Bourbon County X: The Top 10 BCBS Variants
Things happen over the course of 10 years. I won’t shock/humor you with some “This is what it was like in 2010” list, but yes, it’s been 10 years since Goose Island both released their first Bourbon County variants and released them on Black Friday. That release, I’ve read, was fraught with questions of, “Are people going to come out/line-up for beer in Chicago in November?” and “WIll people even buy the beer?” Resounding yeses all around. So with 10 years in the books, I thought it was a fine time to rank the best of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout variants ever released.
My first goal was to make this list as comprehensive as possible. I wanted to get as many different opinions and takes on these Bourbon County variants as I could get. Therefore, I hit up my Chicago beer writer/shop owner friends to take part (essentially the Fantasy FoBAB league, plus some additions) and get the most definitive list I could come up with. Those participating:
Patrick Bisch, The Open Bottle – Tinley Park and (soon) Lockport
Steph Byce, Good Beer Hunting
Craig G., ABV Chicago
Austin Harvey, Beermiscuous – Lakeview and Highwood
Ryan I., ABV Chicago
Karl Klockars, Guys Drinking Beer
Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune
Joshua Riley, Kankakee Daily Journal
Ryan Tracy, Beer on the Wall – Park Ridge and Arlington Heights and Off the Wall
Mike Zoller, Porch Drinking
Each participant was asked to come up with a ranked list of their favorite Bourbon County variants (mostly from flavor memory). They must have had the beer in order to rank it. At least five variants need to be on the list with a max of ten. Each rank corresponded to a point value; for example, a Bourbon County variant ranked 1 gets one point, 2 gets two points, etc. Any variant not on a list receives 11 points. The lower the point total the higher the overall ranking.
Variant for purposes of this list means part of the Bourbon County Brand line-up, initially released on or around Black Friday, and bottled and sold. Notable beers that were excluded from this list were Baudonia and Templeton Rye (both never officially bottled and sold) and King Henry (not labeled as Bourbon County). The hope here is to not only get clicks (gotcha already!) but to see what worked for Bourbon County these past 10 years and have that inform the next 10.
There are some obvious limitations to this list. Some participants might not have been able to try all the beers, leading to some being left off their list entirely. Or some may have had them a long time ago and forgotten how they tasted (recency bias!). Or there are so many different versions of one variant (coffee) that it split the votes. Whatever it may be, this list was done as a fun diversion from whatever you want to call 2020, so have fun with it. Or email us with how wrong we are. That’s fine too.
Based on the above criteria, Goose Island released 42 different Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) variants over the last 10 years. The first three years Goose Island released seven BCBS variants; in 2019 alone they released seven. Two non-stouts have been introduced in the line – Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2013-2018 in some form) and Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine (2018-present).
Of those qualified beers, 30 showed up on at least one of our panel’s list, good for 71% of all variants (maybe next year for the Beer Hall of Fame). Comparing the first five years (2010-2014) with the last five (2015-2019, also when they changed bottles), the first five years had 47% of those named compared to 53% for the last five. The top ten has an even 50/50 split. Every year of Bourbon County got at least one vote (yes, even beers from 2015).
Before we get to the big list, what were the favorites of those that actually made the beer at Goose Island? Mike Siegel, Mike Smith, and Keith Gabbett gave me their thoughts.
Mike Siegel, R&D Manager
“I would say Backyard Rye, a Templeton Rye barrel aged variant of BCS with Marionberries, boysenberries, and mulberries added. Former Brewmaster Brett Porter, my wife, and I picked about 250lb of mulberries from a few trees in Humboldt Park, just north of the barrel warehouse.
Back then, we would put the fruit right in the barrel, added to the beer that was already aged 8 months, and I remember the day we pulled those barrels out, and we realized that we couldn’t fit 25lb of berry puree to the casks because the barrels were full. We scrambled and had to remove some of the beer from each barrel – it ended up being a 15-16 hour day. Of course we didn’t want to waste the beer that was removed either, so we saved that in a small tank, and released an unfruited Templeton Rye BCS variant, keg only. It was the precursor to the Reserve series that we have done for many years, which highlights a specific brand and distillery.
Backyard Rye ended up winning Gold in the Fruited beer category of FOBAB that year and was runner up Best of Show. It was great fresh, but it really held up well for years. I haven’t had it in many years, I’m curious how it tastes 7 years on.”
