On Thanksgiving, when my belly is sated with turkey, stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes and the rest of the obligatory American fare, there’s not much room left for beer. That’s when I turn to locally distilled spirits.
Luckily, in addition to boasting over 80 breweries, Maine has a handful of distilleries making quality vodkas, gins, rums and whiskeys.
As a beer writer, a collaboration between Sebago Brewing Co. and Liquid Riot Bottling Co. caught my eye.
Bonfire Spirit, a 90-proof whiskey-like liquor, is the lovechild of Sebago co-owner Kai Adams and Liquid Riot co-owner Eric Michaud.
Here’s what’s fascinating about Bonfire Spirit: Sebago sends its fully-brewed, heavily-hopped fall seasonal beer, Bonfire Rye Ale, to Liquid Riot, where the beer is distilled then aged in oak barrels for two years, transforming it into a spirit.
This level of ingenuity and collaboration is what makes Maine’s beer scene truly special.
The processes of making beer and spirits both begin with the same step: steeping grains in hot water to extract fermentable sugars. When making beer, that sweet liquid is boiled for an hour while hops are added, then fermented with yeast. Distillers, however, take the liquid and ferment it to make alcohol, before it is run through a copper still.
Since distillers begin by essentially making beer, Michaud knew he could distill Sebago’s excess supply of Bonfire Rye, an ale brewed with rye grains and plenty of American hops, to make a bierschnaps. (Bonfire Spirit is akin to a whiskey, but because of the addition of hops, it can’t be labeled as such.)
“I get a lot of earthiness from the hops and vanilla from the oak barrels in the nose and flavor. It’s got body and a clean finish,” Adams explained.
I ordered a Bonfire Spirit neat with ice on the side at Sebago’s Fore Street brewpub. It’s served in a snifter glass and has an auburn bourbon hue. The nose has boozy notes with sweet oak undertones. That first neat sip has a sharp alcohol burn that masks the sugary malts in the finish. I tossed in a few ice cubes to mellow the alcohol prickle, and as they melted, they reveal creamy notes of caramel and butter that I crave in craft whiskeys.
I tossed in a few more ice cubes, and as they begin to dissolve, I could really taste the Bonfire Rye beer in this spirit. It’s at this ice-to-spirit ratio that the piney, earthy hops step forward. The ice melt also brings out butterscotch flavors. The finish is smooth with a buttery coating of vanilla on the tongue.
Bonfire Spirit is aged two years in oak barrels. I can imagine that if it were aged longer — five or, dare I say, even 10 years — it would drink brilliantly neat.
Adams encourages beer drinkers to try this spirit even if it’s not something they would normally order.
“People should embrace the experience of drinking a spirit made from beer. It has a lot of interesting flavors you don’t normally get in a liquor,” he said.
Whether you need something stronger this holiday season due to food intake, family relations, the cold weather or the results of the recent election, check out Bonfire Spirit to taste the ingenuity of two Maine brewhouses.
WHO: A collaboration between Sebago Brewing Co. and Liquid Riot Bottling Co.
HOW IT’S MADE: Liquid Riot distills Sebago’s Bonfire Rye beer and ages it in oak barrels for two years.
TASTING NOTES: Try it neat, on the rocks or in a mixed drink. Expect notes of caramel, oak, butterscotch and a touch of piney hops.
ABV: 45 percent (90 proof)
AVAILABILITY: Purchase limited release 375-millileter bottles at Liquid Riot Bottling Co., and order by the glass at Novare Res Bier Café, Liquid Riot Bottling Co. and all of Sebago’s brewpub locations.