Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this episode of “Next Round,” VinePair CEO and founder Adam Teeter is joined by Goose Island brewmaster Keith Gabbett and Old Forester master taster Jackie Zykan. While Goose Island collaborates with a different bourbon distillery every year to produce its famous Bourbon County Stout, both Zykan and Gabbett agree that this year gave way to a particularly special version.
The 2020 Bourbon County Stout was brewed with the classic Goose Island Bourbon Stout recipe and aged in Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon barrels. Zykan discusses Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon tradition, in which the distillery founder’s birthday is celebrated every year with one huge day of production. All the bourbon produced and barreled on that day is designated for that year’s birthday bourbon, and it emerges each year with different tasting notes.
Similarly, since 1992, Goose Island has produced a Bourbon County Stout that arrives each year with an exciting new flavor profile. The tasting notes depend on the barrels the stout is aged in, and both Zykan and Gabbett spoke about being especially excited for this year’s yield. Both discuss the aromas and flavors in this year’s stout, and the steps that led to this truly special collaboration. While this year’s Great American Beer Festival had to take place online, the collab between Goose Island and Old Forester gave beer fans plenty to look forward to.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
A: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to give everyone a better picture of how the industry is adapting during Covid-19. Today. I’m really lucky to be talking to Goose Island brewmaster Keith Gabbett and Old Forester master whiskey taster Jackie Zykan. Thank you both so much for joining me and for coming together for what I’m really excited to talk about, which is your collaboration on Bourbon County Stout, probably the most anticipated beer every year. So Keith, Jackie, thanks so much.
J: No, thank you.
K: Yeah Adam, thank you very much.
A: So Keith, let’s get into it from the beginning. And what I’d love to talk about before we jump into your collaboration with Old Forester and what’s up this year, for listeners who maybe are somewhat familiar with Bourbon County but don’t know the whole history, I’d love it if you could just explain how that started. I think a lot of people may not even realize that Bourbon County was the original bourbon-barrel-aged beer. How did it come to pass that you guys decided to start putting your beer in bourbon barrels?
K: So it really came to pass back in 1992, when our former brewmaster Greg Hall wanted to celebrate the thousandth batch out of the brew pub at that time. And at that time, craft beer was in its infancy, and to get to that kind of a milestone was huge. And so brewers liked to celebrate that with something amazing, whether it was a giant IPA or in this case, an Imperial Stout. And a few weeks before, Greg had been at a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner and he happened to be sitting next to Booker Noe from Jim Beam and they got to talking, as people will as you drink and eat, and Greg happened to say, “Hey, what do you do with your bourbon casks once you empty them once you’re done aging the bourbon in them?” And it turns out that these casks are pretty much up for grabs. There’s not necessarily a good reuse for the distillers for those casks. And Greg said, “Hey, next time you empty some casks, send me up a couple. I’d love to see what I can do with it.” So lo and behold, a few weeks later, a couple of empty casks showed up at the brew pub, and Greg filled it with this massive Imperial Stout, just kind of on a whim, because what goes better with beer than bourbon, right? Maybe cigars, maybe food, but it’s hard to interject those two. Bourbon’s a lot easier. But no one had really done this before. And in my mind, it’s similar to this craze of hazy milkshake IPAs that’s been going on lately in the sense that it’s weird, it’s different, but once you get into it, everyone’s on board with it. So this beer, the Bourbon County Stout, was so original, so unique, that no one knew what to do with it. Everyone loved it. They took it to GABF, the Great American Beer Festival, and entered it into the Imperial Stout category where it promptly got kicked out for not being true to style, because there’s nothing about Imperial styles that say it needs to taste like bourbon. But as soon as the competition was over, as soon as that judging portion was over, all the judges ran downstairs to the floor and ran over to the Goose Island booth and drank the rest of the keg of Bourbon County. So much so that once the fans showed up, they didn’t even get a chance to try it. So that was the birth of bourbon-barrel aging as we know it. And it’s gone from there to now, you can’t go into a brewery of any size these days without seeing at least one or two bourbon barrels sitting in a corner, holding Bourbon County or holding stout or barley wine or what have you. So it really comes down to eating and drinking with your friends and coming up with something cool.
A: That’s awesome. So Jackie, had you had this before? Because this is the first year that Old Forester’s collaborating with Goose Island to make Bourbon County, correct? Had you had Bourbon County or other bourbon-barrel-aged beers prior to this and what was your impression of them when you had them as a master taster?