Mike Smith, Senior Brand Manager
“I would have to say the first year of our vanilla only variant, 2010 Vanilla BCBS. Just to find any barrel aged stouts back then was still pretty tough to do. You still needed to be there right when they got them in or have a guy that would hold a bottle for you. I’m a huge vanilla fan outside of beer so when I heard there was a variant with vanilla that year I took my day off and dove around to what seemed like 30 liquor stores in the Chicagoland area. I ended up finding 3-4 bottles total and couldn’t wait to try it. Later that week I went over to a buddies house and cracked the bottle. That first sip was like heaven. I haven’t tried anything like it before and it’s burned in my memories as one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted. The vanilla that came through the stout was a mind blowing first. It was just a perfect mix of vanilla, chocolate, dark fruits, oak notes, and will forever be burned in my beer drinking memory. It’s been really fun to bring it back two more times with a little twist on the original in 2010.”
Keith Gabbett, Goose Island Beer Co. Brewmaster
“There are so many good beers to choose from. Do I go with Backyard Rye since I was able to bring my son along with us as we scouted for Mulberry trees in Garfield Park on a great spring day? What about Cherry Rye (I was in the brewhouse as one of our cellars tried to deal with a FV filled with cherries)? What about Bramble Rye (I liked that one so much I pushed for us to bring it back in 2018)? King Henry (watching barleywine leaking out of the cask staves because they dried out between Rare and when we had time to fill King Henry)? The first Vanilla Rye (I found some old notes last year from the processing where I said “needs more vanilla”)?
All the others over the years have been fantastic as well from Café de Olla, to Midnight Orange to our barrel forward variants and everything in between. However, if I have to pick one it would be 2013 Prop ‘the one with toasted coconut’. It was such a no brainer of an addition, pulling out and amplifying notes that were already present in the beer, “of course toasted coconut would be awesome” that I was surprised we hadn’t thought of it before. And of course, it was delicious. My wife also got into the action toasting ½ the coconut in her kitchen downtown before handing it off to Mike and Jared to toast the other half. I like that one for personal reasons but also because it was the first time we created a BCS variant specifically for Chicago as a way to give thanks for all the support over the years. I really like that aspect of it and the fact that we’ve been able to continue that tradition ever since.”
The Best Bourbon County Variants
You’ve scrolled enough. Here’s what you came for. The link after the beer name will take you to the episode where we had that beer. (Each individual’s list can be found below the main list.) Quotes from our list participants follow the description.
10) Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout (2011)
The only Bourbon County coffee variant to make the list, 2011 featured the first change of coffee beans, going from Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso beans to Anjilanaka beans. After wowing everyone with the first coffee variant in 2010, the 2011 version actually got delayed to the following year along with Bramble Rye only heightening demand for it. Goose Island rewarded those who waited by fine-tuning the previous variant, expertly blending the base BCBS with roasty coffee. Unfortunately the coffee line has been basically discontinued as a variant in the yearly Bourbon County line-up since 2018, but it usually shows up in something else (coffee barleywine – 2018; Cafe de Olla – 2019; Special #4 – 2020). Still every year drinkers hope for a return to the simple yet exquisite Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout.
“I had this in a two-year-vertical a while back and I can still remember just how perfect the blend of bourbon, beer and rich roasty coffee played together.” – Karl Klockars
“For the real heads out there, you may remember the remarkably smaller amount of Original that went to the Chicago market in 2011 and how furious it made the bottle-chasers. What you may also remember is that, for the first couple years of the Coffee variant, beans were steeped into the beer during conditioning, as opposed to a large batch of cold brew coffee being married into the beer, as was done in later versions. The former method, I believe, leads to a final product that marries the component flavors of the beer to the coffee far more harmoniously, like singers with similar timbres.” – Austin Harvey
9) Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine (2018) – listen
People were up in arms when there was no Bourbon County Brand Barleywine slated for the 2018 line-up. Wheatwine? What the hell’s this? It was just a not-too-boozy, butterscotch-filled delight that came out of nowhere and ranked near the tops of most people’s 2018 BCBS lists. While sacrificing some of the darker notes of the barleywine (some caramel/toffee, raisins, figs, etc.), Wheatwine excelled with butterscotch flavors while still maintaining some of the barrel characteristics found in the stout side of the family. Goose has since started adding adjuncts to the wheatwine (caramella in 2020), but it’s safe to say that either a barleywine or wheatwine of some sorts will be in the line-up every year.
