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Casks & Camaraderie | Cask Craft Spirits and Beer Lounge

Feature Image for Casks & Camaraderie
Eric Griffin

Breweries are always looking for new and unique ways to share their beers. Recently, one way that many have looked to showcase their barrel room in particular has been through barrel picks.

The camaraderie built through both business relationships and personal friendships is often how these collaborations bloom. Not only that, they serve as great community building experiences within the craft beer industry and have been a great way for consumers to try unique and exclusive one-offs from deep within brewery stocks. For this first installment of what hopefully becomes an ongoing series, we set our sights to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. We had the opportunity to chat with Keller Ford, owner and managing partner of Primo Vino & Cask Craft Spirits and Beer Lounge, to discuss his recent experiences sharing and selecting casks with different breweries, as well as highlighting their most recent collaborative release with a Missouri powerhouse.

Primo Vino & Cask

A small, independently owned wine, spirits and beer shop, Primo Vino & Cask opened their doors in the spring of 2010. While adapting accordingly to fluctuating trends in the industry, they’ve always looked to maintain a focus on high-end wine and spirits, as well as a collection of craft beer.

When talking with Keller Ford about some of the history of Primo Vino/Cask, he told us that it quickly developed from a “figure it out as we go along” situation into a rapid expansion with multiple moving parts. Originally, a single suite housed their full inventory of wine, spirits and beer. In 2016, however, an opportunity to buy the suite next door came about, and they jumped on it. All of the beer and spirits moved into the new suite, with the wine staying in the original location. And so became Primo Vino and Cask Craft Spirits. One final expansion was made to increase seating and bar space. The third suite adjacent to the existing locations had become available and was converted into a full-service lounge area.

With Cape Girardeau being the largest hub between St. Louis and Memphis, the original 2016 expansion really saw their business begin to take off with its unique and varied selection. It also seemed to fall right in line with the beginning of the bourbon craze in the United States. Accordingly,  Ford got involved with doing bourbon barrel picks around 2018 and really became invested in those opportunities. Nowadays, they do anywhere from 8 to 12 picks annually. As expected, their private selections have become very popular with seekers of rare and exclusive picks.

Exclusive Selections

In regards to their private bourbon picks, Ford told us that they always had believed that if they had the opportunity to go to the distillery that it was always a better option for them. The process of tasting through barrel stock is relatively straightforward. That said, other possible opportunities such as meeting the master distiller, hearing stories behind certain barrels and just having those first-hand experiences and learning the processes helps to sell the finished product. This got the wheels turning for Ford, who wanted to explore the possibility of doing something similar with breweries.

Involving Beer

As a specialty shop that also had a focus on craft beer, there was already a good starting point for Ford when it came to exploring this possibility of a barrel pick collaboration. Having developed a long personal history with Cory and Karen King of Side Project Brewing, many of the used barrels from past bourbon picks went to their barrel room to house beers. At the time, this idea of private selections with breweries wasn’t common, and he hadn’t considered the possibility of something with Side Project. Meanwhile, a relationship with their Destihl rep led to filling two of Cask’s spent barrels with a Destihl Baltic Porter. The beer turned out fantastic but also came with its share of learning curves logistically. This begged consideration regarding the proximity of the collaborating brewery for future opportunities.

Another brewery that Primo Vino had a good relationship with was Mother’s Brewing in Springfield, MO. After discussing the opportunity with them they quickly agreed to be the second participants in utilizing a spent barrel pick in which to create a unique beer. For Mother’s release they were working with Cask’s Weller Antique 107 “Hot Brown” barrel. They aged a beer that was a riff off of their Rated R Wheated Imperial Stout in the cask for what was supposed to be 7 months…. enter COVID.

The peak of the virus was chaos, with constantly changing brewing schedules to accommodate limited distributions during that time. As a result, the beer ultimately ended up sitting for 22 months before it was able to be packaged and sent to Cask. While it wasn’t what they originally envisioned, Ford emphasized how much he loved the result. The beer, aptly named Hot Town, was “big”— massively oaked and really exemplifying the Weller barrel it aged in.

The Silent Barrel Program

With two collaborations under their belt, each uniquely nuanced with unforeseen circumstances, October of 2022 brought their “third times the charm” moment.

Cory and Karen King came to Ford at the shop and introduced to him the single barrel series they were working on, their Silent Barrel program. These releases would showcase single barrel picks, designed to be selections by and for Side Project’s members and friends. The first barrel pick was with Paul Hayden from The Wine & Cheese Place, and the second in the series was with Ford and Cask.

Ford visited the barrel warehouse on December 8th, 2022. Cory gave him and his team free rein to pick through any barrel in the entire space except for three. While the series was intended to lean more on Stouts, Cory realized during their tasting that he actually happened to have a Barleywine aging in a Four Roses barrel that Cask had given them from a past bourbon pick. Ultimately they selected the Barleywine from that barrel and had Ford choose a second barrel as well to have a Stout pick to go along with it. This unique opportunity to have two picks for this exclusive series was a great surprise. So it became that Cask Craft Spirits would release Silent Barrels #767 and #798.

