Welcome to the sweet, sweet world of barely wines. Or, if you prefer, barley wine-style ales. The wine lobby thinks they have a corner on calling things "wine" so us humble beer folk often label our strong ales, which can be as strong, or stronger than wine, as wine-style ales.
The BJCP kindly tells us that an American (as opposed to British) Barley Wine (category 19C) can range from light amber to dark copper and sometimes a ruby brown color with high viscosity. These beers should have an intensely malty aroma with underlying hoppiness throughout. The flavors should be sweet and malty, but not with specialty malts such as roasted barleys or chocolate malts. Some fruitiness and alcohol flavors are appropriate (and unavoidable).
The British, as typical, are not as aggressive with the hops, so will be more relaxed in some of the bitterness and fruity or floral aromas and flavors. The cousin of the Barley Wine is the Winter Ale, which is distinguished by more use of specialty malts (such as caramel, chocolate, or more usually, mildly roasted malts) and spices (such as clove, pepper, anise, etc.) which would be inappropriate in a barely wine.
So, what makes Barley Wine so wine-like? Perhaps it is the higher viscosity body, the sweet flavors, the high alcohol or the barrel aging. Maybe it is the fact that these beers age so well. In fact, a young barley wine may be too sweet, too bitter, too viscous - some may find it cloyingly alcoholic. But let a barley wine sit for 2, 3, 4, 5, or 10 or 15 years and it will mellow out wonderfully. It will lose its bite, its barrel aging will begin to assert itself, the bitterness will fade and hop flavors and the malt flavors will become one in an amazingly complex union of sweet, fruity, earthiness. It will make you talk like a wine-dork.
So, where can I find one of these? Well, not surprisingly, not a lot of Wisconsin breweries make them. Tyranena made one as part of their Brewer's Gone Wild Series called the Spank Me Baby! (BA.RB.) Viking makes one called the Berserk. (BA.RB.) Pearl Street Brewery in LaCrosse makes one called Old Skeezer, though neither Beer Advocate nor Rate Beer have any information. JT Whitneys has their Mad Badger. (BA.RB.) With the exception of one other (reviewed below) we know of no other Barley Wines being made in the state of Wisconsin.
And Central Waters brews their Kosmyk Charlie's Y2K Catastrophe Ale. If and when you find and drink this beer, because like most Central Waters beers these days it can be hard to find, please, please, please do not serve it at refrigerator temperature. The best advice I can give for this beer is to pull it out of the refrigerator about thirty minutes before you actually want to drink it; do not open it, but set it on your counter and walk away for thirty minutes. Go watch Threes Company or Family Guy or half of Law and Order. Then come back and split the bottle with someone else. Yes, it is only a twelve ounce bottle, but do you REALLY need a full pint glass of a 10% ABV beer? One glass will be plenty to pour into two red wine glasses and last you through dinner or sip while watching the end of Masterpiece Theatre. (BA.RB.)
Appearance: A deep ruby red with a thin white cap in a small snifter. While it is on the darker side for the style, the coloring is crystal clear and bright given its deep red hue. Even the head leaves legs on the side of the glass.
Aroma: big and malty aroma with a scent of alcohol and cherries. There is a slight hoppy fresh pine and citrus brightness on the back of the nose.
Flavor: Thanks to the handy-dandy VinTemp, we know that the beer is served at the perfect temperature of 54.5 degrees. Sweet and sharp alcohol starts the show. Meanwhile the soft malty flavors start to assert themselves. Soft and earthy flavors show through an intensely sweet bread-like maltiness. Caramel and cherries give way to a sharp hoppy bitterness that leads into the finish. You are left with a long, bitter and fruity taste to savor as you contemplate the slow ethyl warming in the gut reminescent of a fine whiskey. As it continues to warm into the upper-50s a slight smoky dryness starts to come through.
Body: Surprisingly medium-bodied; while it seems like this should be a full-bodied beer, the overload of base malts and gentle use of heavier specialty malts makes this pleasantly light and viscous.
Drinkability: It seems silly to talk about the "drinkability" of a barley wine; but when I look at a barley wine, I look at whether I enjoy the bottle I am drinking - whether I feel like it is a task to finish my glass; this beer is light and warming and pleasantly sweet - each sip brings a new taste to discover and the beer changes as it continues to warm.
Summary: An enjoyable beer to drink either alone or with a fine French Bourguignon. While its brash and in-your-face youthful flavors are fun to taste even at colder temperatures (this beer could easily be consumed at upper-40s temperatures), it should age very, very well and will mature nicely in five to ten years.