You might say Goose Island’s Bourbon County brand is maturing.
Two years ago, after tasting the 2019 Goose Island Bourbon County lineup, I said that they were a study in barrels and adjuncts. Today, I might say the same, but with one small syntactic change: In 2021, Goose Island’s Bourbon County brands explore barrels as adjuncts. This could not have happened without its longstanding “relationships” (more on that later) with bourbon’s biggest players, including Heaven Hill Distillery, Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac), and Wild Turkey (Campari Group).
Seven of the eight 2021 Bourbon County variants begin with the original Goose Island Bourbon County Stout recipe circa the 1990s. That same imperial stout recipe gets special treatment in the form of bourbon barrels; some see additional adjuncts, such as spices and fruits; and others see additional maturation in extremely rare casks. Announced in August, this year’s most coveted bottles share bourbon barrel DNA with Brown-Forman’s Old Forester 150th Anniversary; Buffalo Trace’s Blanton’s; and Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig. The details of those are provided in the list below.
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All eight variants were sent to select media for virtual tastings taking place on Zoom in October. I tasted these with the first New York City group on Wednesday, Oct. 27.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2021, Tasted and Ranked
8. Goose Island Bourbon County Fourteen Stout
Bringing back the Proprietor’s stout from 2014, this recipe adds rye to the mash bill for extra spice. It’s an interesting concept — and a timely one, as more whiskey drinkers show interest in rye — but it misses something in its execution. Fans of the 2014 “Prop” may appreciate the return of this variant (and they’ll certainly recognize its cinnamon and chocolate flavors, from cassia bark and cocoa nibs), but a new variant that more overtly leans into rye might be more appealing than an in-the-know homage.
7. Goose Island Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout
Production brewer and “flavor house specialist” Emily Kosmal is once again the brains and brawn behind this year’s Prop. This year’s inspiration? A “classic frozen treat” made with strawberries, vanilla, and coconut that, according to our conversation with Goose Island, most definitely isn’t based on a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bar. It is astonishingly, aromatically identical to a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bar (I could practically hear the ice cream truck and taste the crunchy cake coating). Along with demonstrating Kosmal’s mastery of replicating childhood treats, this Prop incorporates “natural flavors” for a consistent delivery.
6. Goose Island Bourbon County Cherry Wood Stout
As a developing concept, Cherry Wood Stout is one to watch, both as it ages in-bottle and as an example of forward-looking experimentation with wood varieties. It takes the original and fully matured 2021 Bourbon County Stout and adds toasted cherry wood, in the form of large “chips” perforated with holes (similar to a honeycomb), to a briefly extended maturation period. It adds a layer of cherry pit flavor that you’ll notice if you’re looking for it, but more so it adds an exciting element to the future of Bourbon County and other barrel-aged stouts: exploring alternative wood-aging concepts.
5. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (Original)
14% and 14.4% ABV
The 2021 original is aged in Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey bourbon barrels for 12 months. It is, as expected, deliciously chocolaty, vanilla-laced, and warming. However, at 14 percent ABV, it was drinking a little “hot” this year, with slightly more alcohol burn than even the longer-aged and higher-ABV variants. Always worth grabbing if you see it, but what’s coming up next is the real exciting stuff.
4. Goose Island Bourbon County Classic Cola Stout
This is the innovation I love to see in Bourbon County Stout. Though a possible flirtation with Big Soda, the Cola stout is the next descendant in my favorite Bourbon County Stout lineage: citrus. There was Midnight Orange in 2018, Cafe de Ola in 2019, Earl Grey in 2020, and now, in a most unexpected replication, Cola. This wasn’t even my favorite of that lineup, and in fact it was too heavy-handed for me, but a room-temperature sip is very different from, say, pouring this over ice like a whiskey and Coke, which it unabashedly emulates.
3. Goose Island Bourbon County Reserve 150 Stout
Best for impressing bourbon taters, this is, as the press sheet says, a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration that uses Old Forester 150th Anniversary Bourbon barrels — 150 of them, to be exact — where the stout ages for one year. It’s an impressive get for bourbon geeks for sure, and a nod to the (relative) longevity of Goose Island’s “in” with bourbon’s best.
2. Goose Island Bourbon County Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout
Playing with both barrel blending and toast levels, this is the most technically impressive variant of 2021. It’s aged in barrels from one of the best bourbon brands out there, Elijah Craig, first in Elijah Craig’s Small Batch Bourbon barrels for one year; and then in Elijah Craig Toasted Bourbon Barrels for an additional year. Where the Reserve stouts are ultra-impressive one-offs or flexes, the double barrel has longevity and room to grow.
1. Goose Island Bourbon County Reserve Blanton’s Stout
Aged for 18 months in Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon, this is 2021’s most impressive bottle from a branding perspective, from its packaging to its taste. It’s symbiotic in every way, including its flavor components of dark chocolate, oak, fruit leather, and marshmallow, with a thick, velvet-smooth texture. It’s also a most impressive gift, complete with a miniature Blanton’s horse hung around the bottleneck.