Every year I consider and then swiftly reject the notion of sober January, which puts it on an overcrowded pedestal of good but not gratifying lifestyle choices that I’ll always admire and never implement. I don’t doubt the physical, mental, and financial benefits that accrue for any soul brave enough to face down the darkest 31 days of the year without alcohol’s delicious, pernicious aid. I bet everyone who toughs it out wakes up on February 1st with clearer vision, healthier relationships, and happier cats. Bully for them.
The plain fact is that I’m no more likely to swear off the booze for a full month than I am to save up for retirement, set stronger passwords, or stop flossing with Slim Jims. And neither are you, or we wouldn’t be having this nice chat right now, would we? Good! But just because we’re not going to give up the most vital of fluids doesn’t mean we should simply continue swallowing every damn thing that decides to jump into our beerholes. January’s no time to go dry, but it’s a fine month to be a little more thoughtful about our beer choices.
Those of us whose horses aren’t quite high enough to abstain altogether can still be more selective about the beers to which we devote our holiday-depleted supplies of spare dollars and calories. That means no garbage beers, but also no super-luxury models, either. Therefore, even though we’re entering the imperial stout months, we might want to hold off on the $20 barrel-aged versions until a few more bills get paid. Presented below in no particular order are 10 high-proof stouts that don’t need to rest in whiskey barrels in order to make themselves presentable.
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This venerable Colorado monster now comes in Oatmeal, Oak-Aged, and Espresso Oak-Aged varieties, but the original 9.5-percent ABV imperial stout is still my favorite.
It opens with a smoky-sweet aroma that reminds me (and no one else I’ve consulted) of honey baked ham, followed by the expected roasted chocolate and toffee notes, with a grape soda effervescence alongside gin-like citrus and pine hops on the finish.
Four different malts—barley, wheat, rye, and oats—join forces in this 9.7-percent ABV stunner from Kansas City, Missouri. Slightly sour dark cherry, chocolate, plum, and raisin aromas are supplemented by a dark, feral flavor reminiscent of a clean person’s sweaty leather jacket.
Berkshire’s style tends to be understated, but their 8.7-percent ABV imperial stout is opulent and assertive, with complex dark and milk chocolate aromas augmented by a nutty caramel taste that brings to mind the Snickers Proprietor’s Reserve Blend one hopes they sell in heaven’s candy store. A light pine note emerges with time, but this RIS is mostly all about the well-roasted malt.
This 9.4-percent ABV imperial oatmeal stout from Akron has an uncommonly light and smooth character that both complements and belies the heavy-duty coffee, molasses, and dark chocolate flavor, which is elevated by faint but persistent hints of cherries and licorice.
Narwhal is an expertly rendered, traditionally styled 10.2-percent imperial stout with straight-ahead flavors of chocolate, molasses and coffee supplemented by light tar and dark fruit.
The aroma opens with cocoa powder and dark fruit, which are quickly joined by light leather and tobacco; Ten FIDY (10.5-percent ABV) hits all the expected notes but has a smoky, almost meaty edge that distinguishes it from the pack.
Belgian in style, this 11.8-percent ABV delight from Weyerbacher may be the best in this very strong show due to the extra layer of complexity it gets from the yeast esters. TINY is both fruity and roasty, with the predominant flavor being chocolate-covered cherries riding atop raspberry bubblegum.
Brewed as a one-off tribute to the conclusion of the iconic Michigan brewery’s third decade, this 11-percent super-stout from Bell’s is well worth tracking down. With caramel, chocolate, extra-dark coffee, berry, and dried fruit notes, Bell’s 30th Anniversary packs an almost inconceivable bounty of flavor into every gulp.
This offering from Boston’s IPA trailblazers is named for the Slavic god of darkness, which is a fair indication of the black, brooding power of the 10-percent ABV Russian imperial stout. It tastes like expensive hot chocolate spiked with dark rum, chased by a shot of espresso and a fistful of mixed nuts.
Hey, guess what, hot stuff? YOU ARE NOT TOO GOOD FOR GUINNESS. Sure, the new IPA is underwhelming, and the classic dry Irish stout is being undermined by domestic versions that also employ the nitrogen that made Guinness famous, but the 7.5-percent ABV Foreign Extra Stout is still among the finest of its kind, with aromas of sweet spice and dark fruit supporting the rich, roasted chocolate character.