The box was plain enough. In the upper right hand corner, the label just said “Royal Mail,” but I knew this is what I had been waiting for: Tactical Nuclear Penguin. No, it’s not a part of an insidious plot that will require Jack Bauer to intercede. It’s the strongest beer on the planet, courtesy of Scottish renegades Martin Dickie and James Watt, of BrewDog. Less than three months ago, Angelenos were swooning over Samuel Adams’ Utopias, supposedly the baddest beer on the planet, but that was only 27% ABV. This was 32%, a truly hardcore brew.
BrewDog only produced 500 bottles of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and finding a bottle in L.A. requires special ordering from Scotland, assuming BrewDog has any more bottles in stock. Given the record-breaking ABV and BrewDog’s overall good reputation, it wasn’t tough to attract six people to The Golden State, a central location co-owned by beer fanatic Jason Bernstein. On any other day, his taps would be enough to sustain most ravenous beer geeks, but not with Tactical Nuclear Penguin in the house. We gathered around a glass table and pulled the string on a brown paper bag stamped with only a cartoon penguin and “32%.”
The back of the bottle told a pretty hilarious story about the uber-imperial stout. “This beer was initially double barrel aged for 14 months; maturing in the deep, rich oak of Scottish whisky casks. After this epic maturation the beer was then frozen, then frozen again, then frozen again.” In case you were concerned, Watt and Dickie want you to know that “No penguins were harmed in the making of this beer; some humans did get very, very cold though.”
BrewDog suggests enjoying Tactical Nuclear Penguin in “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.” Given that, we limited our pours to about two-ounces apiece, which was plenty. When I pulled the glass to my lips, the aroma was pure alcohol burn, and the flavor was similarly harsh, kind of like whisky, with a roasted flavor and formidable viscosity. The color was rich brown, and there was hardly any carbonation.
Bernstein compared Tactical Nuclear Penguin to an unrefined whisky. “Older Rasputin is the most refined version of this style,” he said. “This is the other end of that spectrum.” Gev Kazanchyan added, “There’s a part of my gums that feel like after I’m at the dentist…a novocaine quality.”
We got into a discussion about whether or not Tactical Nuclear Penguin is even beer. Technically it’s a beer because it’s not distilled, but it doesn’t taste much like beer as we know it. Still, it’s good to have extreme brewers like BrewDog that are testing the limits of how we view beer.
Each of us added an ice cube to see if the Penguin would open up with a little water and a cooler temperature. The slightly diluted sips were rounder and more enjoyable than the room temperature Penguin.
For only five pounds extra, I added a bottle of Tokyo, BrewDog’s “Intergalactic Fantastic Oak Aged Stout.” This beer packed a punch of its own at 18.2% ABV, but compared to the Penguin, this was practically a session beer. Tokyo was inspired by a 1980s Space Invaders game played in Tokyo. Somehow that experience triggered an Imperial Stout “brewed with copious amounts of specialty malts, jasmine and cranberries,” dry-hopped and aged on French toasted oak chips. Tokyo was downright effervescent compared to Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a sweet, caramelly, mildly tangy beer with good carbonation and a rich dark brown color.
If you’re interested in learning more about Tactical Nuclear Penguin, or just want some entertainment, look to the BrewDog website. Watt and Dickie are hop mad showmen. For special beers like Atlantic IPA and Tactical Nuclear Penguin, they produce videos LIKE THIS ONE, which shows them dressed in penguin suits, touting their 32% “Beer For The Dedicated.”