Bourbon County 2019 Lineup Preview
Foreword by Ryan, beer reviews by CraigJump to Bourbon County 2019 Review
Barrel-aged stout season in Chicago may have kicked off early when Begyle won a gold at the Great American Beer Festival in the highly competitive Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category. It’s a monumental achievement for Begyle, a brewery that has been steadily producing a variety of quality (and sometimes overlooked) beers. But it’s not that unusual to think Chicago could compete in that category, as the city is often cited with pioneering – or inventing – the barrel-aged stout. As everyone should know, that credit goes to Greg Hall of Goose Island for putting an obscenely thick stout into Jim Beam barrels, creating Bourbon County Brand Stout. And that story was expanded upon in great detail in Josh Noel’s book, Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out.
When late October rolls around, Goose Island extends an invite to members of the Chicago beer media – journalists, bloggers, photographers, and even podcasters – to sample some of the first pours of Bourbon County Stout for the year. And yes, people’s feelings about Goose are divided but almost always passionate, whether you see them as Chicago’s hometown brewery that grew from humble means into a global competitor – or if you see them as the “sellouts” from Josh’s title, acting as a key component in Anheuser-Busch’s strategy to infiltrate the craft beer market. That’s up to you, and Josh’s book lays it all at your feet to let you decide.
It came as quite a surprise to us when we found out that Josh had not been invited. He did message us over a week ago to ask if we had been invited, and when we responded, “Yes, and we’re assuming you did?” he responded, “Nope. When is it?” We gave him the info, then moved on, assuming he’d be getting his invite before the tasting took place.
And when he wasn’t there, we didn’t want to assume that he wasn’t invited. Maybe he had a separate tasting planned in a more intimate setting with higher-ups and brewers where he could ask more questions. Maybe one of his two young kids came down with something and he had to set up another time to prepare a review for the Chicago Tribune. Now we know that he wasn’t invited. And we believe that was a mistake. Josh is an important journalist in Chicago beer and in national beer. Although his social media posts often go more towards sardonic, his published writing has always had integrity, which is sorely needed in the widening media landscape.
The Bourbon County media tasting is something we look forward to every year, as it’s a big story locally, and it’s generally a great time amongst colleagues in the industry. We also know exactly what it is, which is essentially a pitch meeting for the brand to give media both a story and technical talking points when they inevitably post their reviews. It’s also to show us a great time, so we can go back to our followers and gush about our gracious hosts. (We did a bit of that on Instagram, for the record.)
But in no way would we let the event influence or sway our reviews. We’re not journalists, but we operate on honesty in our reviews. We’re not afraid to criticize what we don’t like about beers, even when sitting across from brewers themselves. So not including Josh Noel in the tasting gives the impression to many outsiders that they had decided to only invite the AB sycophants who would post only glowing reviews of their big money product. I understand why people might think that, and I think it would be wise for Goose Island to rectify the situation with Josh, however that might be. We need his voice, even if that means taking some lumps from time to time.
Bourbon County 2019
Every year in October, Goose Island invites most of the Chicago and surrounding-area beer media to a preview tasting of their Bourbon County lineup. Held at their beautiful barrel warehouse, it’s a chance to hear about these beers from those that have worked on them over the preceding year. And of course, taste, dissect, and drunkenly rate them at the end. So here are my rankings for the Bourbon County 2019 lineup, starting with my least favorite.
Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine
Hot off the success of last year’s (my fourth favorite and a FoBAB silver medal winner), Goose Island returns again with Wheatwine. Wheatwine was aged in Heaven Hill Larceny barrels for about a year and looks like whiskey, with deep orange and amber tones. The booze dominated the nose, with some notes of caramel, toffee, and tropical fruits adding some complexity to the aroma. It tasted similar, with the alcohol dominating while some caramel, nuts, and tropical fruits supported it. It was by no means bad, but it was the hardest for me to finish due to the burn present. Wheatwine will most likely sit on the shelf like last year, which will give it some time to meld together better. When it does, it should approach last year’s vintage.
Reserve Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout
The one I was the most excited about. Whereas the previous two Reserve Bourbon Counties have been aged in Knob Creek (2017) and Elijah Craig (2018) barrels, the 2019 vintage is aged in Rittenhouse Rye barrels. While not a typical barrel used in aging, my reference point on this barrel is one of my favorite beers of all time: barrel-aged Abraxas. So yeah, I was psyched.
