These two were winter seasonals from Connemara's finest, and possibly only (?) brewery. With a three-way blend of intrigue, excitement and worry, you see the beers are both barley wines, both barrel-aged, and both wax-sealed in 500ml bottles.
Why intrigue? Because this is not the sort of task an Irish craft brewery does very often. Why excitement? Because generally speaking I am a big fan of barley wines. Why worry? Because this could be a hot sticky mess even before it gets defiled by a rude Bourbon barrel.
And it's this one we visit first. Independent's Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine gets off to a rocky start; having fought your way through the wax to get the cap off, a gentle nosing of the bottle reveals that same wax is stinking to high heaven - a soft, grubby substance wrapped around the opening of the bottle isn't the nicest way to say hello. Brewers take note, try and emulate the hard, clean plastic finish of the wax jobs of, say, Maker's Mark or, closer to home, The White Hag's barrel aged Black Boar.
Anyway, in the glass it's much cleaner; a heft of honey and caramel announces itself first, thick and sticky and just about on the right side of acceptability. There's a flash of bourbon vanilla and wood here too, just about managing not to put me off. On the palate it starts out pretty well-intentioned, all toffee caramel, honey and just about hints of juicy orange before all is drowned in a sea of bourbon barrel. For a terrifying second my taste-memory is forced into flashbacks of the spine-tingling Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a ham-fisted, Hills-Have-Eyes brute of a barrel job, but this gladly fades. The whole beer does calm with time, rounding out to let more of the malt speak (and lets face it, it's only malt doing the talking here). A rocky road, but one lives to see another day...
...before one thrusts oneself into the Brandy Barrel Barley Wine as recklessly as ever. Again we get a clear, dark red beer but this time the aroma is near mute at first, slowly revealing dark sweetness in the form of black treacle toffee, syrup, raisins and booze. Yet again to taste it's hot and heavy to begin with, but with time shows off some sweet, fleshy fruit, sticky toffee and bittersweet orange chocolate, all soaked up by some oak. There's no real essence of brandy that I can find in here, and after the first few steps of our dance I'm still not quite sure if this one is doing it for me. Still, it's easily the better of the two, even if that may have something to do with my low tolerance for anything but subtle, sensitive and measured use of bourbon barrels. The brandy barrel, with its lack of brandy DNA on show, turns out a decent beer if you make it sit and wait in the glass like a bold child.
So there we have it. Not at all the hot sticky messes a little part of me was fearing they might be, but neither of these beers are as successfully barrelified as the Whiskey Stout from a while back. If this is the first time Independent have brewed a barley wine (commercially, I believe it is), then I'd be more enthusiastic about a tweaked, refined and eventually nailed version of the base beer that I could try sans barrel before we go back into the woods.