A new frontier is distilling in American craft beer

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James Yoakum, the owner at Cooper River Distilling in Camden.

UNDER a leaky roof in a tired corner of Camden, there's a single barrel of whiskey quietly aging and mellowing toward what might be the next frontier for American craft beer. It's marked "IPA-skey."

James Yoakum, the owner at Cooper River Distilling, pulled a sample for me the other day and handed it over. It was smooth and a bit smoky, with the delicate yet unmistakable bitterness of hops.

The spirits began life as a batch of India pale ale from North Philly's Saint Benjamin Brewing. It hadn't met the brewery's specs, so they sent it across the Ben Franklin to let Yoakum run it through his still.

And so a hybrid is born.

In Germany, they'd call this bierschnapps - a simple distillation that typically is not aged on wood and pours crystal clear. Visit the gift shops in Bavaria's breweries and you'll often see small, 80-proof bottles on the shelves. They're a delicious curiosity.

In America, though, distilled beer is a rarity.

Which is strange, because all spirits, from rum to brandy, begin as a quasi-beer - a fermented beverage made from grain, fruit or another source of sugar. There are no hops, it's true, and the base liquid isn't carbonated. You probably wouldn't want to drink it, either, but that's only because the distiller doesn't care much about its flavor or body; he's only after its alcohol.

So, while it doesn't seem like a huge leap to take an actual beer and turn it into gin or bourbon, it's only a recent innovation on this side of the Atlantic, and one that is practiced entirely by small, craft distillers.

Anchor Brewing, which runs a separate distillery, makes White Christmas whiskey from its holiday ale. Long Island spirits makes whiskey from Blue Point Old Howling Bastard. Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey, from California, is distilled from Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA and aged in French oak casks for nearly two years.

In Pottstown, meanwhile, Manatawny Still Works is distilling spirits from so-called wash made across the street at Sly Fox Brewery.

Bucks County's Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey: An Insider's Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World's Finest Spirits (Storey Publishing), said the trend is not unexpected.

"Craft beer is already popular, and growing more so, and this is a chance for the tiny distiller to piggyback on that popularity," Bryson said. "Some of them work better than others, and some of them just aren't that good at all. But you know - put hops in anything, and some beer geek is gonna buy it."

For Yoakum, the collaboration with Saint Benjamin was simply the serendipity of two startups navigating the challenges of new businesses. Both opened last year after long licensing struggles.

They commiserated and, at some point, Yoakum said, "I told them, 'If you're ever going to dump a batch, call me first.' "

He got that call after Saint Benjamin switched to larger brewing equipment and ruined a batch of its Liaison Saison, a lavender-flavored farmhouse-style ale.

"We were having an issue with scalding, and there was no way we were going to send burnt fluid out the door," brewer Christina Burris said. "So we turned it over to James."

Yoakum distilled the batch, then aged it on apple-wood chips for about six weeks, producing a mere 17 bottles of the pale whiskey. It's fruity and floral, with a distinct lavender aroma that I'd call closer to gin, except for the cognac notes from the wood. It's probably not for everybody, and I'm not altogether sure when you'd drink it: Before dinner? With your grandmother?

Burris describes it as "beautiful and wonderful in its own right."

IPA-skey (not its official name, by the way) is much closer to a standard whiskey. It's darker, due to aging, and it carries that smooth woodsy flavor so typical of a Kentucky bourbon. It's both warming and crisply biting, like a passionate kiss from a stranger.

It still needs more time in the barrel, Yoakum said. And when it's finished, you'll get a taste only if you trek over to his distillery or one of the few Jersey liquor stores where Cooper River is stocked.

Pennsylvania's state stores carry his products only on special order for licensed restaurants. There will be only about 80 to 100 bottles, at about $90 a pop.

"To me," he said, "this is like a playground. I can throw things out there and see what happens."

Next: A distilled steam beer, and possibly another spirit made from Flying Fish Oktoberfish.

 


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.