Last year, I had to drop out of the Media event for the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout lineup because of medical complications. Luckily, I was able to avoid getting sick this year. And better for me, the event moved to the houses of each beer writer and nabob involved. Goose Island sent out a fancy package with all seven variants, plus tiny tasting snifters, a bottle opener, and bottle stoppers, so we could save some of the bottles for later.
So this is my time to admit that Goose Island is treating us to free beer. You can take what I say about it with a grain of salt if you like, but this is the Bourbon County Stout lineup I’m talking about.
So these are my notes from the 2020 Media Tasting event. It was attended via Zoom by Goose Island’s Keith Gabbet, Brewmaster Keith Gabbett, Senior Brand Manager Mike Smith, R&D Manager Mike Siegel, President Toss Ahsmann, and 17 beer writers. It’s still the night of the tasting as I poke up these notes, combined with the original description of the beers. I may just be the first… among the first, maybe? Okay, somewhere in the line of beer writers to post their tasting notes.
Bourbon County Stout
The Original Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout. This year’s Bourbon County Stout is aged in a mix of bourbon barrels from whiskey distilleries like Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill Distillery and Wild Turkey. Barrel-aged for a year to develop the complexity that only time can provide, Bourbon County Stout boasts a unique blend of flavors such as fudge, vanilla and caramel — topped off with a rich, complex mouthfeel. 14.3% abv
Keith Gabbet, Brewmaster: We take many fill date batches and blend them to test the batch, to determine how this Bourbon County Stout remains consistent from year to year.
Each time I have this, it brings me back to that first impression when I just happened to be at the brewpub and the server offered a draft of this crazy beer they had aged in a bourbon barrel. A creamy chocolate nose. Taste remains nicely toasty in alcohol. Slight notes of fruit leather, followed by definite chocolate, or maybe the vanillin from the aged barrels. Should I have one of my older bottles open to test against? Not my Precious! As the first barrel-aged beer I’ve ever had, this is the Platonian “Ideal Form” of a BA stout. Other beers may surpass it in taste, but they are still but pale reflections of the original form.
Birthday Bourbon County Stout
We partnered with the Old Forester Brand and paired Bourbon County Stout with barrels from one of the world’s most sought-after bourbons – Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The limited-edition bourbon, released each year on the founder George Garvin Brown of Brown-Forman’s birthday, is made in hand-selected 11-year old barrels and chosen from one specific day of production – resulting in flavor profiles that vary every year and never replicated. 14.6% abv
Siegel: This was aged in a single type of barrel in 2019, the 11 year old Old Forester. Siegel also noted that Brown-Forman makes their own barrels, so they can customize the wood or the char to suit the brand that goes into it.
There’s more fruit to this nose. Definitely berries here, as the label suggests, a little lighter on the tobacco and chocolate from the original. The mouthfeel is thicker, and the alcohol is noticeably more potent. I’m very much liking the fruit, especially the berry notes. Yet, the fruit remains pretty light throughout, just enough to put an edge on the rest. Much more of a dessert beer, or a fruit dessert topping.
Anniversary Bourbon County Stout
Anniversary Bourbon County Stout is aged 2 years in Weller 12 Year barrels and is a special variant this year to celebrate Goose Island’s 10-year tradition of releasing Bourbon County Stout on Black Friday. The Weller brand is one of the most universally loved collections in all of bourbon, with Weller 12 Year being one of the hardest to get and most sought after. Our Original Bourbon County Stout is aged in 4-5 year old barrels for one year, so the added age of these Weller barrels, paired with an extra year of the beer in the barrel, adds stronger barrel flavors and notes of dried dark fruit. 15.2% abv
Mike Siegel pointed out that this beer is aged 2 years in 12 year old barrels, while the Birthday and most other BCS is aged for one year. He said 2 to 2½ years is the longest they’ve gone for aging, althrough some taproom beers have sat in barrels for five years.
I find a bit more char in the nose. Much more of a bourbon taste, including sweetness, and some oak. Dried fruit remains there, but just slightly more to the back.
Bourbon County Caramella Ale
Caramella or ‘candy’ in Italian is a wheatwine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple, cinnamon, and natural caramel flavor added after aging. Just like last year, the sweet smoothness from the Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels adds a lingering warmth that complements the added flavor nuance. It’s nostalgia-inducing flavors are reminiscent of a caramel apple. Our Lab Tech, Joey Tidei, created this variant as a tribute to his love of seasonal flavors. This luscious embodiment of caramel perfectly paired with a slightly-tart apple flavor will transport you to a crisp autumn day. 14.6% abv
Mike Siegel described the process of selecting each year’s employee-originated variants. Employees are given containers of BCS, and encouraged to add their own ingredients to it, for critiquing by the brewers. Many of these brews come back each year, with the creator tweaking the recipe each time. There are three to four rounds of judging for employee variant, narrowing from up to 40 beers to the two or three selected each year. Cassia bark (cinnamon) was first used in a Proprietors, in Lost Palate, and in some previous BCS’s.
I get a bright brown color, fitting right in with the barely wine style. Apple and cinnamon is the first thing that comes to my nose. Apple and candy taste blows out from the first sip. So no smoke, not much from the barrel aging, except for perhaps a touch of oak. This is so much an apple dessert beer. Definitely not an apple cider flavor.
