First Impressions: Bourbon County 2017 Lineup

bourbon county 201We were fortunate enough to be invited by Goose Island to their Barrel Warehouse to get a preview of this year’s Bourbon County 2017 line-up.Held in the cellar of their beautiful event space –  with bottles of Vanilla Rye, Rare 2015, and Proprietor’s 2014 locked up behind us – they guided us through each of the beers for 2017. Just like an episode, there were diversions about unfiltered Pilsner Urquell kegs, cheese, being the banana guy at the Bourbon County Proprietor’s variant meeting every year, the Cubs off-season, and the AmeriTrade TV commerical guy. But we mostly stuck to the beer in front of us. Without further reading, here’s our completely arbitrary rankings of the Bourbon County Class of 2017 (from most favorite to least favorite).

Ryan’s Rankings

Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout

I’m certainly not a bourbon expert, so when representatives of Knob Creek poured us samples of the small batch, 11 year-old bourbon that inhabited the barrels for this Bourbon County variant, my reaction upon tasting was, “My whole swallowing system has been set internally ablaze.” Then I thought, “Well this must be what people who like bourbon say is exceptional.” And I just nodded as if I had learned something, ate a cracker to regain control of my esophagus, and tried a glass of this Reserve BCBS. This version builds on the excellent base to add a touch more chocolate, but has a finish that is sublimely smooth and dry. As where a regular glass of BCBS improves as you let it sit, the Reserve does not sit long in your glass as the dryness of the finish compels you to bend that elbow again and again. I didn’t anticipate that the barrel would make this much of a difference, but it did. This is the beer you trade all of your Jewel-bought 2015 Rares for, and it might be my favorite of any variant in the last four years.

proprietor's bourbon county brand stout 2017Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout

The Proprietor’s line has always been just a step behind trends: coconuts in 2013, a Mexican hot chocolate-esque variant in 2014, an infected sweet mess in 2015 (the hottest trend of all), and a rich pepper and maple syrup take in 2016. Despite not being able to shake the reaction of, “Oh, they’re doing that now too, I guess” from the more cynical beer enthusiasts, the Proprietor’s beers have consistently stood out (minus one year, of course) and have helped to raise the expectations on the way those particular adjuncts are used in stouts. I can’t recall how many coconut stouts I’ve had since 2013 where I use that initial Proprietor’s as the high water mark. So this year it’s the “pastry stout” trend, which is beerspeak for a heavily adjunct-enhanced stout that mimics a particular dessert – something Funky Buddha out of Florida has had mastered for many years now. But there’s also a connotative meaning to “pastry stout” that reads as “gut rotting sugar nightmare” most of the time.

This year’s Proprietor’s, suggested by the mononymous Brewer Quinn, is a banana’s foster beer with banana puree, cassia bark (the same from the 2014 Prop), and roasted almonds. It is executed flawlessly. The aroma is fresh-baked cinnamon banana bread, drizzled in rich chocolate and caramel, and topped with oven-toasted almonds. It was the second-most aggressively aromatic beer in this year’s lineup, but easily the most enjoyable. I would’ve paid to have video of everyone’s first reaction to that aroma. The flavor follows exactly, hitting every note suggested by the aroma. But the amazing part is how well integrated it all is, finishing up smooth with a slight lingering bite of cinnamon rather than something cloying and sweet. Get ready for an influx of banana stouts in 2018.

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout

A throwback in a sense, as this year’s version uses the same Black Cat Espresso beans from Intelligentsia that were used in the original BCBCS. This is one of those beers that creates a nice little Siskel vs. Ebert moment between Craig and I (but with, like, negative 1,000 gravitas points), as he hated the bean’s influence on this, and I did not. It is peppery and a bit vegetal, but I think it’s a great compliment to an already roasty and chocolate-forward beer. The espresso aromatics are divine as always, and though I can’t make any grandiose statements about its place amongst previous years of the coffee variant, it’s a thoroughly delicious beer.

bourbon county brand barleywine 2017Bourbon County Brand Barleywine

The bourbon is much more upfront on the aroma, suggesting potentially problematic heat to come. But it sips smoother than anticipated, only burning slightly in the finish, but mostly accentuating caramel and pipe tobacco flavors with a touch of vanilla extract and toasted oak.

