Bourbon County 2021: Rankings at First Sight
By now you’ve likely read up on Goose Island’s Bourbon County 2021 lineup, making a mental priority list for your Black Friday shopping based on your snap judgement of this eightsome of barrel-aged beers. We are just like you, reader, but we have a podcast where for almost eight years we’ve arbitrarily reviewed and ranked beers in a way that some might call “amateurish” and others would contend is “very distracted.” So by no means are we beer experts, but we’ve spent a pretty ludicrous amount of time considering Bourbon County over the last decade or so, which you can clearly scroll through here. So, we’d like to offer our most arbitrary order yet by ranking these eight beers in the sequence we think they’ll end up in when we actually get to taste them. (We’re probably going to be very wrong.)
8. Bourbon County Fourteen Stout | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with rye, cassia bark, cocoa nibs, panela sugar, and coconut water | TBD ABV
Sorry to reinforce the cliche that a remake never lives up to the original, but I’m feeling like that could easily be the case with this beer that revisits the recipe of the 2014 Proprietor’s – a beer that was the across-the-board winner of our BCBS People’s Choice Survey. This time, they’ve added rye to the mash to give it a little spin much like they did with their first remake on BCBS Vanilla, also in 2014 – which was admittedly an incredibly successful sequel. (The third iteration in 2018 fell a bit short, in our opinion.) This pick is such an obvious hot take, because it could easily be the standout in this whole thing if done well. We can’t wait to try it, but to be honest, the new stuff is just a bit more exciting – and this one has big shoes to fill.
7. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout 2021 | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with strawberries, vanilla, and coconut | TBD ABV
They’re going to have to carve out a new variant each year that’s just called Emily’s Beer, because brewer Emily Kosmal has developed her third Proprietor’s recipe after the 2020 and 2016 iterations of the Chicago-only release. Personally, I was excited to see strawberries in this lineup for the first time, because as common of a flavor as that is in every other area, it hasn’t shown up in that many barrel-aged dark beers over the years. (Goose Island did prove the concept of strawberry and stout can work in their collaboration with Phase Three from this year.) Personally, my enjoyment of dessert and pastry stouts is always dependent on how well they can achieve those flavors without giving in to headache-inducing sweetness, as so often happens. I’m ranking this one lower because I fear that might be the case. But I’m hoping I’m dead wrong and this beer works in the way that 2017’s somewhat odd choice of bananas did, and from this many brewers will start throwing strawberries into their stouts.
6. Bourbon County Stout 2021 I Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout | 14% or 14.4% ABV
The core of the lineup, this beer has been on a pretty good streak over the last few years of being just the right amount of heat at time of release rather than needing much time to calm down. It hadn’t always been the case that OG BCBS was a perfectly balanced, scarily drinkable beer that rightfully proved itself as the standard-bearer: some years went a bit hot or thin or generally uneven. The last few years have been the decadent and full roasty chocolate and rich barrel-forward beer we fell in love with ten years ago, and I have a feeling this year’s will be just as good. It sits at six for two reasons: it has fallen behind its major local competitor’s core BA stout in terms of increasing impressiveness (that’d be Revolution’s Deth’s Tar), and honestly I’m much more excited about the rest of this lineup. Still, you will likely be able to grab a bottle of this off the shelf for six months after release, and I’m betting Goose will make it worth your money.
5. Bourbon County Classic Cola Stout | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with lime, orange juice, orange zest, coriander, cassia bark, nutmeg, brown sugar, and vanilla | 14.1% ABV
At one point, John Laffler was helping create some of the BCBS magic, but now it feels like Goose might be copying one of his ideas. I’m only kidding – many breweries have made cola-approximating beers before, including Half Acre’s Cherry Cola-inspired Barrel-Aged Orin in 2019. But I couldn’t help but immediately compare this to Off Color’s Beer For Pizza, which is a masterpiece of concept execution in the weirdest way. Like that beer, this one’s ingredient list makes me step back and ask just what the hell cola actually tastes like, because I had never considered the ingredient combinations listed. This is clearly another hot take, but I think this will be the underrated standout of the adjuncted variants, though it will certainly have a fair share of haters. If Goose is going to achieve a true cola-like feeling, the beer might have to be lighter on the mouthfeel and more effervescent – which may have some crying “too thin” in the end. I’m making a bold prediction that this one will pull it off, and it might be a happy discovery on a random Jewel shelf in mid-March. It’s secretly the one I want to try the most out of the whole lineup.
4. Bourbon County Cherry Wood Stout | Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout finished with cherry wood chips | 14.3% ABV
I keep thinking about why the lineup went from seven beers to eight this year, and this one seems like the most excisable one. It’s a fully-realized BCBS that has then been treated with honeycomb cherry wood chips, and it’s got its own label and everything? It screams draft-only variant, so for it to make the actual bottled lineup, it must be amazing. I’m going off that premise alone with this number four ranking, but also because I prefer wood treatments over adjuncts. This one somehow marries them both together.
