Sunday, 18 December 2011

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask Review and the Risks of Beer Snobbery

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I am a big fan of Innis & Gunn's Oak Aged standard fare and I also appreciate many of their limited editions, one offs and variations (though I can't stand the blonde!)  Thus, I anxiously anticipated that first sip of the new LE Highland Cask product aged in 18-year old Single Malt Casks.

This is the closest that any of their specials has come to tasting to the original, only better, so if you enjoy I&G, get your hands on one or more of these bad boys and you won't be disappointed!

More specifically, this beer pours a more amber colour than the original with a creamy white head that has moderate retention and a very nice, if quickly receding, thin but smooth lace.

This beer smells identical to its bourbon-oak aged original counterpart, leading me to presume that the original beers deposited into the oak were identical and that the oaking process from these two different types of whiskey casks resulted in similar beers.  To clarify, on the nose this beer sends up moderate hints of caramel and toffee, with fainter aromas of vanilla and butterscotch.

Flavour-wise, this beer is sweet (not quite Creme Brulee Stout sweet, but sweet) with a smoothly malted delivery of the aromas on the nose: toffee and caramel most strongly present, though an ever-so-slight hint of vanilla is present as well.  Though still sweet, it is not quite as sweet as the original and dries out nicely with a more discernible whiskey-like finish (which I lack the palate and related words to describe) that leads to a slightly more balanced final product.

It has a nice clean mouthfeel and light body with a pleasant warming, though the sweetness still masks the alcohol even if a tiny Scotch warmth seeps through.

Enjoying this Limited Edition led me to reflect back on 2008's Limited Edition Innis & Gunn IPA, which I enjoyed immensely.  In trying to recall the specifics of that beer (which I tasted before I learned how to properly assess beers and take decent notes), I headed to the comments section on ratebeer and beeradvocate to try to bring the IPA flavour back to my mind.

Comments that called this "not an IPA" and even "not a beer" by otherwise informed beer reviewers strike me as ridiculous.  I get it: you don't like this style.  That said, however, the IPA, while having a longer oaking period, did contain a stronger and more substantial amount of hops than the original, fitting into the standards of an IPA.  Its relative absence in the finish makes it no less of an IPA than a Dogfishhead 120-Minute IPA, in fact possibly more so since it is closer to the origins of the style than the American IPAs that follow hop-head ideas of excess as desireable.

Though not meant as a comment on the pursuit of extreme hops flavours, imagine a hop-head (who enjoys pushing astringency to such a degree that it has been compared to a chef saying 'I have made my soup saltier than you could have ever imagined,' as if that were desireable) claiming that another beer is too sweet to qualify in the category?!  Is beer not sweetness and dryness in some sort of balance to varying degrees?  If IPAs can push the slate in the dry direction as far as possible why can't beers go sweet, and though sweet is Innis & Gunn the sweetest?  Heck no!

This difference makes Innis & Gunn no less a beer, it just makes it different and, in many ways, that's what has brought us all to craft beer, no?  I mean, craft beer is wonderful because of its diversity and varied flavours, aromas, adjuncts, and ideas. I don't particularly enjoy, say, an apricot wheat beer, but I will acknowledge that St. Ambroise (McAuslan) makes a quintessential one that lovers of that style would appreciate and it most certainly IS a beer even if not my choice on any given night.

Don't misunderstand me here though... I am not saying Innis & Gunn's Limited Edition IPA was a quintessential IPA.  A quintessential IPA it admittedly and assuredly was not, but it was assuredly a beer, assuredly an IPA, and assuredly quintessential of the rare, but growing oak-aged beer style.  If it isn't a beer would someone who disliked Belgian styles be allowed to call Westvleteren 12 "not a beer"?  How would the same reviewers feel about a similar comment (or commenter) on such a legendary beer?

Anyone is allowed to like what they like, but when we find someone who REALLY likes a pale American mass-produced lager we often say, 'here try this lager or lighter ale instead' and we hope that it will convert them to more responsible, tastier, fresher, less preservative-laden, less corporate, more original, and 'better' beer.

And, ironically, it was Innis & Gunn that brought me to 'better' beer.  While no longer my favourite beer on the planet, I still think it is darn good, quintessential of its unique style, and the beer that enabled me to appreciate things I may never have otherwise even considered, like a Rochefort 8 (to be reviewed shortly).  I think we can productively assess beers we don't like or from styles we don't enjoy (and we can probably all practice tactfully doing the same in discussion with everyday Bud Light Lime drinkers), but I assuredly anxiously await the release of little gems, such as LE Innis & Gunn's and I don't think that makes me any less of a beer geek, though it is this sort of snobbery that will hinder the more tolerant enjoyment of beer.

What do you think?

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