the herbal ingredients one might find not only in gin, but in tonic, as well — the team even used cinchona bark for the tonic flavoring. For their Old Fashioned brown ale, they incorporated orange peel and Hersbrucker hops for natural orange aroma, added cherry puree toward the end of fermentation, and aged the beer in bourbon barrels with aromatic bitters.
Meanwhile, at Sierra Nevada, the very idea for an Old Fashioned ale grew out of possibilities that fortuitously presented themselves for the brewing process.
“We were able to acquire bitters barrels, so we started brainstorming how we might be able to use those to craft something unique and distinctive,” says Sierra Nevada product manager Terence Sullivan. “If you think about how a bartender will use just a drop or two of bitters in a cocktail, we apply the same principle and have to think about how to use the barrel so that it does not overpower the final beer.” The Old Fashioned flavor profile was a natural fit because the brewers could blend in beer that had been aged in whiskey barrels.
Of course, the value of these intentional cocktail-inspired beers lies primarily in the way they engage and appeal to consumers. Spotting a beer brewed to capture a cocktail on a menu might jump out to a spirits fan who had never really gotten into beer; If that beer proves to be good, it can build a lasting interest and bring a new customer into the category. Especially now as the craft beer industry struggles with competition from other beverages as drinkers prioritize flavor over style definitions, offering a spark of familiarity from across categories can be an effective attention-grabber.
“I can say without a doubt there were folks who got excited that the beers were inspired by each of those cocktails,” says Allagash tasting room assistant manager Ryan McCullough of Day’s End, as well as their Old Fashioned-inspired beer, World on a String. “I remember a few folks saying the Boulevardier was their favorite cocktail, and they were amazed at the similarities.”
Even if a consumer isn’t already a fan of the cocktail being captured, the boundary-pushing in terms of flavors proves intriguing. Says Highland Park Brewery logistics manager Jacy Castillo, “The use of different ingredients and concepts can draw more people in, even those who rarely drink beer. I hope that concepts like ours would work to get those passionate about spirits and cocktails curious enough to try the beer, and be a gateway to try more.”
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