Imagine you’re a New York Yankees executive at Christmas time in the 1940s. A delivery boy drops a crate on your desk with those familiar interlocking rings. You know that you’ve just been added to an exclusive club that even includes a United States President.
Those rings represent Ballantine Brewery and that crate contains a batch of the iconic Ballantine Burton Ale made especially for you. It was a strong, oak aged, barley wine style ale you couldn’t buy anywhere. Batches were aged from 5 to 20 years and if you made the list, they gave it to you as a holiday gift. Your name was even on the label! In 1966, it ceased production. Since then, it’s become one of the rarest “white whales” of beer geekdom.
Greg Deuhs, head brewer at Pabst Brewing—the owner of the Ballantine brand—told me, “It was the greatest beer never sold. We wanted to bring that back.” And they did.
Although it’s rare, bottles of the original beer are still around. I had assumed that Greg had acquired one, but he lamented, “It’s escaped me.” Incomplete records have made this reconstruction a guessing game, although Deuhs watched a number of YouTube vintage bottle tastings for reference. He had already done a lot of the homework when Ballantine reintroduced its IPA, so Greg started there and basically “beefed up the malt and hops.” The malt bill was tweaked to add some chocolate wheat which served to deepen the color. He also consulted their hop supplier, 47 Hops in Yakima, WA, about what would have been available at the time Burton Ale was first brewed.
While the modern Burton isn’t oak aged for years, it does spend months in oak-lined tanks, which impart that signature vanilla note. There’s no plan to start a barrel-aging program at this point, but Ballantine will continue the tradition of brewing Burton Ale as a holiday limited release every year. The company will probably tinker with the recipe, making each year’s batch a bit unique. At 11.3% ABV, this beer will age for a long time and be a natural vintage collectable.
Such an iconic beer has many legends associated with it, including one where the aging tanks were put under lock and key and another about clandestine brewery staff holiday parties with smuggled Burton Ale as the star attraction. There is also the lore that the beer was always brewed on May 12. I had to ask Greg about that one and he felt that it is most likely true. However, no one recorded why they picked that particular date. A birthday? An anniversary? That part of the mystery is yet to be solved.
One mystery I did get to solve was finding out what the new Burton Ale tastes like. The nose hits you with perfume-like vanilla and a hint of orange peel. Very inviting. Even at 75 IBUs, this hop bomb is fighting to a draw with the sweet malt. For such a big beer, it’s not cloying at all. The flavors promised in the nose come through on the palate along with some balancing caramel and alcohol heat. It almost makes me wish I smoked cigars.
While you’re contemplating this blast from Christmas past, know that more historic flavors are coming from Ballantine. According to Deuhs, “We’re looking at a brown stout,” made from 1850 to about 1950. An antiquated style somewhere between a porter and a stout, it sounds like another interesting taste of history.
Burton Ale will be available in New Jersey now through the holiday season so I hope you were good this year! Happy Holidays!