K: Oh, sure. I’m a very enthusiastic imbiber of all categories. So, yeah and of course, Keith brought up a really good point, throw a dart and hit one — any taproom anywhere, everybody has one. Now it’s just its own thing. And of course being somebody that obviously is a bourbon aficionado, if you will, by trade or by recreation here, I find the flavor profile delicious, and it’s just one of those things that why haven’t we been doing this longer? It makes perfect sense. The flavors just meld so perfectly with it. So I was a massive fan, and when I found out that we were doing this particular partnership, it was something that was incredibly exciting. It’s such a cool project, and they’ve been such a great team to work with on it.
A: So what does that collaboration look like? Obviously, I want to get into more technical details, too, about brewing the beer and what needs to be in order to make it really work in the bourbon barrels, but before we get there, just because you brought up the collaboration, Jackie, I’d love to talk about that a little bit. What does that look like? So the second that you decide you’re going to work together, I’m assuming it’s evolved from just Jimmy sending you random casks, to specifically selecting those casks. So how do you guys go through that process and how collaborative is it back and forth in terms of, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this beer, and we’re going to put it in here,” et cetera?
K: Go ahead, Jackie.
J: Oh, no. I was just going to say from our end, our main focus is obviously making the best quality whiskey that we possibly can. Whatever’s left in those barrels we stand behind just as much as the stuff you see in a bottle on a shelf. I think with this being such an incredibly sought after and such a really unique product on the market — and Keith, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’ll let you take it after this — I think they had their eyes on the best of the best of the best that we could give them, that was our birthday bourbon barrels.
A: And so why birthday? Were you just aware of the Birthday Bourbon? Obviously, they’re the 11 year olds, but what was it about that that you thought would make the stout so special?
K: I think first and foremost, we’re beer fans. But second to that, we’re bourbon fans. If you walk through our offices you’ll see probably just as many bottles of bourbon on our desk as you will bottles of beer. And there are distilleries that we love to work with that are kind of pie-in-the-sky ideas of things that we would love to get our hands on. These offerings, the birthday bourbon, they don’t come around very often. They’re very unique. They’re very special. And you can’t just call up the distillery and say, “Hey, can I get some barrels? And can you make them super special and unique?” It just doesn’t happen anymore. So I believe we started the conversation with Old Forester probably about a year before we actually got these barrels in, and it was just building that relationship and talking with them and saying, “Hey, we’d love to get some unique barrels in.” And then when we found out that these were being emptied, I believe it was June or July of 2019, we were actually done filling Bourbon County Stout for that season. And Old Forester called us up and they said, “Hey, we’ve got these fantastic barrels. Do you want them?” And we said, “Absolutely! We’re going to do it.” So we dropped everything, and we brewed another batch of Bourbon County to put in the barrels. You don’t say no when these opportunities come up, and the bourbon itself is highly sought after and super unique and just really delicious. But yeah, it’s just building those relationships with the distillers. We were lucky enough to go down to Brown-Forman in February, just before the country shut down, and were able to tour through almost everything. I had to cut out before we jumped ship and went down to a Jack Daniels. But yeah, the distillery and the dedication to process and detail and quality is amazing with them. And we knew that that would showcase itself in the beer.
A: So you, you mentioned something that I’m curious about. You said, “we brewed another batch of Bourbon County.” So is the stout recipe the same no matter what barrel you’re going into, or do you adapt the recipe based on the bourbon barrel? Obviously, you have traditional Bourbon County Stout. You have Birthday Bourbon, you have Anniversary Bourbon, you have Bourbon County Kentucky Fog. Is it always the same, or are there little things that you change?
K: Oh, good question. I tried to keep Bourbon County style to be as true to the original recipe as possible. I’m very, very, very protective of it. And every time we have new brewers coming into Goose Island, they always have this idea of how they can change Bourbon County to make it better or more unique. And I always say, “No, there’s no way we’re going to do that.” That being said, we occasionally do some recipe tweaks, but not very often. In the case of the Birthday Bourbon. And then down the road, with the Anniversary, it’s all that same base stout, the original Bourbon County Stout recipe. The recipe itself is good. It’s a great Imperial style, but the magic happens in the barrel and being able to showcase that magic of the barrel, itself is really what we’re trying to do here with these releases — especially with the Birthday Bourbon.
A: And so Jackie, have you now tasted — you mentioned a little bit before we started recording that you were drinking some stout now so I’m assuming you have tasted it. What did you think when the stout came out of the barrels that you had now been aware of and had tasted the original liquid? How much does the beer remind you of Birthday Bourbon?
