I had intended to write this post about the THREE(!) versions of Deschutes
Brewery’s “The Abyss” – that legendary, iconic American Imperial Stout that I have frequently called “the best beverage I have ever tasted” – Monday of last week. But when I sat down to write it, a strange thing happened. I normally let a subject for review marinate in my subconscious, think about it frequently, and work out any kinks in my reasoning. It takes hours, sometimes, days others. But then it just pops right out, almost on auto-pilot, because I’ve already done the thinking. The rest, as Truman Capote would say, is “just typing“.
This time, a full nine days after tasting the third of the three epic editions on The Abyss 2015, I sat down to write this and…all that was running through my head, still, was a sort of happy buzzing noise, underpinned by stuff like “Mmmmm!” and “Oh, man!” and “Nga-nga-nga-nga” and those other incoherent things we sometimes utter when flummoxed. I’ll admit it: I’m pretty much out of adjectives to use to describe this stuff and even the attempt feels like trying to pass that camel through the eye of that needle. Nothing I write here can do anything for you, other than – I fervently hope – make you curious enough about what can send a grown man into paroxysms of ecstasy that you’ll decide to go out and find a bottle. I’m starting to feel inarticulate about The Abyss…And that is no way to go to the rodeo, my friends.
Now, however, I have a little better handle on what I experienced and the initial buzz has receded enough that I think I can tell you about the sensation of tasting these three monumental beers…without even hoping to come close to anything that adequately conveys it.
First, let’s just state that, unless somebody had deliberately sabotaged 2015’s The Abyss, I was going to love it, like I always do, because…well, if you have functioning taste buds, one sip will tell you. It’s just simply one of the truly classic American beers. If a gaggle of mice ran up the hose and into bright tank and expired there, I might not like it then. But, in it’s original version, The Abyss is a bit different with every “vintage” because of two things: 1) Anything made in different batches is seldom absolutely identical. In some years, hops will develop a bit more resin, get just slightly over-ripe, or get too little sunshine…or the grains might vary in their sugar content by degrees or the water pick up a bit more mineral content or the infusions vary slightly. Even if Deschutes was trying to reproduce an identical ale every year, it’ll be a bit different, and 2) Deschutes tinkers…they tweak and adjust and nudge and sometimes even take off in an entirely different direction, altogether. They’re never satisfied, even by near-perfection, so tasting The Abyss ’15 is different from tasting an ’11 or ’09 or that glorious ’07. And this year the difference was marked and emphatic.
The Abyss is somewhat sweet, as are most of America’s great Stouts but, in this 2015 version, that sweetness is reined in more than I’ve tasted in several years. While not completely dry, this is the darkest edition of this ale since maybe ’11 and it’s an extremely flattering take on this monumental beer. As sweetness rises in ales like this, a molasses cast comes more to the fore and, in this ’15, that character is moved into a tight, harmonious balance with the underlying dark chocolate, warm coffee, and full-frontal licorice notes that ride atop its base of solid and rustic wood flavors. There is a lovely and surprising bitterness at the core of this one that’s partly from the combination of Millennium, Nugget, Styrian, and German Northern Brewer hops and partly from the slight char of roasted barley and the authentic bitter coffee flavor. The frisson of all these elements – including the notable presence of cherry bark, brewer’s licorice, and vanilla beans – is a bittersweet delight and does not at all mute the startling complexity and discrete presentation of all the flavor elements used here. Even the barrel selection – wet Bourbon casks, new Oregon oak, and Oregon Pinot Noir barrels – shows up as easily identifiable flavors that frame that massive core of coffee/chocolate/licorice/blackstrap molasses beautifully. I’ve swooned over every version of this beer since the very first and I like it with its normal amount of residual sugar but I have to admit to a slight, hair’s-breadth preference for this type of off-dry presentation. The 2015 The Abyss is one of the most drinkable ever made, one of the most distinctive sets of flavors, and just, as always, flat-damned delicious; the absolute king of American-style Imperial Stouts. 100 Points
So, we take what is already a mind-bending ale experience and lay it up in a wet Rye Whiskey barrel and what do you get? Answer: that aforementioned “Nga-nga-nga-nga” sound that happens when you taste it and (apparently) goes on for several weeks. We make no bones about it: we are a Rye House – Rye Whiskey, Rye-infused beers, rye bread, the works. And, I believe, it’s in a Rye Whiskey or Vodka that this spicy, peppery, magical grain is shown to its greatest effect. The original set of flavors described above wraps around this boozy, caramel-drenched core of the woodsy barrel and the sweet, chewy Whiskey like a down comforter and suffuses the whole with a lively, savory, palate-tickling spiciness and deep brown sugar sweetness. I tasted this ale one evening and resealed the bottle with a steel pressure cork. The rest I drank the following night. The air helped it open up and reveal a more roasty goodness and soft, appealing candied patina. As a completely hedonistic beer experience, The Abyss has few equals; maybe Hunahpu’s or Dark Lord…maybe. In this rye version, that set of sensations is brilliantly over-driven. We can only hope that this is not a one-off experiment and that new brewmaster, Veronica Vega, will push the envelope again, even harder and farther than her brilliant predecessors. 100 Points
And the Cognac barreled version? Well, what can I say? When talking about that “hedonistic experience” idea, Cognac is usually very high up on the list of all spirits fans. Anyone who has ever tasted a truly great Cognac – an ABK6 VSOP or a Gautier, for example – knows what a game-changing moment that can be, sitting there with that sort of dark caramel, raisin, flowers, and spice dancing across your tongue. All this shows up here, as the most harmonious possible complement to the dark mysteries of this base ale. The pronounced raisin and candied nuts flavors mesh seamlessly with the chocolate and licorice of the recipe, while the saturated barrel adds a soft, viscous warmth that allows this to linger on the tongue longer than either of the other two versions. Again…100 Points
Several people have asked me already if I like the barreled versions better than the original Abyss; whether I’d want Deschutes to make this a Bourbon-barreled beer on a regular basis and the answer is No, I would not. At the risk of starting something that I would never want and of which I would disapprove mightily, I have to say that Bourbon barreling, while nowhere near a dead issue, IS done by an increasing number of breweries who don’t seem to get that using a barrel is not about just being able to find and afford a well-seasoned wet cask and socking some ale away in it. Breweries like Deschutes and Cigar City and Fort George and Jester King show a deeper and more intimate understanding of wood’s effect on beer than many of the versions I taste, with increasing regularity, in which I have to hunt around for ten minutes to even detect the barrel character at all. Used by a great, thoughtful, slightly-wonky brewer who has bothered to learn the effect of wood on liquid, barrels can be illuminating and an enormous enhancement. Used clumsily, any barrel can be used to merely mask imperfections, the exact same way new oak hides the shortcomings of wines with gobs of vanilla cream and smoke. I like having The Abyss in its naked, un-tweaked glory. I find it endlessly fascinating and always as great a pleasure as I have from any beverage, in any given year. This sort of alternate Abyss is a wonderful and valuable sidetrip on one of the country’s finest Journeys and I hope devoutly they continue, while keeping The original Abyss as the stunning contrast it is, not only to its barreled cousins, but to every other Stout made anywhere in the world.