BEER REVIEW: Nicklebrook Winey Bastard Imperial Stout 2017
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BEER REVIEW: Winey Bastard 2017 By Nicklebrook Brewing Company
It's a funny time of year when it comes to beer. There's still some wintery product in stores, some breweries are rolling out their spring line-ups, and we're all just waiting for summer to get here, and all the great beers that it brings with it. If you're like me, I typically make the shift from the darker, heavier stouts and porters to lighter fare right around early April. While I enjoy a great beer of any style at any time, there's just too many incredible beers that come out in spring/summer for me to ignore them. In a way, like the bears (think the woods, and not Chicago), I'm coming out of a "hibeernation" (yes I just did that). What that means is you'll probably see more than a few stout reviews as I try to get to those beers before the plethora of pale ales, IPAs and "session" everything starts showing up.
So, now that spring has sprung, let's get talking about a beer I was not-so-patiently waiting weeks for to show up on the shelves.
STYLE: Russian Imperial Stout
Winey Bastard is a Russian imperial stout from Nickelbrook Brewing Company in Burlington, Ontario, that's aged in pinot noir wine barrels from the Niagara wine region. Nickelbrook has been making outstanding beer for years now, with lots of delicious specialty brews and of course, their brilliant mainstays, like Headstock and Naughty Neighbour. If you haven't seen those on the shelves, do you even beer?
At its core, the base imperial stout that's used is actually the brewery's own Bolshevik Bastard, which on its own is quite a fantastic beer. Wine barrels + Bolshevik Bastard = Winey Bastard (math is fun). I mentioned above that I was eagerly waiting for this one, and that's for good reason: the 2016 edition was the first time I actually tasted this beer (cue the "Shame!" scene from Game of Thrones). I was completely blown away by it, bought a few bottles of it to age, and well....let's just say they didn't age very long (with the exception of one bottle, which I managed to save for a year, and opened only recently, to much success). At the time, I said it was one of the best beers of any style I had ever tasted. I still stand by this statement. And I'm happy to report that the 2017 version of this barrel-aged behemoth is every bit as impressive.
Nothing overly aggressive to report here - for the most part, Winey Bastard is packaged in the same style it has been for the last few years. A tall, 750 ml bottle with a 3/4 wrap-around wine-coloured label (so apropos!) that's tastefully designed to even look like a wine label (even more apropos!) with simple fonts and a nice script denoting the fact it has been aged in pinot noir barrels. Which, given the fact that the star of this stout is the result of that wine barrel-aging, is absolutely worth mentioning - fancy script and all. And, to make you second guess if you're even worthy enough for this beer just a little bit more, it has that artful wax-dipped neck that you'll struggle to remove, despite the fact that it comes with instructions on how to do so.
Winey Bastard pours a bit heavy, and it has a good strong initial carbonation that produces a beautiful dark, tight espresso head with ruby hues. After the initial bubble party (not like the ones at Mexican resorts), it fades to a residual foamy cap of the same colour with a decent retention that laces the glass well (I've always been impressed by random lacing artwork, for what its worth). The body of the beer, however, is as black as the night. Given that the head had those lovely ruby tones, I thought surely the beer must as well, so I held the glass up to one of my kitchen's bright blinding lights (seriously, there are WAY too many bright lights in my kitchen), hoping to see some colour, if not just a smidgen of evidence of translucence. Well, guess what? No colour, just black. And damn sure no translucence. This beer is basically Gandalf, screaming at the light: "You shall not pass!"
This is where the ride begins. There are so many intoxicating notes wafting from this stout - make sure you take time to get them all. This imperial stout is the very definition of a complex beer, and for the uninitiated, the aroma acts as a bit of a tour guide for what's to come. Without exaggeration, I must have spent a good 30 minutes with my nose to the glass, before taking that first sip (with my mouth of course, not my nose). The initial whiff gives off the notes one might expect - there's the typical coffee and chocolate, but more dominant is the layer of ripe dark fruit like fig, date and raisin. As you continue to submit to the kaleidoscope of aroma, that's when the accents from the pinot noir come into play.
