Note: This piece has since been updated with a 2017 blind-tasting of 144 barrel-aged imperial stouts.
When we tasted 37 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts in January, it was a rather momentous occasion, even while being split over the course of three days. As is probably no surprise, there were some absolutely incredible beers in that mix. But I think it’s probably safe to say we’ve saved the best for last.
This collection of beers is nuts. Yes, there are famous, insanely rare prestige stouts missing from it that keep this from being an all-inclusive list. Yes, there are even some easier-to-get ones that are surely missing, and we feel confident that the readers will take it upon themselves to point this out immediately and at the highest possible volume in the comments. But what we do have is a collection of 23 fascinating, compelling imperial stouts aged in a collection of different barrels. Wine barrels. Neutral oak barrels. Whiskey barrels, of course. So many whiskey barrels.
All in all, it was one of the most amazing collections of beer I’ve seen in one place, and a totally unique tasting experience. Never, as multiple tasters pointed out, have we been able to literally smell the table full of beers from several feet away. Such were the alcohol and barrel-aged aromas perfuming the air in the Paste office. And we enjoyed almost every one of them—although some more than others.
For better or worse, barrel-aged imperial stouts are viewed by many (especially those who spend time on beer-rating sites) as the apex of craft beer achievement. We’re not completely convinced that’s the case, but what we won’t argue is that the top beers on this list are some of the best we’ve ever had.
23. Anderson Valley Huge Arker
City: Boonville, CA
Key ingredient: Wild Turkey, bro
Perfect for: Peeling paint off the walls
The verdict: This might be the only beer in the tasting that was universally disliked. Astringent and twangy, something seemed weirdly off here, both in the base beer and the barrel character. The flavors were fruit-forward, with an odd green grape note, but in a way that came off as unpleasantly medicinal. Booziness is intense, which is to be expected at 13.5%, but comes off as harsh, sour-tinged and unrefined. Definitely not Anderson Valley’s best—every taster independently came to this same assumption.
22. Humboldt Black Xantus
City: Paso Robles, CA
Key ingredient: Three different barrel varieties
Perfect for: Challenging a cicerone’s tasting prowess
The verdict: Everything about the Black Xantus is unusual. Our base beer starts out conventionally enough: An imperial stout made with coffee. Then things get weird, as the beer is aged in three different types of barrels—bourbon barrels, wine barrels and neutral oak barrels previously used by Paso Robles neighbor Firestone Walker. The result is something very complex but more than a little muddled. Fairly strong tartness is present from all three barrels, with a funky, spicy nose that almost seems to have a bit of chile-like spice. One taster found it perplexing but enjoyed a citrus or orange aroma that others couldn’t quite pick up. There are individually interesting flavors here, but the astringency created by so many contrasting and vying types of barrel character ultimately make it less than satisfying.
21. Abita Bourbon Street Imperial Stout
City: Abita Springs, LA
Key ingredient: Pappy Van freakin’ Winkle barrels
Perfect for: A barrel-aged stout introduction
The verdict: We were immediately curious about this one, given that Abita advertises having used barrels from Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most expensive and sought-after American whiskeys on the market. What they deliver, though, is something a bit more conservative: Buttery, caramel and hints of vanilla, on top of a stout that is notably thinner of body and flavor than many of the other beers in this tasting. The barrel character, sadly, is on the weaker side, so you don’t really get the full benefit of those Pappy barrels. One gets the sense that this beer was probably meant to appeal to a wider market, perhaps those drinkers who are just venturing into the idea of barrel-aged stouts and would like something a bit more approachable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In style it’s similar to a lot of the higher-ranked stouts, simply muted somewhat.
20. Sprecher Czar Brew
City: Glendale, Wisconsin
Key ingredient: Bourbon barrels, straight up
Perfect for: Lovers of woodsy flavors
The verdict: This imperial stout from Wisconsin walked a little on the wilder side, with hot alcohol presence unbound by subtlety. The oak comes through in a big way, imparting a sour tang that doesn’t quite overwhelm flavors of chocolate and black licorice. The tartness was strong enough that one taster wondered if this bottle may have been at least lightly infected, but not enough to unbalance it completely or make it unpleasant. Rather, it’s simply a stout dominated by oak and boozy flavors.
19. Great Divide Oak-Aged Yeti
City: Denver, CO
Key ingredient: Roasted barley and neutral oak
Perfect for: People who love their stouts dry, bitter and roasty
The verdict: We regrettably didn’t have the regular Yeti from Great Divide in our non barrel-aged ranking, so we’ve included two varieties here. The first takes the base beer and ages it in neutral oak, which adds its typical woodsy, sour twang. Really the stand-out flavors, however, are the heavy roast—this might actually be the most dry and roasty stout on the table, with a charred, almost burnt flavor at times. Huge coffee character mingles with smoke and plenty of wood. It’s a specific flavor profile; drinkers who are looking for something barrel-aged that’s not big on sugar may find this one particularly appealing.
