NEAR WEST SIDE, CHICAGO
It's barrel-aged season–A preview of Goose Island's 2017 Bourbon County Brand Stout
Bourbon County is here again, unofficially kicking off barrel-aged beer season. And this year's lineup consists of six variants, instead of the planned seven (Goose Island chose not to release Reserve Barleywine, stating it just didn't meet the standards for retail). This might cause some folks to have flashbacks of 2015's BCBS, which we all know was a well-documented mishap. But, with that said, the brewery took the initiative not to move forward with that variant–QC doing it's job.
For the rest of the 2017 variants, the one's that will be on store shelves, the lineup is diverse. The staples are there–Original, Coffee Brand, Original Barleywine–as well as a few new unique spins, as expected–Northwoods, Proprietor's and Reserve. There will also be a BCBS Double Barrel keg-only release, come November.
We were fortunate enough to spend an evening tasting through a preview of 2017's Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout variants, at their beautiful new Barrel House space. And while the Original is as tried and true as ever, the rest should pique your interest also...
Bourbon County Brand Stout
All it takes is one motion of the glass toward the nose to instantly remind you why Bourbon County carries the reputation that it does. One sip of Original is all it takes to erase the 365 days it's been since you last tasted the annual BCBS release. That familiar, silky, fudgy stout is present yet again–and is still the king of barrel-aged stouts, for good reason. This year's vintage is as dark and dense as ever, with hefty doses of vanilla, chocolate and even a hint of caramel. The oakiness from the bourbon barrels is showcased so well and so balanced, that you can't help but go back for another sip...and another. And after each one, you're left with a rich smokiness. Original will always garner respect, and 2017 is no different. And, as Goose Island puts it, "One sip has more flavor than your average case of beer."
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout
This year's coffee variant implements the coffee bean variety used in the original BCBS Coffee, Intelligentsia's Black Cat Espresso. Having the coffee roaster as a neighbor on Fulton Street has its perks, and Goose Island has done a great job highlighting Intelligentsia's offerings in the past. Unfortunately, 2017's Coffee missed the mark a bit for us. Despite the stout's traditional coffee blend [90% BCBS base, 10% 12-hour steeped cold-brew coffee], the roastiness and body you'd expect from a coffee stout just isn't as bold as you'd hope. Another surprise was the spicy, peppery scent on the nose. And while the aroma leaned one way, the beer drank more along the lines of baker's chocolate, toasted bread and coffee grinds. Coffee is a very dry beer, the driest of the bunch by far.
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine
While the Reserve Barleywine (rested in 35-year old Heaven Hill barrels) didn't make the quality cut this year, the Original Barleywine is still here. And, we're glad it is. To quote Goose Island again, this is "a bold, flavorful journey through the craft of barrel aging." Barleywine is a dense, viscous stone fruity stout–in the best way possible. While barleywines don't always get the whole crowd excited (anyone who's ever been to a bottle share can attest), 2017's variant is incredibly well rounded and layered. It's fruity and smokey, and hits your tongue with a welcomed tingly/prickly-ness. This'll pique your senses no doubt.
Bourbon County Northwoods Brand Stout
By far the most polarizing variant in 2017's lineup is the Northwoods Stout. Credit Brewmaster Jared Jankoski (a proud Wisconsite, and former brewer at New Glarus), for this concoction. Northwoods is this year's national Bourbon County variant, and has been a recipe idea of Jankoski for years, apparently. The stout highlights some of his favorite flavors–blueberry, chocolate and almond. It's incredibly sweet on the nose (it oddly reminded us of Gushers), and the same can be said on the palate. A jammy, candied, marzipan profile will hit you in the mouth. There's no denying there is blueberry in this beer. And if that's your thing, this might be for you. For folks who aren't so fond of blueberry, we make no promises...
Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout
For those lucky enough to win tickets to this year's Prop Day: you're in for a treat. The tradition that began in 1992 continues in 2017, showcasing a GI brewer's spin on BCS, in bottle format. The brewer behind this year's Chicago-only release is Quinn Fuechsl, who found inspiration from bananas foster. And 2017 'Prop' is far and away the highlight of this year's variants. As soon as we found out about Quinn's selected 'Prop', we were excited–having discussed his previous few dismissed recipe submissions from years' past, earlier this year. At the time of that discussion, he'd hinted at his submitted banana-forward blend, with fingers crossed. Thankfully, it's now available in bottles, to a select lucky few customers. It drinks as close to liquid banana bread as you could imagine. A big nose of cinnamon and banana are front and center, making way to a thick and chewy stout. Consider that this was also brewed with whole and sliced almonds, and you have a dessert stout that never tasted so good. Bananas!
Bourbon County Reserve Brand Stout
What began over 20 years ago as a conversation between then-Brewmaster Greg Hall and Beam Family Master Distiller, Booker Noe, is what we now know as Bourbon County Brand Stout. It was that first batch of BCBS that introduced the world to bourbon barrel-aged beer. That original collaboration with the legendary Kentucky distillery, gets a nod with this year's Reserve. The BCBS is aged in 11-year-old Knob Creek Bourbon barrels, the small batch bourbon created by Booker himself, in 1992. The reason for this year's barrel selection was in part to celebrate Knob Creek's 25th anniversary, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more bourbon-forward stout. It smells as hot and boozey as it drinks, with heavy notes of charred oak, vanilla and plenty of smoke. For fans of bourbon, no doubt; and while we consider ourselves such, we'd be curious to come back to this one after six or twelve months of further rest.
Thank you to Goose Island for giving us a sneak peak at this year's 2017 lineup. Look for Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout on its typical Black Friday Release, & for those lucky enough to secure a lottery spot, at this year's 'Prop Day'.