There's a juicy grape must/fruity wine thing going on, which is obviously a result of what was previously held in the barrel, and it's very impressive. It's so convincing that if you close your eyes, you might actually think you're smelling a beautiful glass of pinot noir. I did this. Numerous times. If that wasn't enough, there's some black licorice notes that are standing their ground, as well as a decent amount of sweet oak. To top it all off, there's some juicy strawberry notes on the back end, which I'm guessing is an amazing byproduct of the grape varietal used in the wine. Now, read back everything I just said. That was just the aroma. The AROMA.
What immediately becomes apparent as you take that first sip, is that Winey Bastard's flavour profile is just as complex, just as varied, and just as mesmerizing as its aroma. To quote hockey's play-by-play great Bob Cole, "Everything is happening!" You're initially greeted by a solid bitterness from the trifecta of hops (German magnum, nugget and cascade) that make up the 70 IBUs, as well as two types of chocolate malt from a grain bill that features a whopping NINE malts. In layman's terms, a grain bill is the list of malt or grain ingredients that go into the mash that eventually make a beer. The average beer, depending on style, has three to five different malts (maybe a couple more). But nine is a shit tonne of malts for a single beer. As an occasional home brewer, I can only imagine the amount of trial and error it took to get this level of balance with that many variables.
The body of the beer, however, is as black as the night. No colour, just black. And damn sure no translucence. This beer is basically Gandalf, screaming at the light: "You shall not pass!"
Once that bitterness starts washing away, that's where this beer truly starts to shine and provide evidence that it's a complex brew, but one worthy of the highest praise. For starters, there's an aspect of this beer that's very uncommon in stouts. I tried to think of another word to describe it, as it's usually associated with other styles. And I'm reluctant to use it to describe an imperial stout, as some people might think I have no idea what I'm talking about. But here goes:
Yes, you read that correctly. It's important to note that this perceived "juiciness" isn't like that of an IPA or similar, but rather, it's in a different class altogether. It has a softness, and compared to others in its class, it doesn't finish dry or sharp. Rather, the complete opposite is taking place - it's actually quenching my thirst in a way that the roundest, fruitiest, juicy wines have a tendency to do (for me anyway). I'm convinced it has something to do with the grape content, not that you'd expect them to impart that much influence on a beer, especially a bold, heavy-bodied stout. But it's happening, and I'm fascinated by it. The coffee and chocolate are fairly docile, which is refreshingly original, as the dark fruit takes a more prominent role. Those sweet woody notes from the oak also provide a nice assist. The finish is all pleasantly pinot, with a slight booziness (much less than you'd expect at 11% ABV). This imperial stout will make your taste buds sing, your heart flutter, and will warm your belly in the very best way possible.
What can I say? I started this review off by saying that the 2016 edition of this imperial stout was one of the best I've ever tasted. I can very happily say that Winey Bastard 2017 is without a shred of doubt, one of my all-time favourite beers. It may be THE favourite beer. With all of its elements, what amazes me the most is how balanced the whole experience is. There's just SO MUCH going on, the fact that it all comes together so perfectly, harmoniously well is truly proof that much care went into creating it. As beer aficionados, we get a special kind of pleasure when a beer this great comes around. Nickelbrook has created an all-world imperial stout here.
So, chop away at that wax wrapper (if you still haven't read how to open it properly), and try it for yourself. Is it for everybody? Hell no - it's a BOLD beer (even the text is bold, so you know I mean it), with lots of character. And it's not exactly cheap - you can get six or seven shitty beer (that's not a brand name, by the way, but it probably should be) for the cost of this beauty. But if we're talking value for your dollar? There's very few that can compare. Buy some to enjoy now. Buy some to age and enjoy later, as this work of art only gets better over time - you know that saying, "aged like a fine wine?" Yeah, that applies here too. Only share it with those you love and care dearly for...others are simply not worthy.
But do it soon. If you wait until it's sold out and then complain about not being able to get your hands on some, I'm afraid I'll have no choice but to call you a winey bastard.