The Chicago-based blog Guys Drinking Beer does a post every month compiling all the Illinois beer labels approved by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Don’t look for an October post, though—the TTB has suspended label approval during the government shutdown. And unfortunately, Illinois law requires a thumbs-up from the feds for all new beers, not just those distributed across state lines.
Anyway. In March of this year, when our generously compensated elected representatives could still be bothered to do the bare minimum to keep the lights on, one of the 30 freshly approved beer labels in GBD’s monthly post came from an operation called Nomad, which I’d never heard of before. Searching online turned up almost no information—except that the name “Nomad Brewing Company” had been trademarked by Lush Wine & Spirits.
Nomad beer finally appeared last month, in bottles at Lush and then on tap at Twisted Spoke. You wouldn’t know it from the label, but it’s a follow-up to Twisted Spoke’s 15th anniversary beer, a collaboration with New Belgium bottled in August 2010. That beer was a gonzo blend that included New Belgium’s Abbey, Trippel, and Transatlantique Kriek plus three experimental sours, two aged in oak foudres and the third in a Leopold apple whiskey barrel; the entire concoction spent eight months in another Leopold barrel. Nomad’s Batch #1, by contrast, is “just” an imperial brown ale, but it’s been soaking up goodness from a Stitzel-Weller bourbon barrel for more than two years.
I’ll return to the topic of that barrel shortly. First, though, who’s behind Nomad? Basically it’s Mitch Einhorn, cofounder of Twisted Spoke and owner of Lush. He’s not a brewer himself, but with his background as a chef and his knowledge of beer, wine, and spirits, he’s able to work with a brewer to get what he wants. For this go-round he used six barrels from the Stitzel-Weller distillery, five filled with that imperial brown ale and the sixth with a hoppy stout. (Batch numbers correspond to barrels.) I’m not at liberty to name the brewery that helped Einhorn out, due to a tangle of contractual arrangements involving corporations whose identities I’d inadvertently make clear if I tried to explain further. My bottle of Nomad says “Lincoln Park Brewery, Inc.” on the label, and if you google that phrase, I think you’ll pick up what I’m putting down.
So let’s move on to a subject I can talk about! Specifically, those Stitzel-Weller barrels. The distillery was founded in 1872 and shut down in 1991, and in case you’re unfamiliar with its reputation, for a time it was run by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. (d. 1965), whose name is now attached to one of the most sought-after bourbons in the country. Word is Stitzel-Weller is reopening, though it’s no longer a family operation—the distillery has been acquired by UK-based multinational Diageo. Buffalo Trace, itself owned by Sazerac, now owns the Pappy Van Winkle brand.
How did Einhorn get his hands on freshly emptied barrels from a distillery that went out of business 22 years ago? I’ll try to summarize his explanation. When the whiskey market went to shit in the 60s and 70s, surviving distilleries created a huge secondary market by buying filled barrels from failing operations. The recent bourbon renaissance has finally created demand for that vintage stock—more demand, in fact, than the supply can meet. Combine a few big warehouse fires with the emergence of consumer bases in the Pacific Rim and India, and suddenly there’s not enough old bourbon to go around—for 17 years, Einhorn says, he could get a case of Van Winkle every year, but lately he’s been lucky to snag a bottle or two.
Einhorn says lots of big whiskey-making operations ended up with Stitzel-Weller barrels, and lately they’ve been able to sell their contents for frankly astounding prices. He has a friend at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, the folks who make Willett (and whose new rye whiskey will be “brilliant” in a few years, in Einhorn’s words), and this friend told him that the company would be willing to part with six barrels that had held 19-year-old Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Barrels are sometimes injected with hot water to flush out every bit of liquor, but because KBD simply dumps them, in the parlance of the biz they stay very “wet.” Almost three years ago, Einhorn drove down to Bardstown to pick them up.