“I’ve always been a fan of Bourbon County Barleywine, so I was skeptical when Goose Island replaced its anticipated Barleywine with a wheat-based strong ale aged in 4+ year old Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels. But I was pleasantly surprised by Wheatwine’s sweet, boozy profile of caramel, butterscotch, toffee, vanilla, and bourbon flavors. It’s nothing terribly fancy, and pretty straight-forward, but I think that’s where its charm lies.” – Patrick Bisch
8) Bourbon County Brand Double Barrel Stout (2019) – listen
This one might be even more rare than Rare Bourbon County! Only available for purchase if you were selected for Prop Day 2019, Double Barrel BCBS has been kicking around for a few years beforehand (it was talked about as early as 2017) and has show up at times on tap at Goose Island Fulton (along with its bigger sibling Triple Barrel BCBS). Of course Goose went all out, aging Double Barrel first in 11-year-old Elijah Craig barrels for a year, then transferring it to 12-year-old Elijah Craig barrels for another year (which yielded the 2017 Whisky of the Year). Packed it in a stylish tube instead of a box, Goose wanted to let you know how special this beer is to them. Boozy and complex, it shows what barrels and time can do to a beer.
“Hitting Straight and hard from the jump, the Double Barrel BCS from 2019 was far and away my favorite of that lineup. This beer let you know it was there. I had it then and I had it again at Prop Day. I had a bottle of it some months later, each time that beer was exquisite, but that first sip was probably one of my favorite beer drinking experiences of my life. There has been little else like it and it was phenomenal.” – Joshua Riley
“It’s always been my dream to have Neoplitan make a bottle appearance. It’s what we drank on Tapdeck our first ever story on the website. I saw it again later that year at my first Great Taste. The only other variant that holds sentimental value and cult favorite status like that for me is Double Barrel. This beer fucks, felt like I was experiencing Bourbon County Stout for the first time all over again.” – Nic White
7) Bourbon County Brand Cherry Rye Stout (2012) – listen
Despite the complaints of drinkers over the previous years’ Bramble Rye being too fruit-forward and not enough stout, Goose Island went right back to the well with Cherry Rye the following year. Cherry Rye suffered a similar fate, with drinkers complaining it being too fruity. Time in the bottle allowed for the cherries to settle in, the rye spices to come out, and a lovely cinnamon note (sometimes found in cherries) to add some complexity to the beer. By that point you were either Team Bramble or Team Cherry – no in-between. Hope you didn’t get rid of yours too soon.
“Fruit forward and decadent in all the right ways. In a world where it’s so easy for cherry in a beer to go left and be a mess, it wasn’t here. They nailed it.” – Nic White
“This was the first variant I ever tried, and it came out around the time when Bourbon County was being released at suburban bottle shops whenever they received it, which ended up being the day before Thanksgiving, if my memory serves me. This was a real “thrill of the chase” beer, and it was the first time I walked out on a store owner trying to gouge me on prices. More significantly, I couldn’t recall if I’d ever had a beer quite like this when I first had it, ushering in nearly a decade of chasing more barrel-aged adjunct or fruited stouts.” – Ryan I.
6) Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout (2010) – listen
Ah, one of the first Bourbon County Brand Stout variants and the one that sent drinkers in to a tizzy. Released alongside the first Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout and Rare, people had never had a barrel-aged beer with vanilla in it before (and according to Goose, there was a reason why). Adding to the vanilla already coming from the barrel gave the OG some lovely marshmallow notes to complement the chocolate of the base. Breweries can go overboard with vanilla easily, but Goose’s first foray into the adjunct went well enough. It also helped that a bomber (22 ounces for those that don’t remember) only ran about $15. Damn.
