Barley wine is a fickle beast and, sadly, it’s often done poorly. My first encounter with this strong, syrupy ale was back when I was a bartender in London (the important one, not the one in Ontario) almost 20 years ago, and I must admit, I absolutely hated it. As a Canadian kid raised on watery lagers, I was still trying to wrap my head around hand-pulled cask ales. Barley wine, as far as I was concerned, was pure insanity.
Firstly, it was well over 10% ABV, and it tasted like it—hot, malty and sickly sweet. Literally the only people I ever saw drinking the stuff were the lovable street urchins in front of the council flats with their cans of Whitbread’s Gold Label. When I asked one of my regulars about the stuff, he said that it was beer that was made so strong they couldn’t legally call it beer anymore. Hardly a pub in London sold any, for fear of what it would do to those who drank it.
I’ve since had many attempts at barley wine, and the vast majority just aren’t that good. They come across as either too syrupy, too harsh, too tannic, or just too much of everything. They’re a hot mess.
That being said, local craft breweries are increasingly getting it right. Central City’s Thor’s Hammer was one of the first B.C. examples that really nailed the rich, smooth and endlessly flavourful profile of a proper barley wine. More recently, Steamworks’ Scarlet Red Rye Ale has seriously impressed me.
I’m adding Twin Sails’ Double Barrel Death Blow to that list, as well. Aged in both bourbon and port barrels (hence, “Double Barrel”), it’s incredibly rich, but also shockingly balanced (for a barley wine) and deceptively smooth. The nose is thick with dark jammy fruit, molasses and alcoholic heat. But that booziness is barely noticeable once you take a sip. Instead, you’re treated to a cornucopia of raisin, dates and cherries, all smothered in caramel and vanilla. And yet, it’s not cloying—a slight tannic bitterness takes the edge off the malty sweetness.
Pro tip: make sure you pick up a couple of extra cans for the cellar—this one’s only going to get better with age.
Double Barrel Death Blow by Twin Sails Brewing
11.8% ABV, 473 mL tall cans
Appearance: Dark brown with ruby highlights and a thin tan head.
Aroma: Raisin, dates, molasses, port, oak.
Flavour: Dates, raisin, caramel, molasses, oak, brandied cherries, vanilla, graham cracker, minimal alcoholic warmth.
Body/Finish: Full bodied with a semi-sweet, tannic finish.
Pairs with: Fruit cake, bread pudding, Stilton cheese, shitty hand-rolled cigarettes and fist fights over soccer games.
- The Winter 2018/19 issue of The Growler is out now! You can find B.C.’s favourite craft beer guide at your local brewery, select private liquor stores, and on newsstands across the province.