Black Friday has special significance for beer lovers. The date marks the release of Goose Island Bourbon County, one of the world’s first bourbon barrel-aged beers. The beer and its legacy have commanded national attention, along with a line down the street at Goose Island’s Chicago brewpub, every year since 1995. Since its debut, Bourbon County has expanded from the original bourbon barrel-aged stout to include a suite of flavors—eight in 2018—that continue to capture fans’ attention.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County beers have a unique mystique. Even as breweries get acquired by corporations like Anheuser-Busch and lose their indie street cred—Goose Island included—Bourbon County prevails, remaining a favorite amongst beer nerds. The brand even survived a series of recalls in 2016.
In 2018, Goose Island brings back classic flavors (original and vanilla), switches things up (no coffee stout!), and introduces some newcomers (orange-chocolate, and this year’s sleeper, Wheatwine). Overall, the 2018 selection is a cross-section of sweet, roasty, and distinct bourbon barrel-aged beers, with flavors ranging from a dram of aged whiskey to spiced fruit punch.
VinePair was lucky enough to join a few other industry members to sample this year’s Bourbon County lineup ahead of schedule, so we took it upon ourselves to rank our favorites. It was not easy.
8. Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout
Bramble aims for a balance of tart berry and spicy rye flavors, but slightly misses. “Fruit punch” came immediately to mind when we tasted Bramble, which consists of Bourbon County Stout aged with blackberry and raspberry juice in a majority of rye whiskey casks. Some acidity cuts through those jammy fruit notes, with a hint of wine-like tannins at the finish, but the mixture of stout, rye, and fruit struck us as slightly off-balance.
7. Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout
First released in 2010, then 2014, and now in 2018, Vanilla was the most polarizing among tasters. Whole-bean Madagascar vanilla contributes a strong flavor, which somewhat overpowers the other notes of marshmallow, fruit, and leather. This is one we’d recommend aging, to allow the intense vanilla flavors to mellow out over time.
6. Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine
We mourned the absence of Bourbon County Coffee Stout (according to R&D manager Mike Siegel, “it’s just taking a year off”) but our grief was quickly dispelled by tasting its barleywine legacy. Rich layers of malt, toffee, and caramel flavors play on the aroma and palate. “Dry-beaned” with lightly roasted coffee beans from Intelligentsia coffee contributes a gentle roast profile that stands out against the barleywine’s lack of roasted malt. Acidic with a brown sugar and cinnamon finish, Coffee Barleywine is pleasurable in both a sophisticated and guilty-pleasure way, like sneaking sugar into your espresso.
5. Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout
Dreamed up by Goose Island quality assurance analyst Paul Lievens and brewer Oscar Sanchez, Midnight Orange aims to translate the flavor of orange chocolate candy and a Mexican orange mocha into Bourbon County Stout — and totally nails it. The aroma is all candied orange, thanks to sweet Navelina orange peel (just zest, no juice, no pith, Lievens says), followed by bright chocolate flavors from African cocoa nibs.
4. Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout
Reserve drinks more like a dram than a dessert stout. Aged in 12 year-old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof casks, this gem boasts more oak, cherry liqueur, and whiskey flavor than the original Bourbon County stout, with complex bourbon notes as well. What sets it apart most of all is its body, viscous and slick with an oily finish that sticks to the glass. A favorite of many tasters, Reserve impresses with its refined complexity.
3. Bourbon County Brand Stout
The original BCBS lives up to its hype. Black as night with a light brown, velvety head, the stout had us swooning over aromas of salted brownie, chocolate fudge, dark roasted coffee, and berries. Sweet and roasty dessert flavors melded beautifully in its thick and creamy texture, like chocolate fondue.
2. Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine
We’re calling this one the sleeper hit of 2018. New to the lineup, Wheatwine’s base beer starts relatively simple with a malt bill of 70 percent two row malt and 30 percent malted wheat in stainless steel. It then ages in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels for an average of 10 to 14 months. No speciality malts are used; it gets its deep amber hue and butterscotch, toffee, and caramel aromas from the barrel. Sweet up front with a warm, bourbon-soaked spicy finish, Wheatwine is both thoughtful and easy to drink.
1. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout
This year’s Proprietor’s is a triple-chocolate dream. Conceptualized by Goose Island brewer Brian LaGro, this chocolate stout is made with two varieties of cocoa nibs—one dark, one light—and 55 percent dark chocolate from Theo Chocolate in Seattle. It’s a bold move. Goose Island has never used full-on chocolate in a bottled beer before, Siegel says. The payoff is the aroma and flavor of decadent, delicious drinking chocolate in the body of a barrel-aged stout. The only catch? Proprietor’s is only available in Chicago.