The rye spiciness was definitely the biggest difference between this and the other Bourbon County beers. It also manifested as cinnamon, making this smell like a Christmas cookie; there were even some cola notes on it. It looked like all of the other unadjuncted Bourbon County beers – pitch black with brown highlights and a thin lacing of head around the perimeter of the beer.
What it did to the base beer was interesting. While adding a hefty note of baking spices, it also took away some of the thick mouthfeel prevalent (and welcomed) in the other beers. This was easily the thinnest of the non-adjuncted Bourbon County beers this year, and it really suffered because of it. If it had maintained that thick mouthfeel and copious amounts of chocolate and vanilla with an addition of some spice, it would’ve been higher up on this list.
Bourbon County Café de Olla Stout
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout hasn’t been released since 2017. A fan favorite, it was heavily reliant on the coffee used – 2013 (Los Inmortales) and 2016 (Flecha Roja) were some of the best barrel-aged coffee beers I’ve ever had, while 2015 (Los Delirious and “target character drift”) and 2017 (Black Cat Espresso) not so much. The Cafe de Olla variant is the closest you’ll get to a Bourbon County Coffee this year as it contains Intelligencia coffee, panela sugar, cassia bark and orange peel.
The first thing you notice is the overt roastiness on the nose on present in any other beer in this year’s lineup. Digging a little deeper a hint of orange or citrus reveals itself, recalling Midnight Orange from last year along with some notes of cinnamon. Chocolate, vanilla and oak are there in slightly lesser intensities. So how is it?
In a word, messy. Cafe de Olla has the most alcohol burn of all the non-Wheatwine Bourbon County beers. There’s a nice coffee and toffee flavor coming off the beer, but the orange shows up and muddles things up a bit. It’s also one of the sweeter ones in the lineup this year, which is understandable given the panela sugar. Maybe leave the sugar and orange next time, featuring a nice coffee/toffee combo with the cinnamon a bit more prominent and the entirety being less sweet?
Bourbon County Brand Stout
Original Bourbon County is usually the Miami Marlins of my rankings – always near the bottom. So what caused this jump? Scouting and beer development? A change of pace for once (for me), original is great right out of the gate.
Usually Original is hot and boozy and needs a little time in the bottle. Not so this year! The booze is there, but the amount of chocolate and vanilla present is astonishing, reminding me of Cocoa Puffs. Typical of BCBS, it’s pitch black with some red/brown highlights and a thin rim of head along the outside.
The mouthfeel is suitably thick for a stout of this caliber, with big chocolate and vanilla notes, along with some oak and char present. This biggest win for me (besides the mouthfeel) is the lack of booze heat. There is some warmth present to let you know you’re drinking a big stout, but dare I say this is easy to drink? It is, and that’s dangerous and impressive.
Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout
Welcome the Goose Island All-Proprietor’s blend. It’s the “all-star team of adjuncts,” with toasted pecans (2015), vanilla (2010, 2014, 2018), cocoa (2018), and coconut (2013) at the top of the order.
Flour cake was my first impression as I went in for a smell. The vanilla, cocoa and coconut all make their presence felt, and the booze is present but, again, not taking things over. A good start, but these things have a habit of being too sweet.
While it is in fact sweet, it doesn’t go too far. The most surprising thing is the smooth and silky mouthfeel which I’ll guess is due to the toasted pecans. It reminded me of Hubbard’s Cave El Zacaton which used almond flour to get that smooth and easy mouthfeel. Vanilla is batting leadoff here, with chocolate in the two hole. The coconut is there, but definitely not the star it was in 2013 (Father Time wins again!). The booziness is basically non-existent, which is again dangerous and impressive. Sense a theme here?
Bourbon County Mon Chéri Stout
Um, Cherry Rye? Is that you? Close. While featuring over 20,000 pounds of Oregon and Michigan montmorency and balaton cherries – more of the former over the latter – Mon Cheri adds oats and brown sugar. Wasn’t there a Bourbon County hazy milkshake fake out? Hmmm, oats.
True to its adjuncts, Mon Cheri is a blast of cherries and chocolate, recalling a cherry cordial. The cherries are so powerful that you might mistake it for grenadine (I’m aware that grenadine doesn’t use cherries). Once you get past that decadence there are notes of healthy food store, I mean granola bar! I’m down for a healthy, alcoholic, cherry chocolate granola bar. Guessing the price will be the same too!