3. Bourbon County Reserve Blanton’s Stout | Imperial stout aged 18 months in Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon barrels | 15.4% ABV
We’ve been saying for years that Goose should lean on their ability to do some of the best barrel treatments in the entire industry with their big money connections and just slaughter all other barrel-aged stout makers with their supreme wood. I mean, I’m not rooting for an AB InBev-owned brewery to crush its competition – I’m speaking merely as a selfish beer fan that wants to taste the best bourbons in the world but through beer. The Reserve line of BCBS has been its savior – almost unfalteringly world-class beers that also have the attractiveness of being damn-near impossible to get. This one will be another stunning showstopper of bourbon that I’m too unrefined to even understand, but I’ll drink this and nod and talk about all the desserts it reminds me of without being too sweet. I AM HERE FOR IT. Good luck getting a bottle, though.
2. Bourbon County Reserve 150 Stout | Imperial stout aged in Old Forrester’s 150th Anniversary Bourbon Barrels | 15.6% ABV
A stout aged in 150 year-old barrels?!? That would be ridiculous! That’s not what this is at all, but can you imagine? I’m hoping for some more beer box magic on this one, and when you open it, spring-loaded butterflies will give you a heart attack or something. Anyways, this beer is going to be an absolute showstopper because it’s Goose flexing again, and I don’t care how many lemonade shandy or local pizza place-benefitting 312s they make, they can just roll up on the best bourbon makers in the country and say, “gimme.” Goose wants you to think they’re champions of the little guy, but then they go and release this and the next beer on my list, because they just can, and your local brewpub absolutely cannot. And just like dropping a cool grand at an upscale restaurant run by some celebrity chef, you’ll drink this beer and feel that it was all somehow worth it. I hate that I’m going to love this so much.
1. Bourbon County Double Barrel Toasted Barrel Stout | Imperial stout aged one year in Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon barrels and one year in Elijah Craig Toasted Bourbon Barrels | 16% ABV
It might be kind of basic to put what will likely be the most sought after beer of the bunch at the top, but I’m completely sold on this one in concept and have total faith that Goose has thrown a ton of money at making this the prestige showcase of their 2021 lineup. Get ready for a box that includes a holographic projection of Todd Ahsmann personally thanking you for buying it, and reminding you to check out their line of barrel-aged hard seltzers. (This may not be factual.) There have been plenty of other beers from other breweries that tout “double barrel” but don’t really bear out anything in the way of complexity – just pure booze and sugar. Goose’s last Double Barrel BCBS in 2019 was highly sought-after and lent further credence to the already-simmering idea of extra-long, extra-barrel aged stouts. This time, they added a barrel with a little extra flavor dynamic, and I’m hopeful this will set a new standard for BCBS. I’m just wondering how the hell one will get a chance to buy this beer.
Final Thoughts: No wheatwine, barleywine, or coffee??
Though last year’s Caramella and the 2019 Wheatwine were pretty universally maligned in terms of Bourbon Countys, it’s disappointing to see Goose lose confidence in their ‘wines. Some of the early Barleywines and the first iteration of Wheatwine were lovely and promising – though definitely not top-sellers. Sadly, I feel like this is one of those corporate boardroom cuts where someone wrote “Wheatwine/Barleywine” on a whiteboard with a little not equal sign (≄) with “Profit” on the other side of it. Or perhaps Goose is finally conceding that Revolution is completely unstoppable in the realm of barleywines, so it might not be best to come at the new king. Either way, I hope Goose with their near-endless resources and access to incredible barrels finds some King Henry-like magic again and makes room for a barleywine in a future Bourbon County lineup.
But perhaps the biggest shocker is the absence of any coffee beer this year. Once the only variant, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout was for a time (think 2011-2014) one of the highest rated beers in the world. Back in 2018 when we talked to Mike Siegel, head of R&D at Goose, he admitted they moved away from the old method of adding cold brew to their BCBS as the 2017 batch of BCBCS gave off a lot of green pepper notes. So with new processes in place, we got the great Coffee Barleywine in 2018, the good Café de Olla in 2019, and the okay Special #4 in 2020. Though that’s only based on our arbitrary opinions, it was also evident that those three variants did not move from shelves like the practically ephemeral BCBCS bottles of yonder. My hope is that next year they go back to coffee stout, but do it – ahem – massive with the coffee addition, maybe throw in a special barrel treatment, and serve it in a coffee bag with a Capri Sun-like puncture point. But seriously, bring back BCBCS in 2022 without all the adjunct padding – just great coffee and top-tier barrels – and people will be ready to snatch it up again. Or so you would think.