Beer writer Karl Klockers asked how did they get the apple to work so well in the wheatwine. Siegel answered that they tried several method. They landed on using apple juice that from which most of the water had been evaporated, to make it very viscous. This way, they didn’t dilute the beer and have to find a way to concentrate it.
Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout
We’re excited to debut our first-ever tea-inspired variant. Brewer Paul Cade brought this idea to life, inspired by his girlfriend, Martha, who prefers tea over coffee. Our Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout is a take on the London Fog tea drink. With that flavor profile in mind, we added Earl Grey Tea and Black Tea from Kilogram Tea, as well as clover honey from The Honey House, to make a Bourbon County Stout variant with a complexity like none before. 14.1% abv
Mike Siegel notes that it was made with cold-brewed tea, with honey that’s been watered down ao it will ferment.
Smell is, how do I put it? “Mystifying.” A little bit of BCS in the nose. Some floral notes from bergamot, and I catch a note of white pepper. In fact, the taste has even more peppercorn to it than anything else. The taste stands next to the bourbon flavor without very much blending in. Sweetness comes into a bit of molasses. I am grateful they haven’t gone whole hog with pastry or breakfast cereal additions to the BCS. It still has the stickiness of a strong imperial beer, but definitely different. If I look at this crosswise, the bergamot can remind me of soap, so watch out!
Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout
This year’s Proprietor’s was inspired by third-generation Italian American brewer Emily Kosmal’s love of spumoni, a classic Italian frozen treat. Spumoni is a tri-colored frozen dessert that contains candied fruit and nuts between each layer, historically including flavors such as pistachio, cherry and chocolate. Blended with fresh pistachios, cacao nibs, candied Amarena cherries, and natural vanilla flavors, the 2020 Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout is incredibly complex and layered with cocoa, nut, and dark fruit notes with hints of vanilla and oak. Emily, who also created the concept for 2016 Proprietor’s, is our first brewer to have two Proprietor’s concepts picked for release. 14.2% abv
Seigel: Again, Proprietor’s represents our Chicago-only variant (available in stores as far as the suburbs but not in downstate Illinois or even Goose island’s other locations). Amarena is an Italian maraschino-type cherry, which we got from While Foods. We added more pistachio than any brewer’s added to any beer ever.
I do get an almond or orgeat in the nose. They say it’s from the pistachio, okay. Yes, it does seem like a spumoni ice cream. It’s so easy to go totally overboard when bringing in flavors like this, but the beer stays focused on the cocoa and char of a BCS to help keep everything in balance. Now I get some of the light Dutch chocolate match to candied cherries. So this changes depending on which sip you’re on in the snifter.
Bourbon County Special #4 Stout
This is an oatmeal stout variant of our original Bourbon County Stout recipe, also aged in bourbon barrels, that uses crystal oats to add a nutty character, as well as a smooth mouthfeel. After barrel aging, we add Intelligentsia Coffee, both their cold coffee and single origin coffee beans from Ethiopia, called “Metad Buku,” bringing out a pleasant fruity coffee character. Lastly bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup from Bissell Maple Farm in Ohio is added which provides complexity to the nutty oats and coffee to round out the flavors, ultimately reminiscent of your breakfast ‘special’ at the local diner.
Here’s the Coffee BCS some of us were asking about (The first BCS with coffee was made in 2009, they note). They’ve clarified that Bissell sources bourbon barrels to age maple syrup, then the barrels and some of the maple syrup go to Goose for the BCS program. The name does not mean there’s a Special #1-#3 beer, said Mike Smith, but because when you go into a breakfast diner, the #4 special on the menu is usually the one that uses all the ingredients you want.
A strong, Intelligentsia-grade coffee right up there in the nose. Sweetness that starts to come in from the maple at the first sip. The coffee fades away as I get more of the taste in, thanks to the smooth oatmeal. I don’t get much in the way of maple flavor, but then the real maple flavor is pretty light. Coffee works with the oatmeal smoothness to make a fine beer to end the evening one.
The hosts answered a few questions from us in the crowd: I had asked that since they went from Imperial Stouts to Barleywines and Wheatwines, might they try other styles in the BCS program, like a Belgian Quad or a Wee Heavy. Siegel replied that they may or may not try in the future. They have done other barrel-aged styles, but they did not “feel” like a BCS. Those ended up in the “Cooper” series. The first wheatwine, meanwhile, went through a 3 year process of experimentation before they decided to upscale it to the a general BCS release.
Asked about the Bourbon County “Rare” releases, Siegel noted that they have not done as many because they don’t come across enough “rare” barrels like the Weller barrels they’ve used before. Mike Smith added “Previous Rare releases have involved 21 year old Pappy Hill barrels, among others, which are pretty hard to come by, so there is a lot to match up with.”
The principals noted that production has remained the same as before the pandemic. The runs Birthday & Anniversary beers were 100% packaged this year, ideally not on tap. The difference is that there may be fewer kegs.
So far, the only Black Friday releases they’ve co-promoted have been the ones at Binny’s or Jewel. At this writing, they have no information yet on any Black Wednesday tappings.
And for those of you getting ready for the Proprietor’s Day pickup, they have tried not to spill the beans about the Prop Day secret variant.