November is an exciting time for beer lovers. Oktoberfest lagers are still fair game, winter warmers enter the mix, and Goose Island Beer Co. releases its Bourbon County Stout variants. Every year since 2010, this occasion has fallen on Black Friday, with events at the brewery and around the country drawing enthusiastic crowds of bourbon-barrel-aged stout lovers. Although things look a little different this year, there’s still a lot to be excited about this year’s lineup.
Last Tuesday, VinePair joined Goose Island and a group of beer and spirits media to taste the seven variants in this year’s Bourbon County Stout lineup. Six are bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stouts, all of which use the original Bourbon County Stout recipe, with varying barrel and adjunct additions; and one is a returning wheat wine, with a new twist.
While 2019 Bourbon County Stout variants highlighted the contrast of barrel-aging techniques using different types of whiskey (bourbon vs. rye), the 2020 lineup goes all-out in bourbon-barrel blending and cellaring techniques. Birthday Bourbon County Stout, for example, is aged in Old Forester Birthday Bourbon barrels; while Anniversary Bourbon County Stout is aged two years in Weller 12-year bourbon barrels. (Whiskey geeks will note that this coveted bourbon is arguably interchangeable with the closely related Pappy Van Winkle).
Without further adieu, here is VinePair’s ranking of the 2020 Bourbon County Stout variants (and wheat wine). Watch out — almost all variants exceed 14 percent ABV.
7. Bourbon County Caramella Ale (14.6% ABV)
Continuing in the new tradition of including one wheat wine in the BCS lineup is Caramella Ale, a riff on 2019’s Wheatwine Ale, this time aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple, cassia bark, and caramel flavor. Fresh apple flesh, baked apple crumble, cinnamon, and caramel aromas and flavors swirl in the nostalgic air of this sweet variant, invoking memorable desserts such as caramel apples, “grandma’s apple pie,” and “apple cinnamon pop tarts, liquified, and melded with bourbon.”
6. Bourbon County Special #4 Stout (13.3% ABV)
Named for a menu item one might see on a large, laminated diner menu, this coffee variant is reminiscent of previous Bourbon County coffee stouts, upping the ante with an oatmeal stout base, as well as multi-step coffee conditioning. Both cold coffee concentrate and coffee beans (from Intelligentsia Coffee) are added after barrel-aging, the former flooding the silky stout with smooth, chocolatey cold-brew flavor; and the whole beans of single-origin Ethiopian Metad Buku, lending a fruity aroma, akin to blueberry. The use of oats is almost negligible, because this stout is so smooth already, but theoretically, it — and the bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup (from Bissell Maple Farm) — add to its texture and sweet, nutty finish.
5. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout (14.2% ABV) (Chicago only)
Maraschino cherry, chocolate fudge, and a wisp of nuts are immediately perceptible on the nose, as well as the palate, of this year’s Prop stout, created by Goose Island brewer Emily Kosmal — a second-time winner in the brewery’s Proprietor’s recipe contest. Hers mimics the Italian frozen dessert spumoni, which traditionally contains layers of nuts, cherry, and chocolate. This one is made with a blend of pistachios, cacao nibs, and candied Amarena cherries, and natural vanilla flavors. According to her colleagues, Kosmal came up with the winning recipe in a dream.
4. Birthday Bourbon County Stout (14.6% ABV)
Birthday is named for, and aged in, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon barrels, a highly coveted bourbon that’s released each year commemorating the birthday of Brown-Forman founder, George Garvin Brown. Birthday Bourbon Coutny Stout delivers the usual decadent chocolate, vanilla, and oak flavors with a silkier mouthfeel than the original, adding seductive heat from the bourbon, and very little bitterness. It’s also distinguishable for its dark fruit (plum, date, raisin) and red berry (strawberry) notes. Bourbon lovers who won’t get a taste of the rare birthday bourbon should consider this rare beer is an alternative, and even sweeter, treat.
3. Anniversary Bourbon County Stout (15.2% ABV)
“Anniversary” marks 10 years since Bourbon County Stout’s first Black Friday release, inspiring line culture, release days and festivals, and pastry stouts of today (the latter, much to the chagrin of some of the brewery). This exceptional variant is aged two years in Weller 12-year bourbon barrels, and drinking it is like eating fudge brownies fresh from the oven, warm gooey center bordering liquid, while quaffing a snifter of Pappy Van Winkle someone is holding for you under your nose. In comparison to the also very impressive “Birthday,” Anniversary delivers more woody notes, fudge-like chocolate flavor, and boozy bourbon heat.
2. Bourbon County Stout (14.3% ABV and 14.6% ABV)
Bourbon County Stout, the original, category-defining bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout, impresses again this year with its tried-and-true recipe which, according to brewmaster Keith Gabbett, has not changed since 1992. In 2020, it’s aged for a year in a mix of Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill Distillery, and Wild Turkey barrels. Notes of graham cracker, cocoa, vanilla, and a little bit of marshmallow swirl seductively on the nose; followed by warm whiskey, oak, chocolate, and vanilla on the palate. Smooth and viscous, like a bourbon-flavored chocolate syrup you don’t want to stop drinking, it simultaneously shows off its decadence, while retaining its structure and refinement; this is an exceptional beer.
1. Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout (14.1% ABV)
Words can hardly do justice to this mind-blowing masterpiece of an adjunct stout, but here goes: Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout is Goose Island’s take on the London Fog tea latte, blending Earl Grey and black tea, along with clover honey, with the Bourbon County Stout base beer. The results are an astounding sensory experience, beginning with an aroma bursting with bergamot, black tea, and hints of lemon and lime. On the palate, the floral and citrusy notes carry over with a touch of tannin accompanying the rich cocoa and vanilla bean flavors, smoothed out by the honey. If Bourbon County is a perfect bourbon-barrel-aged stout, Kentucky Fog transcends perfection. We came back to this variant again and again, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.