A look into the barrel selection process with Cask Craft Spirits at Side Project.
(Left) Cory King taking barrel samples | (Middle) Cory, Ford, and the Cask team | (Right) Keller Ford with Cask’s stout selection, Barrel #767 | Photos Courtesy of Cask Craft Spirits

The Picks

Ford was generous enough to contribute a bottle of #798 to us for review as part of this article. We were also able to track down a bottle of #767 to break down as well. We’re very excited to share our experiences with both.

Barrel #798

Barrel #798 was a spent barrel pick selected by Cask before being given to Side Project for secondary barrel-aging. MJK, Side Project’s English-Style Barleywine, was the base recipe placed in the barrel, which was a Four Roses Cask pick. Finishing ABV on this Barleywine was 14% ABV.

Freshly Bidet’d

As mentioned above, the Cask pick that housed Silent Barrel #798 was from Four Roses. Prior to getting into the bottle itself, we picked Ford’s brain a bit about what he recalled about the bourbon that originally aged in that barrel.

Cask has been fortunate enough in recent years to be a part of two Four Roses barrel picks. With their first selection, Sugar Daddy, being very rich and caramel-forward, they wanted their second selection to be something completely different. The result, ‘Freshly Bidet’d’, was a heavily spiced pick, a massive approach loaded with pepper and heat. This second pick is what ended up in the Side Project Barrel House.

When Ford first pulled the nail in that barrel to taste the MJK inside, the beer was extremely subtle. While both soft and sweet, it hadn’t spent quite enough time in the oak to really develop that richness. That said, according to Ford, the additional 6-7 months it spent in the barrel after the tasting and prior to bottling really helped it turn the corner it needed to further develop the sweetness and hone in on that really balanced representation of the style.

The Review

Tasting photo of Barrel #798
Photo by Eric Griffin

Upon pouring #798, we immediately notice the viscosity on the pour to be thinner than its Stout Silent Barrel counterpart. That said, after swirling the liquid and watching its movement in the glass, it becomes clear that the weight will easily support the experience.

The aromatics punch forward with a complex bouquet of dark fruits and caramel candy. A touch of spice from the barrel cuts the sweetness nicely. On the back end of the profile is a hint of tannin and bourbon raisins to add further depth.

While the palate does well to exude a clearer predominance of the barrel this beer rested in, it’s impossible to ignore the toffee richness coursing throughout. Notes of bread pudding, spiced plum and torched oak leverage the experience by both complimenting the developed sweetness from the base beer as well as highlighting some of those deeper complexities from that Four Roses barrel.

It is amazing to begin to feel what time and temperature can do to the mouthfeel of a beer of this gravity. We mentioned initially it appeared thinner on the pour. The viscosity develops perfectly, carrying with it a pleasant warmth. It’s a beer that really comes into its own the more time you allow it. It wouldn’t be dramatic to dub this “M.J.K., Jr.”.

Barrel #767

The Stout selection for Cask was a 2021 OWK Stout recipe aged in a Willett 5-year Rye barrel. Finishing ABV on the beer was 15%.

Willett Distillery barrels see frequent use in Side Project beers. Cory King and Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen have become great friends over the years, and the selection of Willett barrels that Side Project is able to experiment with for their oak-aging is unmatched. The combination of one of Cory’s favorite Stout bases with a rye treatment from one of the most notable whiskey producers in the world always shows endless promise. We hope you enjoy reading on about our experience with this exclusive bottle.

The Review

Tasting Photo of Silent Barrel #767
Photo by Eric Griffin

There’s a motor oil viscosity that cascades into the glass, swirling and settling still. There is zero carbonation as expected, with every release from this series being bottled still. Additionally, there’s good leg retention when the beer is agitated.

Right away there is a clear rye presence on the nose, imparting subtle hints of spice. That said, the aroma is quick to transform, largely characterizing a predominance of rich caramelized fruit and smoked oak. With time to let the beer develop even further, the clear influence from the barrel continues to intensify.

The palate brings more of the same as what we get on the nose, with the oak drying out the profile and helping to lift those fruitier notes. This series does a fantastic job of really showcasing the quality of these base recipes. The ability to differentiate the barrel character from the base beer is a lot of fun. Caramel candy and baking chocolate bring up the rear on a long, warming finish.

The mouthfeel is full and viscous, coating the palate but not coming off as overly syrupy. While initially there is the thought that carbonation would’ve helped, this beer actually benefits from the still bottling.

Picking & Choosing

There’s undoubtedly a correlation between the bourbon boom and the increase in these sorts of private brewery barrel picks. Talking with Keller Ford at Cask was really a great place to set the stage in learning more about how these opportunities come to be. Consumers in today’s market are all about everything unique and exclusive, so these have been a great way to both involve the community more and give people something new to really get excited about.

Keep an eye out in the future for more additions to this series. We hope to learn more about other notable single barrel programs as well as businesses’ insights on their significance and information about experiences during the selection process.

Barrel-aged beer and the friendships they forge. Surely it doesn’t get much better than that!

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