In one week, on the 15th, Deschutes Brewery is hosting their release parties at the Bend and Portland Pubs for the 2011 edition of their award-winning Imperial Stout, The Abyss. And last night they hosted a “sneak peak” of this year’s Abyss with one keg each at the Pubs. I didn’t make it down to the Bend Pub to sample this year’s offering, so instead I opened the bottle that Deschutes sent me.
Reading the label on this year’s bottle, it’s apparent the recipe has been tweaked. This year, in addition to black strap molasses and licorice, the beer includes cherry bark and vanilla, and was aged 6% in oak bourbon barrels, 11% in oak barrels, and 11% in oak wine barrels (for 28% in wood total). The new additions are the cherry bark, vanilla, and wine barrels; for comparison, the previous vintages were (according to the labels) simply brewed with molasses, licorice, with 33% aged in oak and oak bourbon barrels.
Popping the cap, it gives up a beautiful black pour, nice and thick, with a brown cocoa powder head that leaves lovely rings of lace on the glass behind before I’ve even had the first sip. The nose is luscious and full of dark chocolate, burnt wood, coffee, raisins and other dark fruits (prunes? currants?), licorice root, and wood. There’s a hint of smoke, and a deep cherry note that gets drawn out.
On the tongue it’s mellower than a young Imperial Stout like this has any right to be, very smooth and full of roasted wood, dark fruits, and bitter chocolate; despite the drying character from the roast and the bitter there’s no astringency. There a touch of bourbon but it’s not nearly as pronounced as years past. It’s spicy, smoky, a touch ashy, and fruity—in fact it reminds me a lot of a Malbec wine, and in fact I think this year’s Abyss drinks more like a very rich red wine than a bourbon and I wonder if the “oak wine barrels” reference on the label has influenced that impression for me.
Regardless I really like that aspect to this beer: it’s definitely a full-bodied, sweet and thick Imperial Stout; but it has a depth of character and a complexity that plays like a spicy rich wine. And it’s amazing that Deschutes is able to draw that out of a big beer that was brewed only this year; it tastes mellow and mature already. Where will it go in a year? Two? Hard to tell, but (like years past) I’ll buy a case to put away.