J: Well, I am drinking it right now. I was like, “I guess I better crack this open.” I was saving it for a special occasion and this got put on the books, and I was like, perfect. No, it’s fantastic. I poured it into a glass and the first hint of it — this is going to be the cheesiest thing that I’d probably say this entire time, but it is really very much this very solid stout that’s enveloped in this ethereal bourbon character. And then as you get it onto your palate, it’s perfect, right down the middle, there’s elements of the Old Forester. There’s elements of that particular Birthday expression there, which were so nice. It had so much chocolate to it, so much dark fruit to it. And of course, there’s baking spice. It was so complementary. And I don’t think that the similarity in flavors really made it monotone by any means. I think that each one had its own unique tweak to it. So it makes it a really dimensional product, and I think it’s fantastic.
A: Obviously you’re a master whiskey taster, you’re not a marketer, but I am curious, do you see having Birthday Bourbon barrels involved in this beer — which is such a phenomenon, and I’m going to get to that with you Keith — as a really good way to introduce Old Forester to bourbon drinkers that haven’t had Old Forester before? And if you do think it is, what do you think they’ll get in Old Forester that will remind them of the Bourbon County Stout that you’re drinking right now?
J: Well it’s really interesting, because the brand comes across as being bigger than it is to certain circles, right? The bourbon nerds out there know it well because it’s such a legacy brand, but there are so many people that are like, “Old what, what is that? I don’t know what that is.” So we’re still growing very quickly in that space, but we’re still growing awareness. So any opportunity like this is of course a benefit for the brand, but it’s great, because you’re actually getting to reach a completely different audience — somebody that appreciates flavor and appreciates things that take time and a lot of work and a lot of thought, and not just someone who is trying to slam something to get wasted on. So that’s definitely a great crowd for us to appeal to, because we do put so much effort into making such a high-quality product. But I don’t know. I think if you’ve never had Old Forester and you go to taste the Bourbon County Stout from Birthday bourbon barrels, you’re obviously not going to be like, “It tastes like Old Forester!” Old Forester doesn’t have an unorthodox Kentucky Bourbon profile. There’s so many brands and they’re all very unique, but I think that we do definitely represent a very flagship, traditional, Kentucky bourbon flavor. Sweet on the front end and spicy on the back and just very well balanced. So I don’t think that it would necessarily resonate one way or another. But once you start lining them up, right? And you start collecting them. And I’m really glad to hear Keith say that they try to keep that variable to a minimum and let the barrel shine through because if you line these up side by side, I think that’s where you’re going to start seeing those nuances pop through a little bit more.
A: So, Keith, what has made Bourbon County Stout, in your mind, a phenomenon for so long? I think it’s still something that beer nerds talk about every year. It’s still something that the beer press gets really excited about every year. Why do you think that is? And so I have two questions. It’s that one. But then also a lot of other people have started making stouts aged in bourbon barrels, but all of them aren’t so good. And so I guess my other question is, what do you think you’re doing right that makes the beer so consistent year after year? And what are some people maybe not understanding? It’s not just about throwing beer in a bourbon barrel. And is that maybe why the beers have become so timeless?
K: Wow. That’s such a loaded couple of questions.
A: Totally is.
K: Let’s see if I can unpack that a little bit. So to me, Bourbon County Stout is all about a series of firsts. It was the first bourbon- barrel-aged beer. We’re one of the first to start doing adjuncts or adding ingredients to the bourbon-barrel-aged beer with our coffee stout variant, back in 2012, 2011, somewhere around there. And then we’ve expanded on that. We’ve added fruit, we’ve added toasted coconut, and we’ve really tried to pull out characters that are in those barrels to begin with. You get some of those coconut lactones that come through from the oak. And that was our original goal was to tease out the characters that are in the barrel and bring those to the forefront with Bourbon County Stout. It just so happens that those happened to be fantastic characters, like coconut and vanilla and caramel, and all those other great things. But we’ve stayed pretty far away from going into the pastry stout category. Not that there’s anything wrong with pastry stouts, but these are styles that rely heavily on sweeter adjuncts like chocolate and caramel and replicating ice cream flavors or candy flavors. And there are fantastic ones out there, but we’ve always held a little bit more true to the barrel itself, in my opinion. And then the fact that we’ve been doing this for so long, and have been building up these relationships with the distilleries, has enabled us in the past couple of years to really showcase those distilleries. What we love about Bourbon County Stout is it’s a great beer, but it’s also made from great bourbon as well. And having the chance to showcase a brand like Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon is something that keeps people coming back, and it showcases that bourbon-barrel-aged stouts aren’t just the luck of the draw. You don’t just throw down into a random barrel and release it and call it good. You carefully choose the partners that you select. And if you’re good to them and the product that you have, they’ll reward you with phenomenal barrels. And that allows us to showcase that.
A: Well, Jackie, can you talk to me a little bit about Birthday Bourbon as a bourbon? I’m embarrassed. I’ve actually never had it and I love a lot of your bourbons, but I’ve never had Birthday before. So can you talk to us about what the liquid is and what it tastes like?