Bourbon County Brand Stout

Dominated by chocolate and cherry, this year’s original is ready for drinking rather than cellaring. It’s smooth and nice, but a bit lighter in body when standing against some of the other variants. On its own, it won’t disappoint. Next to the Reserve, this beer suffers by comparison in a big way.

bourbon county brand northwoods stout 2017Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout

This year’s fruited variant is blueberry and almonds – the former being a notoriously difficult flavor to impart successfully in any number of styles. In my experience, many blueberry beers taste like they’ve used under-ripened, tart blueberries that give a definite astringent character. Or in the other direction, blueberry beers taste like they’ve been poured straight from the awful blueberry syrup dispenser at IHOP. Unfortunately, this beer is firmly in the latter category. The aroma is exactly like blueberry fruit snacks, which is a “Whoa” in the first sniff, then “Oh no” in subsequent sniffs. The flavor is like blueberry snow cone syrup swirled into your melted chocolate ice cream. The sweetness is lessened slightly by the almond nuttiness, but this is one of those that’ll taste okay in a 2-ounce festival pour or as a bottle share novelty, but anything beyond that becomes a chore to finish. Maybe this one will age well, as previous fruit variants have, but it may not be worth the investment.

Bourbon Country 2017

Thousands of amateur blenders can claim they invented this gratuitous cuvée of all the variants, but I’ll give Craig the credit for grossing out Josh Noel back in 2015 with his pre-infection Bourbon Country blend (which Untappd callously removed as an official “beer” to check in to). This year’s experiment didn’t work at all, with the unpleasantness of the Northwoods sweetness dominating everything, and only a touch of vegetal coffee on the finish. It was pretty gross.


reserve bourbon county brand stout 2017Craig’s Rankings

Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout

The final Bourbon County of the tasting, after all the variants, turned out to be the best. Aged in 11-year-old Knob Creek barrels as a throwback to the original Bourbon County brewed in 1992 (according to the handout Goose Island gave us; Josh Noel might have other things to say about that) and a celebrationg of Knob Creek’s 25th anniversary, this beer, upon first sniff, didn’t differ all that much from original Bourbon County –  chocolate, oak, and vanilla, along with a subtle smokiness. Sipping it for the first time, it tasted almost exactly like original Bourbon County, but with a little smokiness at the end. Then I went back to the original Bourbon County and had them side-by-side (which I would highly recommend) and the differences became very apparent, as the Reserve is less sweet, smoother and drier than the the original Bourbon County. It was pure palate enjoyment to be able to keep sipping this one again and again, waiting until the next time you could get a taste of it. Was it the first one I finished? Not at all, because I wanted to savor it as much as possible.

Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout

Much like in 2013 when I wondered if coconut would work in a barrel-aged stout (um, yeah, it did), Goose Island now has one with banana. Based on a recipe by Goose Island brewer Quinn Fuechsl, this year’s Proprietor’s is Bourbon County with banana puree, banana essence (which sounds like something I can get at Bath and Body Works), unsalted almonds, and cassia bark (cinnamon). The nose was dominated by the banana, with chocolate, spices and nuttiness supplying back up. I was worried after having the Northwoods that there was another sweet one coming, but this one was executed perfectly, tasting like almond banana bread with a cinnamon and chocolate swirl. Definitely one to get, and now the question becomes, “How well will banana age?” Or will it?

bourbon county brand stout 2017Bourbon County Brand Stout

The original that launched an entire line-up, event day, and buyout, it (obviously) returns for 2017. Familiar notes of bourbon, chocolate, vanilla, oak and some leather, this one is not as hot as previous vintages started out. There is some heat there (which will die down with age), but this is still the standard sipper it always is, with big chocolate notes and some vanilla and oak thrown in there. While not sweet at first sip, going head to head with the Reserve made original show how sweet it actually was. 

Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout

I have a sweet tooth. If you’ve listened to the podcast at all, you know both Ryan and I love talking candy. Upon smelling the Northwoods Bourbon County for the first time, I immediately got Gushers fruit snacks. Or Welch’s fruit snacks.Or whatever your favorite fruit snack is that uses real fruits. Getting past that, there was some roasted nut on the nose due to the addition of almond extract. But much like a majority of blueberry beers, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. It tasted like Bourbon County with more sweetness and a bit of nuttiness to finish it off. Not the worst of the bunch because I like sweet things, but I was expecting blueberry jam and all I got was blueberry water. Definitely one to share. 

Bourbon County Brand Barleywine

For the second year in a row, Bourbon County Barleywine was aged in second use barrels (bourbon, then the barleywine) and not third use barrels (bourbon, stout, then barleywine). This one tastes more like a traditional barrel-aged barleywine, with the caramel and toffee of the barleywine melding together with the vanilla and oak of the barrel (while losing the chocolate notes it gained previously from third use barrels) A bit of bourbon heat on the nose and the finish will make this one a hit with barleywine fans.

bourbon county brand coffee stout 2017Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout

Those who listen to the podcast know about me and coffee. Hate coffee, love coffee beers. The 2013 and 2016 versions are some of the best Bourbon County beers I’ve ever had. So why is this one so low? The nose is familiar, with coffee, chocolate, vanilla, and a bit of spice and/or pepper, but that’s where my enjoyment ended. Whereas the coffee in previous vinatages melded with the base Bourbon County so well, the Black Cat espresso beans came across as very distinct and almost separate from its base. It was overly vegetal to me, and honestly tasted like I was drinking coffee grinds with some pepper thrown in at the end. And I tried this beer both somewhat cold and at room temperature. I can see how people might like this beer, but this one definitely wasn’t for me.

bourbon county brand stout tasting

Other things

Bourbon Country 2017

After my famous turn of blending all the 2015 BCBS beers and calling it Bourbon County, multiple people were doing it this year! The Northwoods and coffee dominated, leaving the smooth Reserve and Proprietor’s banana notes behind. Not a good blend, but something that always needs to be done! Ryan also nailed it when he said it smelled like nachos. (There were no nachos present.)

Double Barrel Bourbon County

This one was still in barrels so it wasn’t available. It’s actually a double barrel beer (not a blended beer), very limited, and may show up at FoBAB. According to someone from Goose Island, it’s original Bourbon County aged for the same amount of time in Heaven Hill barrels, but then moved into other second use barrel (was not told which ones). It’s currently sitting in those second set of barrels right now.

bourbon county brand stout tasting roomReserve Barleywine

“It’s bottled,” but it wasn’t brought out. People that had it over the summer were raving about it, but it took a turn for the worse and didn’t meet Goose Island’s standards. Basically it was sitting in barrels that held bourbon for 35 years, then a stout for 2 more, and then a barleywine for another 2, so those barrels were in pretty bad shape. The world may never know.

Knob Creek 25th anniversary

Cask strength and aged for twelve to thirteen years, we got to try a sample of it. After drinking all 6 Bourbon County beers. That’s how nights go from awesome to blackout (thankfully everything sampled was in small quantities!). So what did I think? I think the alcohol strength of it burned my tongue and throat while drinking it neat, but settled down when some water was added. I was able to pick up some spice, oak and vanilla before going back to the Bourbon Counties.

Previous Bourbon County Coverage

Bourbon County 2013 (Patreon members only)

Bourbon County 2014

Bourbon County 2015

Bourbon County 2016

Bourbon County Vertical 2009 – 2016 (with Josh Noel)

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