Souvenir shopping not too long ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, I stopped in a food shop on the city’s Royal Mile and noticed a selection of beers for sale. Interesting beers, but not what I was seeking. Indeed, the shop clerk had never heard of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, let alone the Brew Dog Brewery, the idiosyncratic Scottish craft brewer whose beer I sought.
Tactical Nuclear Penguin, when initially released by Brew Dog in late 2009, was the world’s strongest beer with 32 percent abv until it was replaced by another Brew Dog effort, the 41% abv Sink the Bismark. Penguin is an imperial stout made using ice beer making techniques, that is the beer was frozen and some water removed. . The beer was initially double barrel aged for 14 months, and then frozen, then frozen again and then frozen again to remove the water. It’s much akin to an ice beer, a German style. A warning on the Penguin’s label states: “This is an extremely strong beer, it should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.
All the same, I continued wandering further down this touristy heart of Scotland’s capital and I came upon a shop that specialized in wines and spirits. Upon entering, the cheerful clerk asked if he could be of assistance and I put to him my query. “Do you have any Brew Dog Tactical Nuclear Penguin?”
He responded affirmatively as reached to a high shelf and took down a small bottle covered in tissue paper. “It’s 50 pounds,” he told me with a smile, knowing I’d be flabbergasted. Indeed, I was. With a bit of quick math I figured that this 375ml bottle of beer was going for $75. That’s a bit more than I planned on spending, I explained.
But then he offered some guidance, telling me that Brew Dog operated a bar just a few blocks away where I could sample a glass. I thanked him and made my way through Old Town Edinburgh on a drizzling mid-day Saturday. A quick consult on Google Maps on my iPhone got me to 112 Cowgate, a bit of a back street.
The Brew Dog Bar, now one of several craft beer bars across Great Britain owned by the Aberdeen-based craft brewer, was abuzz like much of the city with three festivals going on, including the Virgin Fringe Music Festival.
I strode several feet from the door to the bar and told the bartender that I was told I could get a glass of Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Yes, I could, he said, at 7 pounds ($8.50) for a shot-sized pour into a snifter. That beat laying out $75 for the bottle.
The beer glistened in my snifter. It was dark chocolaty brown and, as expected, totally lacking carbonation — not even a hint of a head. The nose was definitely boozy with vanilla and roasty notes. Ah! Then a sip. It’s rich, sweet, smooth and chocolaty with notes of caramel and port-wine. And, oh, does it coat the mouth.
The bartender returns and asks how I like it.
I reply, it’s quite interesting. “Yes, it is an interesting beer,” he confirmed.