It’s that time again! Black Friday is approaching and that doesn’t just mean deep-discount sales on video game consoles, TVs, and Furbys … do those still exist? Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout is back and will surely be on most beer nerds’ shopping lists.
I’ve had the chance to taste the whole lineup during a press event at Top Hops Beer Shop, New York City’s longtime destination for each BCBS Black Friday release (check out this year’s release details here). I also got to hear from the brewers about what it took to make each of this year’s variants, as well as from co-founder and former Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall.
Back in 1992, Hall transformed the stout world by aging an imperial stout in bourbon barrels—and BCBS was born. A few years later, the brewery entered the beer for judging at the Great American Beer Festival … where it was disqualified. Judges claimed that BCBS just didn’t fit into the stout category—it was something else, something too different to call a stout. (It did get an honorable mention.)
Today, the brewery is taking what made the beer so different back then and embracing it even more by showcasing how different barrels and length of barrel-aging changes BCBS. This year’s lineup features eight different variants, but five of the barrel-aged beers contain no added adjuncts. They’ve used BCBS as a canvas to highlight and focus on some of the rare and unique barrels that the brewery has access to. That’s almost unheard of in an age of “pastry” stouts, containing all sorts of crazy ingredients, from bacon to marshmallows to kid cereals and cookies.
“We’re leaning into the barrels,” Todd Ahsmann, Goose Island president told me. “No one is leaning into it like we are—it’s very nuanced. We’re reaching across the aisle to whisky lovers. We want to bring more people into the beer category.”
But if you’re a fan of dessert in a glass, don’t worry. Three variants have a wild array of adjuncts.
Anyway, enough of the intro and onto the reviews. (I’m listing these in the order that I tasted them at the Top Hops event):
2019 Bourbon County Wheatwine (15.3%)
I was really happy that Goose decided to bring this one back. As a huge fan of barrel-aged strong ales and barleywines, I was glad that a non-stout was kept in the mix. This year’s version is even better than last’s. It was brewed with a third more wheat and it has a bit sweeter, caramel richness. This year’s version is aged in 100% Larceny bourbon barrels. The lack of roasted malts (as in a stout) really lets that bourbon barrel shine. I plan on stocking up to age these for years.
2019 Bourbon County Brand Stout (14.7% and 15.2%)
I think each year has subtle differences from previous vintages and this year is the same. My first impression: The mouthfeel is much more viscous—it’s super silky and rich. This year’s vintage is aged in a mix of Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Wild Turkey barrels. As usual, the bourbon barrel flavors are huge: bourbon, vanilla, toffee and caramel, chocolate, coffee, and leather.
BONUS: This year you’ll be able to purchase a three-year (2017-2019) vertical collection to do side-by-side tastings to see how BCBS evolves with time. I can’t wait to crack open mine with some friends.
Reserve Rye Bourbon County Stout (14.5% ABV)
For the first time ever, Goose has released a rye barrel-aged variant in a bottle without any additional adjuncts. I actually had a chance to try their Templeton Rye BCBS a couple years ago on tap and absolutely loved it, so I was really pumped to hear about this release. Instead of Templeton Rye barrels, this beer is aged in 100% Rittenhouse Rye barrels. I’m a huge fan of the spicy notes you get from rye. That’s what I was hoping for with this variant—and it delivered. You get big rye whisky up front, followed by a little spice that follows.
2-year Reserve Bourbon County Stout (14.9% ABV)
It’s hard for me to ever pick a favorite when it comes to a BCBS lineup, but I think this year might have been the easiest. This is it! For the second time, BCBS Reserve has been aged in Knob Creek barrels, but this time for twice as long. It was aged for 24 months in 11-year-old 25th Anniversary Knob Creek barrels. The difference is immediately noticeable. On first sips, everyone at the tasting gasped. The barrel character on this beer is just outstanding. You get huge notes of vanilla, a nutty almost hazelnut-like character, tobacco, and leather. I said at the time that if you were to give me a pour of this beer and not tell me what was in it, I would have assumed it was a stout with added vanilla—but it’s all barrel, baby!
Bourbon County Double Barrel Stout (18% ABV)
Yes, you read that ABV right … it’s a big beer. Double Barrel Stout was first aged for 12 months in 11-year-old Elijah Craig barrels. Then the beer was emptied from those barrels and filled in 12-year-old Elijah Craig barrels—the same whisky that won Whisky Advocate’s 2017 Whisky of the Year—and aged for another year. To say that this beer is intense is an understatement. It’s a bourbon bomb. The bourbon is huge on the nose and taste, though you’d never know it was 18%. If I were to pick a second favorite of the 2019 lineup, this would be it—it’s simply amazing how well the bourbon is emphasized in this beer. It’s not yet clear which markets will receive this variant but I was told that it is going to be extremely limited.
And now onto the adjuncts!
Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout (14.5% ABV)
This is the question I almost immediately get from friends after trying the new lineup each year: “How was Prop?” And I really don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that this was the best vintage ever. My personal favorite before this was 2017’s banana and cinnamon variant. Some aren’t fans of banana stouts, so I think this year’s Prop will be more widely embraced. It brings together many of the past “greatest hits” into one beer: toasted pecans, coconut, cocoa, and vanilla. And let me tell you, it is a sensational balance of each. Prop is by far the sweetest of the 2019 lineup but that’s to be expected. The extra sugar helps give this beer a decadent, rich mouthfeel. It’s the definition of dessert in a glass. Look it up in Webster’s. 😉
Like previous years, this variant will only be available in Chicago. Fans will get their first taste of it this Sunday at Goose Island’s Prop Day and I’m excited to hear what the response is because I absolutely loved trying this beer.
Bourbon County Mon Chéri Stout (14.1% ABV)
2013’s Cherry Rye is one of my favorites of all time so I was so happy that a new cherry variant was being released this year. Mon Chéri was brewed by Quinn Fuechsl, who also brewed the aforementioned 2017 Prop. Instead of banana bread, Quinn brewed up some cherry pie this year. It’s so different from Cherry Rye, but that’s OK. It’s brewed with a combination of granola, oats, brown sugar, and Balaton and Montmorency Tart cherries. It’s literally cherry pie in a glass. You get big cherry flavor, followed by pie crust flavors. It’s pie. It’s beer. It’s pie-beer.
Bourbon County Café de Olla Stout (13.5% ABV)
I’ve never had the Mexican coffee drink that this beer is named for and inspired by, but if it tastes anything like this beer then I need to! This beer is again brewed with coffee from Goose Island’s neighbors Intelligentsia Coffee. But this year, BCBS was aged on both beans and blended with coffee and then finished with cassia bark (cinnamon), orange peel, and panela sugar. This beer is first and foremost a coffee stout—the coffee is huge on the nose and the taste. The other variants are simply compliments to the coffee. In no way does this beer resemble the big orange-forward Midnight Orange from last year’s release or a spiced stout, for instance. The orange peel and spice from the cinnamon are just barely there on the finish and the whole cane sugar just melds everything together. It’s remarkable how the brewers created such a perfect recipe, allowing the coffee to be the focus while adding just enough of the other adjuncts to support the main player.
Well that’s all for this year and what a year it was! Big thanks to the folks at Goose Island for inviting me again to the press tasting and to the Top Hops crew for helping to put on such a fun night!