“The first take on Vanilla is still champion. This was velvety, remarkably smooth brew that was chewy without being too arduous.” – Austin Harvey
“Similarly, I still have wonderful sensory memories of the deliciously strong ribbon of vanilla that flowed through this variant, sampled way back at a Sheffield’s Goose Island tap takeover event.” – Karl Klockars
5) 2 Year Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout (2019) – listen
Goose Island rarely (get it?) does the two year aging thing. Only two times previously have they done it, and it worked out in both instances (Rare 2010 and 2015). So Goose decided to take their 2017 Reserve Bourbon County beer (aged in 11-year-old 25th Anniversary Knob Creek barrels) and let it rest for another year. What resulted was a two year delight that really stood out among the crowd. Chocolate cake attained without any adjuncts and a strong barrel presence made this one a standout among the 2019 Bourbon County Brand Stout class.
“From my Top 50 Beers of 2019 writeup: ‘This is one of the best Bourbon County variants they’ve ever bottled. The extended aging makes magic in this stout, as it becomes this enormous burnt-edge fudge brownie with walnuts on the flavor. The complexities further unravel with maple syrup, toasted coconut, and chocolate chip pancakes. It’s as close to the beloved Baudoinia variant as we’ll likely ever see.'” – Ryan I.
“Maybe time and screaming at kids to get off my lawn took its toll on me, but the 2-yr reserve brought me back to a place in space and time where I was ready to write off all flavor additions in BA stouts and just enjoy the wonderful combination of barrel + beer in the same way I enjoy a flawless, lightly crispy pilsner. This release had all my favorite bourbon notes–vanilla, campfire, toasted coconut, caramel, and toffee all delivered in a massive envelope constructed of dark chocolate. The complex simplicity of its release brought me back to the days of the original Rare release, and had me drooling for more barrel variations and less flavor additions.” – Ryan Tracy
4) Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout (2010) – listen
Take Bourbon County Brand Stout – your hit barrel-aged stout – and throw it in to 23-year Pappy Van Winkle barrels – one of the most sought after bourbons on the market – for 2 years. Then release it on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Dollar bills y’all. But that’s with 2020 hindsight. Rare 2010 perfectly melded the base Bourbon County with that Pappy barrel, bringing notes of fruit and spices along with the chocolate. For how great Rare 2010 was, it really ushered in two things that have unfortunately become commonplace in the beer universe – Black Friday releases and the price. Now a vast majority of breweries release their special beer on Black Friday and it usually requires a line to get it. Likewise, Goose Island charged around $42 per bottle – not unheard of for wine but crazy for beer. Between Rare 2010 and Three Floyd’s Barrel-Aged Dark Lord ($50 per bottle, first released in 2011), beer prices would soon creep up, making $50 bottles not so shocking.
“Up until the moment I had this beer for the first time, I drank almost no hard alcohol, nor did I have any desire to drink it. Rare changed that. It introduced me to the inherent complexity available in better quality bourbon that I had never had before and while I loved regular ole BCBS at this point, I couldn’t believe how different Rare was just from changing the barrel. It made me seek out bourbons at bars, try other spirits, develop new appreciation for flavors I disliked years ago, and probably made me a better person…probably, maybe.” – Ryan Tracy
“My introduction to what barrel aging could really do in a beer. Nose reeked of whiskey (which at the time I was not a fan of). Beer took the best parts of that Pappy 23 barrel (the spices and sweet notes) and mingled them perfectly with the Bourbon County base beer. Smooth and chocolatey, it still stands as easily one of the best beers I’ve ever had period. Totally worth the (then insane) $41.99 I paid at Binny’s after trying it at the Goose Island Clybourn brewpub.” – Craig G.
3) Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout (2018) – listen
At the forefront of adjuncts again (see below), Goose Island put two different kinds of cacao nibs and orange peel zest in their Bourbon County to attempt to mimic the orange chocolate candy that brewer Paul Lievens was fond of as a child. I’ll never understand why Goose adds chocolate/cacao nibs to an already chocolate-forward beer (see Proprietor’s 2018) but in the case of Midnight Orange it worked. The big chocolate you knew you would get, but the orange was anyone’s guess. Turned out (at least in some bottles) to be a nice kiss of orange at the end that (it appears) drinkers loved.
