These Cocktail-Inspired Beers Combine the Best of Both Drinks

If you don’t want to choose between a Guinness and an Old Fashioned, you don’t have to.

cocktail-inspired beers
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

It’s practically Pavolovian: When you say the name Guinness, most people immediately picture a dark, roasty stout. But the Irish brewery’s newest U.S. release isn’t traditional at all.

A barrel-aged amber beer flavored with oranges and cherries, Guinness Old Fashioned Inspired Ale echoes the appearance, garnish and flavor profile of a classic Old Fashioned cocktail. “We like Old Fashioned cocktails,” says Sean Brennan, the head brewer at Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Maryland. “And it’s fun to make something that’s out of the norm.”

Guinness isn’t the only brewery taking inspiration from cocktails. Last year, California’s Smog City put out an Old Fashioned-inspired Belgian ale, while Montreal’s Beauregard Brasserie Distillerie brewed a similarly flavored imperial stout. Brooklyn’s Evil Twin previously released a line called The Art of Mixing a Beer—with Bellini, Mojito, and Passion Fruit Margarita editions. Other brewers have made beers meant to recall a White Russian, Manhattan, or a G&T.

“The fact that you’re barrel-aging means that you have a natural affinity for whiskey, or wine, and the wood character that kind of binds all of them together,” says Joe Connolly, sales director at Jack’s Abbey in Framingham, Massachusetts. Those features can complement the tart and often funky nature of fermentation in oak, too. “You have this balance of wood, sour and funk, and you’re already edging into the territory of cocktails there, because you’re talking about sour and sweet balance, rather than bitter and sweet balance.”

For many brewers, part of the attraction is the ability to riff on someone else’s classic. Connolly helped create Not Stirred, a line of mixology-inspired ales from Springdale Beer Company, the barrel-focused sister brewery to Jack’s Abbey. There, offerings include homages to mixed drinks like the Mint Julep and the Dark & Stormy.

Many brewers also appreciate the chance to work with ingredients that are seldom found in the brewhouse. At Partizan Brewing in London, one of brewer Andy Smith’s beers includes a Negroni-inspired saison that he created with a friend, the award-winning bartender Alex Kratena. To recreate the classic color and flavor of Campari, the two sought out the original, non-vegan coloring that the Italian liqueur maker stopped using back in 2006.

“We wanted to be true to all of the ingredients in Campari,” Smith says. “The thing that actually gave it the color, and which gave the beer its color, is called cochineal.” It’s essentially ground-up beetles, he explains.

Another cocktail ingredient that’s still widely used in bars is gentian, an herb that adds bitter to amaro and cordials like Suze. Smith says he was surprised at how well gentian works with the bitter flavors in an IPA.

And the trick works both ways. To mimic the flavor of Angostura bitters in an Old Fashioned cocktail, Brennan selected hops with slightly sharper bitterness, and looked for oak character from the barrel to back up the cherry and orange notes. For a beer inspired by a French 75, he used champagne yeast to create effervescence and dry flavors. He mimicked the drink’s citrus and gin flavors by adding lemon puree and fresh juniper during the brewing process.

At the Guinness taproom, cocktail-inspired beers are also a savvy workaround for bars whose alcohol licenses don’t extend to hard liquor. “You have people that love Old Fashioneds, and they’re out at a taproom like ours [where] we don’t serve spirits,” Brennan says. So, “they come in, they see [those beers], and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, let me try this.’”

Still, cocktail-inspired beers are generally one small part of breweries’ larger business models. Springdale’s Not Stirred line is temporarily on the back burner, partly due to changes from the pandemic, though Connolly says the brewery hopes to revive it in the future. At Partizan, Smith says that cocktail beers are a fun way for brewers to learn and fine-tune their processes, but not necessarily a moneymaker.

“I don’t think it’s the new sector that’s going to be the growth tactic for 2023,” he says, while acknowledging it’s simply just fun to experiment. “Lots of ingredients from cocktails lend themselves to beer, and I’m always open to trying new combinations.”

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Evan Rail is a contributor to Thrillist.