The annual release of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) isn’t quite the hype-generating megalith it once was, but that should be expected for a brand that has been upscaled as much over the years as this one has. As distribution on Bourbon County Stout increased, it was only natural that beer geeks begin to view it with an air of “it’s not as good as it used to be.” That’s just how this industry works, for worse or for worse.
The truth of the matter, though, is that BCBS has always been an exceptional barrel-aged stout—first a trendsetter and groundbreaker, and later simply one of the best pure examples of the style it helped to generate. We’ve seen this empirically over the years, as BCBS has routinely performed very well in blind tastings of barrel-aged imperial stouts. And although we are of course no fans of the Anheuser Busch InBev ownership, as even a casual perusal of Paste will reveal, we have always believed that great beer deserves to be acknowledged one way or another.
With that said, more attention in recent years has typically focused on the oddball Bourbon County Stout variants that Goose Island cooks up every year, and 2021 looks to be no exception. The company’s just-announced BCBS lineup for 2021 includes 8 different versions of the classic stout, beginning with the original and getting increasingly fanciful from there, until you end up with the likes of “Bourbon County Classic Cola Stout.” Yeah. It is amusing to read that particular description, and see them assiduously avoiding saying the word “Coke.”
Another trend continuing from recent years is the courting of whiskey/bourbon geeks by using barrels from highly sought-after brands for several variants, including Buffalo Trace’s Blanton’s and Old Forester’s 150th Anniversary bourbons from last year. Heaven Hill also gets into the mix with a “double barrel” variant aged in Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel casks.
Here are Goose Island’s descriptions of all eight BCBS brands for 2021, all of which will be released during the traditional Black Friday window.
Bourbon County Stout (14% and 14.4% ABV): Our goal each and every year is to uphold the integrity of Greg Hall’s recipe and make the best Bourbon County Stout possible—and this year is no exception. Our rich Imperial Stout is blended from a mix of bourbon barrels from distilleries such as Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace, each aged in freshly emptied bourbon barrels for 8-14 months. Expect flavors of chocolate and vanilla, oak, whiskey, and molasses, followed by caramel, berry fruit, and
Bourbon County Cherry Wood Stout (14.3% ABV): At the heart of each Bourbon County are the wood characteristics we thoughtfully amplify. This year, we took wood complexities to another level by doing something we’ve never done before: we took fully-matured Bourbon County Stout and finished it with toasted fruitwood—specifically, honeycomb-shaped cherry wood chips. The versatility of the cherry wood and honeycomb shape allowed for maximum flavor extraction, revealing complex characteristics like red fruit, ripe cherry, and light toffee, which are not found in the original oak barrel itself. The result is an amazing elevation and a notable difference from our Original Bourbon County Stout.
Bourbon County Reserve 150 Stout (15.6% ABV): Our Bourbon County Reserve 150 Stout is aged for one year in Old Forester’s 150th Anniversary Bourbon Barrels. To celebrate the anniversary, Old Forester’s hand-picked 150 barrels from resting places within the Old Forester barrelhouse, to create three unique batches honoring founder George Garvin Brown and his process of batching from three original distilleries. These hand-picked, limited-edition barrels—combined with our Imperial Stout—create a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration bourbon and beer fans alike will appreciate and cherish. Expect barrel-forward flavor with notes of chocolate, vanilla, and coconut, followed with molasses, almond, berry, and oak.
Bourbon County Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout (16% ABV): Our Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout was aged for one year in Elijah Craig’s Small Batch Bourbon Barrels, then another year in Elijah Craig Toasted Bourbon Barrels. These toasted barrels are built to the same specifications as normal bourbon barrels, but are more heavily toasted and very lightly charred. Not only does this stout embody distinctive
elements from Elijah Craig’s award-winning Small Batch Bourbon Barrels—like warm spice & vanilla—it also deepened in intensity during its second year of aging. The result? A Bourbon County Stout unlike any before. In addition to the familiar chocolate, caramel, and vanilla comes flavors of toasted marshmallow and a very pronounced fruit and oak finish. Bourbon County Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout has a rich complexity and flavor only attainable through true craftsmanship, partnership, expert blending and, of course, patience. This is only the second time we have packaged a “Double Barrel” Bourbon County Stout —and trust us, you’ll want to get your hands on this special limited-edition gem.
Bourbon County Reserve Blanton’s Stout (15.4% ABV): We partnered with our friends at Blanton’s and aged our Imperial Stout for 18 months in barrels from one of the world’s most sought-after bourbons—Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon. Taken from the center-cut or middle sections of the famous Warehouse H, Blanton’s Original Single Barrel was once only available for ambassadors, dignitaries, and friends of the Blanton family, but now is available for everyone to enjoy. Just as we set the standard for barrel-aged stouts, Blanton’s set the standard for single barrel bourbons. Through our partnership we created a truly unique reserve filled with rich dark chocolate and oak notes, finished with warm aromatics of baking spices such as clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
Bourbon County Classic Cola Stout (14.1% ABV): Pushing the boundaries of barrel-aged stouts is in our DNA, and with that we brought to life our first-ever cola-inspired variant. Brewers Paul Cade and Jason Krasowski bonded over their love for a classic cola while creating the Classic Cola Stout. Combining the refreshing nature of classic cola and picking up the flavor profile from a whisky cola, we added lime and orange juice and zest, plus coriander, cassia bark, nutmeg, brown sugar, and vanilla to bring out the complex characters of the classic drink. This is the ultimate twist on a whiskey cola and a must-try for Bourbon County Stout, cola or whiskey/cola lovers.
Bourbon County Fourteen Stout (TBD ABV): For the first time ever, we’re digging into the Proprietor’s (Chicago-only release) vault and bringing back a fan favorite with Bourbon County Fourteen Stout. But this time, it’s with a twist. We’re paying homage to the popular Proprietor’s 2014 recipe, but upping the rye ante by adding rye to the mash bill. Layering cassia bark, cocoa nibs, panela sugar, and coconut water, this stout has an intricate, sweet and spicy flavor profile that will have fans going back sip after sip.
Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout (TBD ABV): For the second year in a row, Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout is inspired by a classic frozen treat and brewed again by the mastermind, Emily Kosmal. A flavor house specialist, Emily has the knowledge and skill to bring her dessert treats to life. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout is aged in bourbon barrels and blended with luscious strawberries, vanilla and coconut, reminiscent of a classic strawberry ice cream bar. These elements come together to create the indelible flavors of decadent shortcake, layered with vanilla and topped off with the slight fruitiness of strawberries, similar to the ice cream bar’s strawberry core. Emily—who also created the concept for 2016 Proprietor’s and 2020 Proprietor’s—is our first brewer to have three Proprietor’s concepts picked for release.