Einhorn wasn’t willing to share much about the recipe for the imperial brown ale that filled five of those barrels, unless you count a story about carrying the spent grain from the mash around the block to a Dumpster one garbage can at a time. “Was it really necessary to use 3,000 pounds of grain?” he remembers asking nobody in particular.
He did say he was aiming for a more versatile and food-friendly beer than the typical barrel-aged stout—he wanted to avoid anything that’d be too boozy or have too much roasty, bitter flavor. The Stitzel-Weller barrels were part of that plan, since long use tends to soften the tannins in oak.
Nomad’s Batch #1 is a garnet-tinged amber so deep and dark it looks nearly black in low light, with a loose, coarse-grained head—Einhorn tells me this batch is force carbonated, a process that makes for relatively big bubbles.
I can pick up a faint prickle of whiskey heat if I take a hearty sniff over my glass, but for most part the beer’s incredibly rich aroma is on the desserty side: Dutch cocoa, butter toffee, vanilla bean, maple syrup, and piloncillo. Of course it also smells like fine, mellow bourbon, which leads your nose directly into a knot of earthy, spicy business, out of which I could tease wet autumn leaves, black walnut, allspice, bay leaf, and maybe a little cinnamon.
At this point I’m thinking, OK, this might be more food friendly than, say, Dark Lord. But it still seems like a beer it’d be a shame not to give your undivided attention.
The taste largely follows the aroma, and true to Einhorn’s intent, there’s nothing especially bitter or roasty in the flavor. The beer is hugely malty and chewy but not syrupy, despite smelling like half a dozen types of sweets. And its faint booziness probably comes from the barrels, not from the beer’s 9 percent alcohol content—it tastes like somebody added sour-mash whiskey to my glass with an eyedropper. The dichotomy between desserty and earthy continues on the palate, with bread pudding and pecan pralines balancing a tanginess like cedar mulch and a gentle dose of leathery tannin. The dry, slightly fruity finish starts out with black cherry and raisin and ends with apple skin.
If you clicked on the link seven paragraphs ago that led to a photo of Einhorn’s Stitzel-Weller barrels strapped into the back of a pickup, you can probably visualize just how little beer all six batches of Nomad add up to. But because the batches aren’t all coming out at once—only #1 and #3 have been released so far—you’ve got plenty of opportunities left to try it. Its hefty price tag—$25 for a 750-milliliter bottle—ought to help keep it around too.
Batch #6 is the stout, and Batch #5 is a soured version of the imperial brown, aged with bread in the barrel. Einhorn is bottle conditioning Batch #2, along with a few bottles from every other batch; hastily explained, that’s the process of adding yeast and priming sugar to each bottle and then capping it, so that a final controlled burst of fermentation carbonates the beer. Einhorn says it’s a “giant pain in the ass,” but he insists it produces finer bubbles, which make for a creamier beverage.
Nomad has plans to collaborate with De Proef in Belgium, Big Shoulders in Zion, Illinois, and Against the Grain in Louisville, Kentucky. But despite the brewery’s name, Einhorn would prefer to stick with a regular brewing partner—or even build a brew house. “If we can find a way to continue making really interesting beer that people really want,” he says, “someday we might open our own facility.” For now, though, he intends to keep experimenting wherever he can—he especially wants to play around with Flemish sour ales and various kinds of unconventional barrels. Tabasco has long aged its pepper mash in oak barrels, and shmancy retailers and restaurants are starting to age their own hot sauces in whiskey barrels—but Einhorn says that as far as he knows, nobody has tried using one of those barrels for beer.
Fortunately I can wrap up by posting metal (as is my wont) without doing a lot of explaining—three well-known bands have recorded songs called “Nomad” or “The Nomad.” Iron Maiden cut “The Nomad” for 2000’s Brave New World, and though it’s perhaps not their finest moment, it’s still Maiden.
Sepultura’s “Nomad” is from 1993’s Chaos A.D.
And Polish death-metal veterans Vader included “The Nomad” on 2002’s Revelations.