Last week, Birch & Barley hosted their first-ever beer and whiskey tasting. At the helm was the inimitable Greg Engert to guide the evening’s attendees through three different beers and three different whiskies, one of each presented on its own, and then two of each paired together.
While I’ve had several meals at Birch & Barley and have spent too much time upstairs at ChurchKey, I had not yet attended one of Birch & Barley’s tastings or beer dinners so I wasn’t sure what to expect—in its format, presentation, guidance, sociability—but based on my past experiences with the brother-sister venues and the heavy promotion the tasting received, I figured it would be worthwhile. By the conclusion of the event, it had certainly met expectations—I left better educated, with a few new acquaintances, and with a pleasant buzz.
The event was communal in its setup, and for those participating equally convivial. Greg took the stage in the center of the packed restaurant, microphone in hand, to talk through the flavors and nuances to note about each pairing. Every place-setting was accompanied by a menu of the event’s offerings, a golf pencil, and a custom tasting note card containing a grid with spaces to jot down your thoughts on each item’s appearance, aroma, taste, palate, and overall impression—a very nice touch.
Greg started everyone with the 2008 Millennium Oak Aged with Brettanomyces from Delaware’s Coastal Brewing Company which was sweet, malty, slightly spicy, and lightly bitter. To accompany the 10.5% barleywine, a platter of cashel blue cheese with port-glazed figs atop multigrain toast was served. The cheese was sweet and creamy, paired for its funk, and finished well, but felt a bit more powerful and funkier than the beer and thus overwhelmed it.
The next solo offering was High West’s Rendezvous Rye, a 46% rye whiskey that was astringent and dry in its aroma, but had a spicy, intense, slightly earthy taste. It finished light and spicy and our table seemed in agreement this was a very pleasurable pour, especially in conjunction with the braised lamb belly served beside toasted bulgur wheat with plumped golden raisins. The lamb belly melted in your mouth and the bulgur wheat complimented the earth tones of the whiskey quite well.
The third portion of tasting was a pairing of Founders’ very rare 2008 Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Bourbon Distiller’s Willett Pot Still Reserve 94 proof which were both fantastic. The 11.2% KBS was dark and oily in the glass, but filled with notes of coffee, malt, oats, and even marshmallow and finished sweet and light, and the 47% bourbon was spicy and subtly intense. The kitchen prepared one of the season’s last runs of its butternut squash arancini which were the usual mix of crispy and gooey, but seemed comparatively pale to the alcoholic offerings.
The final pairing of the evening was BrewDog’s whisky cask-aged imperial stout, Paradox Isle of Arran, and Isle of Jura’s single-malt whiskey Superstition. While I’d had this variant of BrewDog’s Paradox series before and was yet again underwhelmed by it, as were many of my tablemates, the Superstition wowed even the most discerning attendees. While the Isle of Arran seemed lacking in flavor and complexity and really didn’t live up to its expectations, the Superstition was the complete opposite; it surprised with with its salty, briney, peaty flavors, and demonstrated a lovely complexity—I’ve never tasted a whiskey like it before. In conjunction with the Paradox, it felt like the night’s Trojan horse. Paired with a round of beechwood-smoked malt sausage and roasted cipollini onions, and the evening ended on a rather pleasant note.
While this was Birch & Barley’s first run at a beer-whiskey tasting event, they did a wonderful job, which isn’t a huge surprise considering their accolades and experience with food and drink pairings. There were a few missteps though it felt, in the selections and pairings, but in consideration of the whole experience—the usual wealth of knowledge provided by Greg, excellent service, great setting, and lively attendees—you should look forward to the next iteration of the event. I certainly will be, and judging by the slightly stumbling exits of happy guests, many more will be as well.
All photos by the author.