J: Sure, absolutely. So Birthday Bourbon is an expression that we’ve been releasing ever since 2002. The gist behind it is that the founder of Brown-Forman, George Garvin Brown, is the person that came up with Old Forester back in the 1870s. This is the founding brand of the entire company. His birthday is Sept. 2, so to honor him, let’s do something special. So what you got with Birthday is one day’s production. And what we get out of those barrels at the end of it is what you get. We’ve got a unique warehousing situation going on where we do heat cycling. So we do lose higher-than-normal amount to the angel share every year. So the range has been from nine to 14 years. So it’s always somewhere in that realm, every year is different. And that is by design. You don’t want it to taste the same. It’s the only expression of Old Fo that you could really find that’s not meant to replicate flavor profile year after year after year, just to embrace the nuances of those barrels. But so this one, the 2019, was actually the highest proof that we’ve ever had. So it’s interesting that these are the barrels that ended up in this big, burly beer, if you will. It’s great. The flavor profile on that particular bourbon was really, really intense and really dense and had a lot going for it. Every year is different. Some years taste like honeydew, some years taste like vanilla icing, some years taste like strawberry, “My Little Pony” scratch-and-sniff stickers, they’re all over the board.
J: But, so that’s the thing, it’s why you always want to try to get it, because every vintage is different. But there’s barely any of it that goes around and now the more the brand grows, the more people are looking for it. And now it’s the one thing we have that’s incredibly, incredibly hard to find.
A: That’s cool. And so then Keith, what tasting notes do you think are coming through in this bourbon? What’s interesting about what you said, Jackie is, I think that’s what’s so cool about Birthday and Bourbon County as well, is that Bourbon County is never the same every year. Right? There’s always different tasting notes. It’s evolving with the different partnerships you guys are doing. So the partnership between the two of you makes a lot of sense. I’m curious if someone were to find Birthday Bourbon County Stout out in the wild, Keith, what would they taste?
K: Wow. So I’m a little embarrassed to be talking about this in front of Jackie. But to me, that 2019 Birthday Bourbon had a lot of, and to me, Old Forester has a lot of fruity notes, and a lot of what I got out of the 2019 Birthday Bourbon were these fruit notes with some baking spice, cake, and maple syrup, and all these great things. And a lot of those you find in original Bourbon County in any case, but what stands out to me in the Birthday Bourbon are those fruity notes. I get a ton of red fruit and this really delicious maple spice. So I get a strawberry, raspberry, cherry character that I attribute to Old Forester, specifically, in this case. And then layers on to that spiced cake, that maple syrup character, then also everything that’s in original Bourbon County, the toffee, the chocolate, the fudge, the vanilla, the toasted marshmallow, the leather, the dried fruit. All of those are there, but it’s those fruity notes to me that really come to the forefront and make it stand out as a fantastic release.
A: A lot of people also collect Bourbon County Stout and age it. What happens to this beer as it ages, and if you were to age it, how would you recommend doing?
K: I think if you’re going to age it, aging it at cellar temperatures around 50 degrees in a cool dark place is appropriate. You don’t want to lay the bottle on its side. It’s got a crown rather than a cork, so that’s not going to do it any good. We put a five-year shelf life on most of our variants, although last year we opened up a bottle of 2008 that was tasting fantastic. So you can certainly do that, but those flavors are going to meld, and you’re going to lose some of the rougher edges of the “hotness” of the bourbon itself, and pick up a little bit more of those dried-fruit characteristics, maybe a little bit more of a Nutty Care character coming through. And it’s always fun to age, but with this one, I’ve been blown away by it. I’ve been drinking this one kind of nonstop since we started bottling it. And I really like it fresh. It’s going to be good in five years. I can’t imagine how much better it’s going to be in five years. So I recommend buying a couple of bottles if you can, but this is fantastic fresh, right off the bat.
A: Well Keith and Jackie, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about both Bourbon County Stout, as well as Old Forester. It’s been a really cool conversation, and I definitely learned a lot about how you collaborated and how this beer has evolved over time. So thank you both so much.
K: Thank you, Adam. Thank you, Jackie. It’s a lot of fun talking with you. And Jackie, I hope to get down to Old Forester to visit you again, as soon as things allow.
J: I know. Back in the day, back before Covid, my travel didn’t allow me to be there for all of the engagements that the team had with your team. And so I look forward to those chats, hopefully sooner than later.
A: Totally, I can’t agree more. Well, thank you both so much. I really appreciate it.
J: Thank you Adam.
K: Thank you, Adam.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity