I first 'discovered' Fraoch in my formative beer drinking days in the Fisherman's Tavern in Broughty Ferry. This was such a popular place (having won the Pub of the Year award in 1993) that on Friday or Saturday nights the 'decent' cask ale could easily run out and they wouldn't necessarily put on new casks until the following morning (the place was simply too busy). Bottled Fraoch Heather Ale was a great alternative - quite sweet, floral and just brilliantly 'different' (see the Williams Brothers site for some history), so my pals and I hit upon the trick of asking the bar-staff to put a number of bottles of Fraoch in the fridge about ~30 minutes before we thought we might want to have them - we just had to make sure than they were in the bottom of the fridge where no-one else could see and order them - normally this worked out pretty well!
Skip forward to 2010 and I decided to go to the Auchentoshan Whisky Festival at the Distillery near Clydebank at the end of August since I had heard that they would be having some whisky aged beer (as they had had in 2009). I'm not a whisky lover - I wish I was since I appreciate that there is (conceivably) something there to be admired and appreciated, but I just find the amount of alcohol up front to be almost gagging. I get serious amounts of stick for this from a lot of my friends, but surprisingly I quite like some whisky cask aged beer so long as the whisky aroma and taste isn't too prevalent.
At the Festival there was (as is normal) a beer tent where 2 types of whisky cask-aged beers were being sold - a light beer based on Williams Ceilidh and a Dark beer based on Williams Red - both had been left to age in Auchentoshan casks at the Distillery for 3 weeks before the Festival. (Interestingly enough this was a change compared to the previous year - Auchentoshan had actually brewed their own beer in-house, but this policy changed for 2010 due to the time involved in the brewing process - see here for details.)
Both of the beers were really great, especially the lighter beer with the whisky giving it great vanilla aroma and taste, without being too sweet or overtly whisky toned. So it would seem that Auchentoshan casks would be a good choice for beer cask-aging.
At the same Festival I also went for a tutored whisky tasting to see if I could finally break through my whisky 'phobia'.
And right until the last dram I was still struggling (and giving away most of the other samples) - until the Auchentoshan Three Wood. This was different - it was very smooth and the alcohol was masked by the slight fruit sweetness of the sherry & bourbon casks. OK - I think the Three Wood is seen as an 'entry' whisky by the real whisky buffs, but I was happy to find a whisky that I could actually drink without gagging - hooray!
Note that the Auchentoshan Festival wasn't held in 2011 - the quote from the Distillery was that 'following the success of recent Auchentoshan Festivals, we are delighted to announce the festival will be back next Summer (2012) and will run bi-anually thereafter. We're already in the planning stages to make it even bigger and better' - so hopefully more details will be forthcoming and that some sort of Auchentoshan cask-aged beers will be available.
Shorty after the Auchentoshan Festival, in October 2010 at the Queens Hall Beer Festival in Edinburgh I managed to try the Fraoch 20th Anniversary Ale in cask format - this is Fraoch matured in Macallan Speyside casks. My memory of this was that it was wonderfully smooth, still had some floral and spicy tones, and then a very strong whisky aftertaste with the alcohol quite well hidden - really nice. So Fraoch in a whisky cask could also work.
Review (at last)So this brings things up-to-date with the launch of Fraoch 22nd Anniversary Ale, Fraoch Heather Ale matured in Auchentoshan casks for a year, then left for a further 6 months in a conditioning tank. There was a limited release of ~60 bottles in September 2011, for one review see here, but the majority went to the USA for marketing purposes. These were all filled & labelled by hand taking a lot of time & effort, so Williams Brothers decided to wait on the necessary star wheels and 'other bits' to allow the bottles to be filled by machine. The official release then happened in January 2012, see the Williams Brothers Press Release, with the bottles now available on the Williams Brothers website and in various Off Licenses and proverbial good beer shops.
I bought my 2 bottles from The Cave in Glasgow. One is now hidden away in the depths of my beer cupboard for 'a special event' (the Best Before date is 2021, so there's a fair amount of time to decide on what this constitutes !) and the other (bottle 00584) I'm going to drink over the course of this weekend - 17th/18th February.
It comes in a very elegant 750ml/1pint 9.4fl oz (US) Belgian Ale bottle with a re-sealable super-fancy cork (or zork !) and tops out at 11% abv. The label has the Fraoch graphical 'cross' as on the standard Fraoch bottle and is a nice stand-out shade of heather purple. It's definitely marketed for the American market with the US Importer Name and Refund Values (all of 5 or 10 cents !) on a separate label on the back.
For old times sake I decided to go with my 30 minutes in the fridge, getting the temperature down to 10-12C or so I guess (I'm not at the beer geek stage of having a a beer thermometer - yet!). The zork is a bit of a pain - it's fine coming off but it takes a decent amount of force to re-zork it, but it seems as air-tight as possible. I decided to pour it into my Williams Brothers glass from the Queens Hall Beer Festival - really must invest in a decent stemmed glass.
It pours a really deep golden red with a small thin head which stays for a while then retreats to the sides of the glass. The initial aromas are of vanilla and sherry, but there's definitely that spicy, floral Fraoch in there as well - some whisky, but not too much at all. A swirl of the glass (whisky tutoring here) gives even more vanilla and sherry which quickly goes away and also indicates that the body is quite thin. On first sip the taste is of the spicy, sweet Froach - that's good, it is a beer after all - and then a lot of vanilla and oakiness with some carbonation. It is very, very smooth and easy to drink. There's definitely a slight bitterness in the aftertaste and a lot of spice tingles your throat. In that aftertaste there's also a strong whisky alcohol heat (as expected), but it's so well balanced that it's not at all harsh. It's very much like the aftertaste from an Auchentoshan Three Wood, great from my point of view, and even minutes later you still know that you've had a strong, warming drink. As the glass warms up there's more and more sweetness prevalent (sherry and heather) and less bitterness, so my recommendation is definitely that it should be served slightly chilled (it's only a recommendation - honest, guv).
In summary an absolutely superb beer and now I'm really looking forward to the release of Williams Brothers Alba 23rd Anniversary Ale matured in Bowmore casks.
Whilst writing this I also found out that Fullers Brewers Reserve No 3 has also been matured in Auchentoshan casks (for 800 days this time !), so I'm definitely going to try to obtain a bottle of that (for comparison purposes, naturally).
*UPDATE JUNE 2012*
See also my blog on the Auchentoshan Whisky Festival of 2012 here - and the Auchentoshan Festival Ale 2012.
*The above information is correct as far as I know it - any possible mistakes or inaccuracies are solely my responsibilty. Feel free to leave any comments or e-mail me if there's anything wrong about this - after one or 2 beers some confusion is always possible!