I found Ballantine Burton Ale in the back corner, literally, of my beer store. I have mixed memories of Ballantine XXX Ale from a long-ago trip to Philadelphia when that mild, cloying brew was paired with fabulous hoagies, so was amused at the attempt at a craft product and picked up a six. But a trip to Beer Advocate revealed that this barleywine (it clocks 11.3% ABV) is indeed something pretty special.
The original Burton Ale was brewed after Prohibition and put up in oak barrels for as long as 20 years. (Master Brewer Greg Deuhs says the new one spends “several months” in oak). According to the label, “the beer was given as a gift to prestigious friends of the brewery, including the White House… Like the original, our Burton Ale is sweet, strong, yet balanced by a robust hop characteristic true to the Ballantine name. The oak essence and notes of toasted vanilla make it the perfect holiday treat.” (It was released in December 2015.)
I found it very malt-forward yet balanced and palatable for a high-alcohol beer, similar to the Jewbilation series from Shmaltz. Three bottles are now gone and the next three go into the basement to see how they’ll taste a year from now.
The ironic thing about this project, which apparently has very limited distribution, is that Ballantine is now owned by Pabst. So instead of getting the white glove treatment from the rep from Remarkable Liquids or Tristate, Burton Ale was loaded on the hand truck with cases of PBR. Hence its unloved placement in the back of the store. If you can find some, buy it.
While you’re there, pick up a six or two of Ballantine IPA as well. This is also a revival which, according to the Pabst website, “includes hop oils imported directly from the United Kingdom in order to capture the balanced but defined hop flavor of Peter Ballantine’s original brew.” That’s quite different from the Northwestern hops that give today’s hoppy IPAs their strong citrus notes, yet it has enough tang to satisfy your contemporary raised-pinky craft beer snob. It’s 7.2% ABV, 70 IBU and set me back a grand total of $8.99 for a six-pack. No complaints there.
You will probably be tempted to grab some Ballantine XXX, just to complete the picture. I’d advise you not to bother. Though not marketed as such, this 4.85% brew was the original “session” beer, displayed along with Mickey’s, King Cobra, Country Club and other high-alcohol payloads as the one to have when you’re having more than one 40 oz bottle. It’s yellow, not amber, in the glass, and the flavor is appropriate to that hue.