Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stout Month Review: Walter Payton's Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout

I'd like to talk, if you'll indulge me, about a piece of music - namely, Górecki's Third Symphony.

This is one of those pieces we've all fucking heard at some point in some movie or other (e.g., this). Written in 1976, it lingered in obscurity for a decade and a half before Nonesuch released it on CD. To the surprise of everyone, it became wildly popular and is now among the tiny handful of 20th century classical works to go platinum. The most infamous bit is probably the first movement. It's almost stupidly simple in construction: it begins with a slow canon, leads into a folksong-like soprano aria, and then repeats the canon in reverse. This takes about a half-hour. I haven't looked at the score in some years, but as I recall the writing is a minor masterpiece of canonic counterpoint (Ockeghem would have been proud). That's not the important part, though. The important part is that it's all in nice, friendly E-Aolian (i.e. it's all white keys except for an F#), so despite some very thick sonorities it's still something that can be appreciated even by those who somehow find Mahler too dissonant. The other movements are somewhat different but similarly approachable; your grandma will love them.

So it's completely daft, right? Well, not quite. The thing about Górecki is that he didn't start off his career writing sappy music for adoption in Oscar movies. Y'see, Górecki's Polish, and that puts him in the company of some very hard-nosed composers. There's Penderecki and Lutoslawski just for a start. And if granny bought Gorecki's Second Symphony by mistake somehow, she was bound to be horrified: there's weird chords, freaky chromaticism, loud crashing, and generally nasty stuff of all sorts. And this is one of the early Górecki's more mild works. So the question is: why did a composer who wrote music hated by grandmas the world over suddenly come out with the motherfucking Third Symphony?

I have no idea. And it wasn't understood at the time, either (the piece was universally panned at its premiere). The strange thing is that, much like Pärt's breakthrough anti-garde work in the same year (namely, Für Alina), I don't think a piece this simple could have been penned at all if not on the back of decades' worth of writing grandma-hated music. It's as if the mass sonorities of his avant-garde period, thick and jolting enough to knock you on your back, were retained and yet mellowed by being shoved back into a modal scheme. Rather like barrel-aging a very powerful stout, in fact. Anyways, you can be as much of a music snob as you want and it's still it's hard to listen to that canon in the first movement and not be a bit dumbstruck. The way the thing grumbles around in the low strings only to be slowly picked up by the violas and violins - well, it's quite majestic, not to mention beautiful. Honestly, I don't know where this piece came from and sometimes I don't even like it, but I can tell you this: when you hear those first eight notes sounding in the lowest double bass register, there is nothing to be done except Pay Attention.

Which brings me to Walter Payton's Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout.

I don't know anything whatever about "America's Brewing Company," except that they're in Aurora and apparently hang the Star-Spangled Banner and the Betsy Ross over their brewing facilities. Whoever they are, they don't seem to be big time: this beer came in a nondescript four-pack box with a yellow sticker on it declaring "Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout." Thankfully the label on the bottle itself is less vague; it's pleasantly old-timey and really rather nicely done. The top says "34." I have no idea what this means.

Onto the beer itself, then. The website declares that this stuff has been aging in a bourbon barrel for 457 days. That's a lot. I've had gold rums that've been in the wood for less time than that. Plus, it's apparently 12% alcohol, which will make it (confession time) the strongest beer I've had to date. It handily beats the previous champion, namely the Axe Head (aka Liquid Shame) that Village Foods sells here in Hyde Park. Needless to say, I'm expecting this one to be Strong. Happily, it's also relatively Cheap - this four pack cost ten bucks, and I expect the remaining bottles to last me at least a couple of years.

So let's give it a pour.

God Jesus, this stuff is dark. I mean, I know it's a stout and all, but this is on a completely different level. It has the color and the viscosity of the oil you'd drain from a 1956 Ford pickup. There's a half-finger's worth of a tan head desperately trying to assert itself, but it's no use: nothing's going to escape from this stuff. It's a black hole, a stout singularity. And the smell! I don't even have to agitate the stuff before getting a good whiff: as I type I've got it sitting on a desk about a yard away, and I can still smell it. The odor is just tons and tons (and tons) of roasted malt, flanked by bourbon. If you put a cup of pure cocoa and a shot of Maker's Mark into a blender and mixed them together, then zapped the result with Incredible Hulk radiation, the smell would be roughly like this. There's not a lot of complexity to it, but who cares?

The taste is... well, it's not what I expected at all. First impression: good lord this is thick. Really, really thick, but with a slight chili tingle to it. Other than that, it's very hard to put one's finger on up-front taste. There's almost nothing beyond the aftermentioned thick creamy texture, the spicy tingle, and a little booziness. It's only after it goes way back that anything else comes out. After the swallow, I get bittersweetness - heavy on the bitter, light on the sweetness - and also (finally) oak and bourbon.

I don't really know what else to say about it. It tastes like this sounds: grungy and crappy and bass-happy, but yummy. It's even nice to drink, albeit not quickly. I wasn't trying too hard, but it took me an hour and a half to finish a single 12oz bottle of this. An hour and a half. Yep, drinking slowly is preferred here. Unless you're superhuman or have a death wish, you're not drinking more than one of these in a night. In fact, split one with a friend if you can.

I love this for the same reason that I would love owning a pet triceratops, namely because both are hopelessly impractical and deeply stupid. And this is, indeed, a stupid beer: after three sips you've found all the surprises it has to give. Bourbon or stout fans in general might find lots to love, but only if they're willing to forgive that simplemindedness. And as much as I adore the sheer daftness of this stuff, I have to admit that there's just too much missing to make it a classic. To show you what I mean, think back again to the Górecki. Imagine that the canon gets going - it builds up through the basses, and then the cellos. And then, when the violas and the violins should enter, they just don't. All the other string players have been locked out of the hall, leaving the low strings to burble and saw away for a half-hour. That wouldn't necessarily be terrible (I love my double basses), but one would no doubt get bored after awhile. It'd be a bit of a letdown, to be honest, and it certainly wouldn't go platinum.

Grade: B+
Summary: The thickest, blackest, bourbonest stout ever. Heavenly for the first sips, but then you have to finish the rest of the bottle.

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