There’s no beer style that has a more symbiotic relationship with the whiskey world than dark, roasty stout. They share historical roots, as both stout and malt whiskey in particular have birthplaces in the U.K., and they likewise share roasty flavor notes derived in both cases from the liberal application of heat in either the malting or barrel charring process. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout works so naturally well. But what about effectively trying to channel the flavors of stout in whiskey, via the use of roasted brewer’s malts?
This is a concept I’ve seen explored a few times before, on larger and smaller scales. A few years back, I first tasted a rye whiskey made with a portion of dark-roasted chocolate malt—the kind one might use to brew a porter or stout—and I was shocked by how that flavor carried through distillation and barrel aging. I’ve also sampled the surprisingly excellent results of taking a porter and then distilling it into a whiskey, in the form of Deschutes Black Butte Whiskey. Kentucky’s New Riff likewise tinkered with the concept via their Winter Whiskey, which used small portions of dark-roasted malt in a mash bill that still technically qualified as bourbon.
Woodford Reserve, though, has officially gone all in on stout via this newest release, the 17th in the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection. Essentially a play on the brand’s existing Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey, the new Five-Malt Stouted Mash feels like an attempt to completely and fully channel the flavor profile of stout beer into a malt whiskey, and it comes quite close to doing exactly that.
In terms of its construction, this is a malt whiskey made with five different styles of malt—standard distillers malt, wheat malt, pale chocolate malt, carafa 1 malt, and kiln coffee malt. The last three are all dark-roasted styles that will be familiar to homebrewers, and it implies to me that Woodford was shooting for a depth of dark malt complexity here. Like other Master’s Collection releases, Five-Malt Stouted Mash has the standard Woodford strength of 45.2% ABV (90.4 proof), and an MSRP of $130. As Master Distiller Chris Morris puts it:
“Five-Malt Stouted Mash is an expression unlike any other we’ve released before. The rich, roasted malty stout flavors mingle with bright touches of baked fruit, crisp spices, and orange zest for a unique Woodford Reserve experience.”
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how closely this approximates one of my favorite beer styles.
On the nose, the Five-Malt Stouted Mash strikes an interesting balance between musty, almost husky grain notes, some earthiness and then tones of characteristics that will no doubt make the drinker think “stout.” The cereal grain notes are pronounced, but so are elements of dark chocolate, roasted nuts and coffee. Underneath, there are more delicate impressions of candied orange and toffee, but all in all the nose is fairly dominated by grain and roasty impressions.
On the palate, this is very malty, nutty and stout-like once again. The nuttiness in particular is quite strong and assertive even at the relatively lower proof, bringing with it tons of chocolate and roast—very “cocoa hazelnut spread” in character. This is honestly one of the most purely chocolate-forward whiskeys I’ve ever tasted, in fact—almost a bit indelicately so, wielding the theme like a hammer. Still, at the same time I am also enjoying the toasted, biscuity quality (like digestive biscuits/cookies) it’s bringing to the table, along with some citrus, almond paste and something even slightly floral. Those elements can just be more difficult to pick up, given the intensity of the more obviously “stouty” flavors.
In the end, this isn’t necessarily a dram that feels tailored for drinkability, especially in quantity, being more of an experiment in flavor. And on that level, I don’t know how you could argue that this is anything less than a success—I’ve had a few “stout”-inspired whiskeys, but certainly none of them were this specifically stout-like. There are likely drinkers out there who would have appreciated a bit more subtlety in the presentation, but those who really want a malt whiskey that evokes stout flavors should be overjoyed by what they find.
Distillery: Woodford Reserve
City: Versailles, KY
Style: American malt whiskey
ABV: 45.2% (90.4 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $130 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.