While 2020 might be … unusual, to say the least, there’s one thing that’s just as reliable and awesome as always: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. I think I say this every year, but this is one of the best BCBS lineups yet.
I had two main takeaways from this year’s variants: First, I’m really glad that they’ve decided to stick with aging BCBS in limited-edition bourbon barrels as they’ve done in recent years. This year, there are two of these variants: Birthday Bourbon County Stout and Anniversary Bourbon County Stout. (Both of these variants will be available in NYC and other select large markets.)
Second, I was really happy that none of the variants were overly sweet. The last few lineups have featured some sweet variants that aren’t usually my personal favorites. That’s not to say that there aren’t dessert-focused offerings: I absolutely love this year’s wheatwine variant, Bourbon County Caramella Ale. And as an NYC’er, I really liked this year’s Proprietor’s Stout, because it tasted just like a spumoni you can find in Brooklyn. As always, the Prop variant will only be available in Chicago. The good news is that NYC will be getting everything else!
Now for the reviews, which are listed in the order I tried them at the virtual press tasting a couple weeks ago:
Bourbon County Stout (14.3%/14.6%)
BCBS was aged for one year in a combination of Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey barrels. While the formula is pretty much the same from year to year, each batch is always a bit unique—and 2020 is no exception. I always get big vanilla and toffee notes, but this year it is a lot more nutty than usual. Either way, you won’t be disappointed by this “regular” BCBS because there’s nothing regular about it. It is a fantastic beer that will age forever—I always save a few to try down the road.
Birthday Bourbon County Stout (14.6%)
Each year, Old Forrester releases their limited-edition Birthday Bourbon for their founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday. BCBS was aged for one year in the 11-year-old barrels of the 2019 vintage of Birthday Bourbon. The barrel complexity on this beer is unreal. Along with more expected notes of rich chocolate, vanilla, and toffee, there are also flavors of blackberries and red fruits like currants and strawberries. This was my favorite beer of the entire lineup. It’s amazing what unique flavors a special barrel like this can impart on a beer. The packaging is also super cool! To open the box, you pull open a paper tab, a play on breaking the purple ribbon on an actual bottle of Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon.
Anniversary Bourbon County Stout (15.2%)
For its 10th year, Goose Island is releasing BCBS on Black Friday, so they decided to make a special beer to commemorate the occasion. This variant is aged for two years (twice as long as regular BCBS) in Weller 12 Year barrels. That added age shows up big time in this beer. You get huge barrel flavors of chocolate, vanilla, oak, and tobacco. The wheated bourbon also imparts a burnt candy sweetness and smoothness. It was really hard for me to decide whether I liked this or the Birthday more, but I gave the Birthday a slight edge because I really loved the fruit qualities from that beer—but it was a close call! The packaging for Anniversary is also awesome. I love that there is a cutout window, showing the bottle inside. It just makes opening a special bottle like this even more special.
Bourbon County Caramella Ale (14.6%)
OK, so I know I’ve already said what my two favorites are from this lineup, but this was probably the biggest surprise for me. I have always been a huge fan of the Bourbon County barleywines and wheatwines, but I was a bit apprehensive about this beer after reading its description, but I was so wrong. Just like last year, the wheatwine was aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels. But this year, it was aged on apples, cinnamon, and caramel natural flavoring. This is a pretty easy one to describe: apple, cinnamon crumb cake in liquid form. It’s not overly sweet, but bursts with the flavors of autumn. Do not sleep on this one! I plan on stocking up, because I loved this beer.
Bourbon County Kentucky Fog (14.1%)
This was by far the most intriguing sounding beer in the lineup. It was created by brewer Paul Cade who was inspired by his girlfriend Martha who prefers tea to coffee. He decided to do a play on the London Fog tea drink, which traditionally has earl grey tea, milk, sugar, lemon, and sometimes lavender. This BCBS version was blended with earl grey and black tea from Kilogram Tea, in Chicago, and clover honey from The Honey House, in Wisconsin. I’ve never had a stout like this and it reminded me of a hybrid of a stout and hot toddy (I’ve never had a London Fog). You get beautiful floral qualities from the tea, along with big citrusy lemon and lime, a touch of sweetness from the honey and then a boozy bourbon kick. As a tea drinker, I really liked this beer, but it will undoubtedly be the most polarizing of the variants this year since it is just so unique—in a good way!
Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout (14.2%)
Italian American brewer Emily Kosmal’s love for the traditional Italian dessert Spumoni inspired this year’s Prop variant. The actual dessert is made up of layers of pistachio, cherry, and either vanilla or chocolate ice cream with chopped-up bits of candied cherries and pistachio nuts mixed throughout. I was really excited to try this beer because I love getting this treat whenever I visit one of the best and classic NYC pizza restaurants: L&B Spumoni Gardens (get the square slice, too!). For this variant, BCBS was blended with fresh pistachios, cacao nibs, and candied Amarena cherries. You’d expect it to be really sweet, but it’s not. You get the rich, nuttiness of the pistachio, chocolate, and then cherry that lingers and builds on your palate. Last year’s 2019 variant was like a greatest hits of Prop variants’ adjuncts, which I loved, but I’m glad they went more adventurous this year. They absolutely nailed a Spumoni stout.
Bourbon County Special #4 Stout (13.3%)
Last but not least, we have Special #4 Stout. It gets its name from a breakfast special at a diner that the Goose Island brewers hit after a late shift. This beer is made a bit differently from regular BCBS—it’s an oatmeal stout brewed with crystal malt to give the beer a nutty and smoother mouthfeel and then aged in bourbon barrels for a year. It’s then blended with Intelligentsia cold brew coffee as well as whole “Metad Buku” coffee beans from Ethiopia. Then bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup from Bissell Maple Farm in Ohio was added. I was very excited to try this because I’m a big fan of BCBS coffee stouts and maple stouts, in general, and I don’t believe maple has been used in a BCBS beer since 2015. The coffee added some big, fresh roast coffee flavors. The maple added a bit of sweetness, but I wish there was a touch more maple flavor. Disclaimer: I also tried this beer after having six other BCBS variants, so maybe it’s easier to pick up the subtleties of the maple if you have this alone. I can’t wait to find out once I get a hold of another bottle, because I really enjoyed it—the coffee is delicious.
Well, that’s it, folks! Another Bourbon County Stout lineup review in the books. I can’t wait to see what’s in store next year already. Big thanks to Goose Island and Praytell team for organizing such an awesome event even during such a weird time.