In 2007, Chris Weld joined the ranks of America’s craft distilling pioneers when he opened Berkshire Mountain Distillers on his farm in southwestern Massachusetts. A few years later, he embarked upon a related field: the distilling of craft beer.
“I started [by distilling] some Sam Adams beers, but after a few years I knew I wanted to start scaling it up,” says Weld. So, in 2015, he launched what he calls The Craft Brewers Whiskey Project.
The fruits of that endeavor are being released this year, at a rate of three whiskeys per season. Thus far, they consist of 12 spirits, distilled from 12 different beers from 12 different brewers—all crafted from bottle-ready beer save for the carbonation and slightly altered hopping rates in a handful of the beers to avoid overabundant bitterness. All the releases were aged in oak for 5 years.
“There is a geeky science component to this,” says Weld, adding that the first three in the Project, from Mass Bay Brewing, Spencer Trappist Brewery, and Big Elm Brewing, were distilled from spice-forward Belgian-style beers. They nearly blur the line between whisky and gin in the way the botanical notes express themselves, he adds.
The concept is no longer uncommon. A look around the American craft distilling scene today reveals a multitude of craft beer-craft whiskey collaborations—featuring everything from wash made from the unhopped recipe of famously malt-forward ales to fully brewed, fermented, and distilled double IPAs.
The issue of hops is essentially the only variant in the practice of distilling beer. Distillers like Weld feel that the hops bring an extra dimension to the finished whiskey. But Deschutes Brewery president Gary Fish argues that hops have no purpose in beer distilling. Less ambiguous is the overall impact of the distillation process—which is to bring forward the beer’s essential nature and character. “They all impart the genetics of the beer into the distillate,” says Weld.
Rolling Thunder Stouted
91 points, 58.13%, $80
This uses the same recipe as Rogue’s flagship Dead Guy Ale, but without hops, and is aged for 4 to 5 years prior to blending and finishing in barrels coopered by the company’s own Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, which in turn previously held the brewery’s Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout.
Tastes like: Spice, barbecue, grilled oranges, dark berries, molasses, and marshmallow
Brewed and distilled by Rogue Ales & Spirits
American Two Malts BridgePort
90 points, 45%, $90
Prior to the 2019 closing of Portland, Oregon’s BridgePort Brewing, Westward invited some of the company’s brew crew to the distillery to replicate the mashbill for BridgePort’s rye-forward Kingpin Red Ale, which was then distilled and rested for over 4 years in lightly charred American oak barrels.
Tastes like: Cáfe au lait, fudge, strawberry jam, and cooked berries
Distilled at Westward Whiskey from a recipe from BridgePort Brewing
Spencer Trappist Ale
89 points, 43%, $65
The largest-volume release in the Craft Brewers Whiskey Project, with 15,000 gallons of beer turned into roughly 15 barrels of whiskey, this features beer from the only Trappist monastery brewery in North America.
Tastes like: Tropical with lemon peel, lemon curd, orange Creamsicle, and coconut oil
Distilled by Berkshire Mountain Distillers from Spencer Trappist ale
Black Butte 5 year old
89 points, 47%, $75
This whiskey is distilled from unhopped wash true to the recipe of the iconic Black Butte Porter, brewed by Deschutes Brewery. After distillation, it’s aged in new American oak barrels with a #4 char.
Tastes like: Vanilla malt, dark chocolate, baking spice, raisins, and figs
Distilled by Crater Lake Spirits from Deschutes Brewery’s Black Butte Porter
R5 Hop Flavored (Lot No. 5)
88 points, 49.5%, $60
Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA forms the base for this whiskey that is double-distilled from “bottle-ready” beer and then aged 5 years in French oak. Master distiller Marko Karakasevic worked closely with the Bear Republic team for five years in developing this whiskey.
Tastes like: Black cherry, maple syrup, charred oak, honey, and burnt brown sugar
Distilled by Charbay Distillery from Racer 5 IPA brewed by Bear Republic Brewing
Furious American Malt
88 points, 47.5%, $60
As part of their Brewer-Distiller Alliance project, Foundry has unhopped wash produced to the recipe of an iconic beer—in this case, Surly Furious IPA—trucked to the distillery where it is given a long ferment prior to being distilled, then aged in 30-gallon barrels with #4 char for a minimum of 2 years.
Tastes like: Dark chocolate, confectioners’ sugar, honeyed raisins, and mint
Distilled by Foundry Distilling from Surly Brewing’s Furious IPA
Amongst the Trees
87 points, 47%, $50
Seven Stills first brews a double IPA from pale and crystal malts, plus some dextrin for added fermentation action, and hops it “aggressively” with three highly expressive varieties: Columbus, Centennial, and Simcoe. The beer is then distilled and aged for at least 14 months in new American oak.
Tastes like: Lemon meringue pie, orange, and sandalwood
Brewed and Distilled by Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery
Spirit of Boston Merry Maker
87 points, 42%, $85
Distilled from Samuel Adams Merry Maker gingerbread stout, this is designed to amplify the cinnamon, clove, and other spices used to flavor the stout, and is aged in used barrels in order to minimize the influence of the wood.
Tastes like: Honey, chocolate, cherries, cinnamon toast, and gingersnaps
Distilled by Boston Harbor Distilling from Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams Merry Maker gingerbread stout