Damn is this easy to drink. Goose Island was reluctant to say the ABV’s of all the beers (mainly not to get them wrong), but I’d guess this is the lowest due to the fruit, but it ain’t no session beer. The booze is completely masked by the cherries and chocolate, but savoring it a moment gets out a solid oaty note to round things out. A cherry chocolate pie wouldn’t be a stretch either. I wasn’t excited about this beer at all and it came out being one of the better ones this year. Excellent.
Bourbon County Double Barrel Stout
Get your battleaxes ready! Why? First of all it comes in a cylindrical canister as opposed to the boxes of Proprietor’s, Reserve Rye and 2-year Reserve. Second, it will be a “non-traditional release” which means, well, see the first sentence. Third, it would have to be my second favorite beer of this year’s lineup because of course it would be.
Double Barrel Bourbon County (11-year Elijah Craig barrels for 12 months followed by 12-year Elijah Craig barrels for 12 months) was first released at the Fulton taproom and FoBAB in 2017 and has shown up sporadically since then. Goose Island even took it a step further by releasing a Triple Barrel BCBS last year at the Fulton taproom. This thing is a beast – an ABV north of 16% and a ton of barrel character. The chocolate and vanilla were there, but the oak, leather and char dominate the nose, much like fresh Rare 2015. Tons of booze are present as well, tickling the nose. This is a big person stout.
Amazingly – again! – the booze heat is kept in check, but it is most assuredly there. Some dark fruits – think cherries and raisins – are added to the mix. Some sweetness is there as well, but the barrel notes do well in squashing any finishing sweetness that makes so many other beers so difficult to drink. As opposed to fresh Rare 2015, the oak and leather do a great job of mixing with the chocolate and vanilla, making for a very enjoyable and boozy stout. Just be sure to be sitting down while you’re drinking it.
2-Year Reserve Bourbon County Stout
Holy crap. Aged for 2 years in 11-year-old 25th anniversary Knob Creek barrels – the same barrels as Reserve 2017! – this was a kick in the pants at the tasting. Coming in at the 2-minute drill mark (the 4th beer we had in the tasting, right before “half time”), this was a harbinger of things to come.
It looked the same, but slightly different. 2-year moved even slower in the glass than all the others, looked even thicker, and featured no head whatsoever. Getting it anywhere near your nose reveals its true greatness – chocolate cake. German chocolate, flourless, whatever. Rich, tasty chocolate cake. Remember, no adjuncts! A train just came through the tasting station.
Remember that great mouthfeel of Original BCBS? 2-year made it like water after having it; that is to say, this beer is THICK. Little to no booze heat and an absurd amount of chocolate and vanilla while not being cloying sweet speak to the barrel aging proficiency of Goose Island in an era when they could, you know, dump a chocolate cake in there and call it a day if they wanted. They provided a notebook for us this year to take notes. Many of the other beers have a ton of notes scribbled down noting all the intricacies of the beer. 2-year doesn’t have much, with the one word I wrote at the end summing it all up. Delicious. And absolutely outstanding.
Bourbon County 3-pack
Todd Ahsmann also showed everyone what the box set of Bourbon County 2017, 2018 and 2019 looked like. It’s beautiful with a nice window box packaging. Be forewarned – it’s heavy.
Todd was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he sauntered over right as I was putting the finishing touches on my signature blend – Bourbon Country. It’s simply an even blend of all the beer released that year. Tons of adjuncts and barrel in this one, so it was weird. Todd enjoyed it!
Original Clybourn Bar
At some point after showing us the 3-pack, Todd then announced he would be taking everyone over to a hidden place at the warehouse. When he said it housed the original Clybourn bar and it was pouring Honker’s Ale, I about lost it (see our social media for some pics of this).
After a fair walk, we arrived. It was only half the bar, but that’s better than what’s currently at the Brewhouse now. Indeed, Honker’s was on tap and tasting great, especially after drinking 8 Bourbon County beers. Ever the imp, I jokingly asked for some Bourbon County. Well they had it on tap, but these were finished in Fernet barrels, lending some mint and licorice to the beer – different and pretty damn tasty. But the bar!!! Scroll for more pics!