18. Brooklyn Black Ops
City: Brooklyn, NY
Key ingredient: Champagne yeast
Perfect for: A big plate of oysters on the half shell
The verdict: Brooklyn’s entry starts out conventionally enough, but then takes a rather abrupt left turn. There seems to be a solid enough bourbon barrel stout going on here, but the secondary fermentation with champagne yeast transforms the flavor in a way that may not be a positive. It provides interesting texture, as the cascading carbonation and dense little bubbles give it a very creamy, smooth mouthfeel, but it simultaneously mutes the flavors somewhat. Light roastiness and a bit of funky grain flavor make it through, but especially when compared to some of the other stouts in the tasting, it fails to stand out and make itself memorable on flavor as opposed to texture.
17. Moa Imperial Stout
City: Blenheim, New Zealand
Key ingredient: Pinot noir barrels
Perfect for: Someone who’d rather be drinking wine
The verdict: Easily the most unique beer on the entire table—almost shockingly so. To put it simply, this thing smells like a glass of red wine. The way that winey characters comes through is absolutely remarkable, and your first taste is a rush of jammy grape and berry sweetness, which is braced by tart sourness. Eventually, right when you start to wonder if this is indeed an imperial stout, the fruitiness fades out and you get some roast on the back end. There were other wine-barrel beers on the table, but none of them with wine character like this one—it tastes less like “wine barrel” and more like some of the grape must has been squeezed right into the glass. As such, it was a little divisive in taster’s scores, but everyone agreed that this New Zealand import was one of the most memorable.
16. Heavy Seas Siren Noire
City: Baltimore, Maryland
Key ingredient: Belgian cacao nibs
Perfect for: Chocoholics who don’t care about whiskey
The verdict: Almost more of an imperial chocolate stout than it is a “bourbon barrel stout,” Heavy Seas’ offering was indeed aged in whiskey barrels, but those flavors are fairly subtle and working in the background. None of the flavors pop too strongly, but the chocolate does come through with a fudgey quality and accents of vanilla. Despite that, it’s actually on the drier side—like a high-cacao percentage chocolate bar. It would be nice for the barrel-aged aspect to express itself a little bit more assertively, because you might not really know it’s there otherwise, but otherwise this is a beer that the chocolate-lovers will probably find a lot to like in.
15. Straight to Ale Cabernet Barrel Laika
City: Huntsville, AL
Key ingredient: Cabernet barrels, unsurprisingly
Perfect for: Dark chocolate brownies with raspberry compote
The verdict: Significantly more subtle than the wine flavor of the Moa beer, the cabernet barrel here is integrated more effectively into the flavor palette of the imperial stout in question. It helps that Laika is, by nature, full of dark fruit flavors, which form a complementary bond between beer and barrel. It’s backed up by some nice cocoa character, giving us a well-rounded final product that doesn’t express the cabernet a ton, but perhaps just enough.
14. Fort George Cavatica
City: Astoria, OR
Key ingredient: Bourbon barrels, if you can believe that
Perfect for: A weekday night barrel-aged imperial stout
The verdict: Comparitively light compared to some of the monstrous beers in this lineup, the Cavatica nevertheless made a good showing for itself. In fact, if one beer on the table had to be volunteered as the averaged sum of all parts, it may have been this one: There’s a solid, classic Russian imperial stout underneath, with good roast and some smoky flavors, backed up by wood and plenty of whiskey. One taster observed “nice booze to beer balance” in his notes, while another had the guts to refer to it as “very smooth and sessionable” in hers. That’s what happens when you taste all of these next to each other: A near 9% ABV, bourbon barrel imperial stout suddenly seems like great session beer when it’s up against some of the other giants.
13. Great Divide Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti
City: Denver, CO
Key ingredient: Plenty of fresh espresso
Perfect for: A Bohemian coffee house poetry slam
The verdict: Whereas the regular oak-aged Yeti came through with lots of wood and heavy, burnt roastiness, the espresso variant becomes a richer, more multi-faceted beer. Tasting them side by side, it’s interesting how the coffee addition helps smooth out the rough edges—this one is sweeter, creamier and feels like a more imposing, memorable beer. It even has some West Coast hops peeking through on the back end, one of only a few on the table where hops really were a notable factor. All in all, very solid, and a must for the big coffee stout fans.
12. Avery Tweak
City: Boulder, CO
Key ingredient: Coffee, booze and more booze
Perfect for: Inducing a blackout and subsequent dissociative episode
The verdict: Dear lord, what a beer this truly is. Descriptive language almost fails—it is beyond massive. The whiskey and booze is bracing, so in your face and intense that the idea of “balance” is all but banished from memory. At the same time, it’s incredibly complex, packed with dried fruit flavors and tons of coffee, but man … the alcohol. This is like something you’d expect to find in one of those little casks on the neck of a St. Bernard rescue dog, used to revive people collapsed in the snow. One taster’s notes practically descended into poetry after tasting it: “My leg went numb. I will no longer dream.”