“Orange and chocolate is a combination that most people would agree should never coexist. But I disagree to the highest degree! Midnight Orange’s entire flavor experience can easily be achieved by eating a chocolate covered orange with a glass of bourbon at its side. Fresh citrus from the orange peel dominates the aroma, but thick milk chocolate notes in the taste meld beautifully together. Maybe it shouldn’t work, but it most definitely does.” – Patrick Bisch
2) Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (2017) – listen
Since releasing the first Proprietor’s in 2013, Goose Island has used it as a playground for more aggressive adjuncts not usually found in the main lineup. For their 2017 iteration, brewer Quinn (not the Mighty Quinn) made banana was the new thing, giving most people something they’d never really had in a barrel-aged beer before. Sure almonds and cassia bark got added as well, but the banana was the star, giving off aromas and tastes of chocolate banana bread. While banana stous haven’t yet exploded, more and more are being released, and Goose Island introduced it first (in a wide release) in their barrel-aged Chicago tribute.
“I remember going into the Bourbon County tasting thinking that I would hate this version of Prop. Bananas in beer had traditionally been very artificial, almost like Laffy Taffy, so I was hesitant. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bananas and cinnamon are combined beautifully in this beer with the barrel adding body and heat.” – Mike Zoller
“It still surprises me how well Goose made bananas and cinnamon work on top of a boozy stout. Of all the Prop varietals over the years, this is the one that made me the happiest.” – Karl Klockars
1) Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (2013) – listen (Patreon exclusive)
The first of Goose Island’s Bourbon County beers “meant to show our immense gratitude to the loyal and adventurous fans in Chicago whose support helped bring Bourbon County Brand Stout to towering new heights,” Proprietor’s 2013 simply added one adjunct to the beer – toasted coconut. As you can see from its ranking, the super-chocoaltely base melded extremely well with the coconut flakes some drinkers saw on top of their beer. As one of the first (if not the first) barrel-aged beers to include coconut, Goose Island took the lead in pushing barrel-aged beers forward yet again (along with questions of how long it would take the coconut to fade). An all-timer.
“So much goodness in this bottle. From the extremely fudgy- and chocolate-forward base Bourbon County that year to the addition of coconut in a barrel-aged stout, it was like drinking your favorite coconut candy bar. It was one of the first times coconut was used in a barrel-aged beer showing that, at the time, Goose Island was at the front of the line with experimentation. Even though the coconut is long gone today, that extra fudgy Bourbon County remains. We need more Bourbon County like this one again – simple in adjuncts and powerful in flavor.” – Craig G.
“The first Prop Goose ever did is still my favorite. That blend of chocolate and coconut held up for years and was one of the best beers I’ve ever had. The last time I had 2013 was probably a couple of years ago and it was still tasting great.” – Mike Zoller
1. Proprietor’s 2014
2. Midnight Orange
3. Coffee (2017)
4. Wheatwine 2018
5. Mon Cheri
1. Coffee (2012)
2. Proprietor’s 2019
3. Wheatwine (2019)
4. Original (2019)
5. Coffee (2015)
1. Rare (2010)
2. Proprietor’s 2013
3. Coffee (2013)
4. 2 Year Reserve
5. Vanilla (2010)
6. Cherry Rye
7. Midnight Orange
8. Bramble Rye (2011)
9. Proprietor’s 2014
10. Coffee (2016)
1. Vanilla (2010)
2. Coffee (2011)
3. Proprietor’s 2013
4. Midnight Orange
5. Coffee Barleywine
1 2 Year Reserve
2. Cherry Rye
3. Reserve (2017)
4. Proprietor’s 2017
5. Wheatwine (2018)
6. Bramble Rye (2011)
7. Proprietor’s 2013
8. Vanilla (2018)
9. Proprietor’s 2014
10. Coffee (2016)
1. Coffee (2011)
2. Vanilla (2010)
3. Proprietor’s 2017
4. Midnight Orange
5. Wheatwine 2018
Josh Noel (unranked)
Coffee (2010 – 2014)
Reserve Rye (2019)
1. Double Barrel
2. Reserve (2018)
3. Vanilla Rye
4. Rare (2015)
5. OG BCBS
1. Rare (2010)
2. Proprietor’s 2013
3. 2 Year Reserve
4. Backyard Rye
5. Vanilla (2018)
6. Midnight Orange
7. Coffee (2014)
8. Proprietor’s 2017
1. Double Barrel
2. Proprietor’s 2017
3. Coffee (2010)
4. Rare (2010)
5. Cherry Rye
1. Proprietor’s 2013
2. Vanilla Rye
3. Backyard Rye
4. Barleywine (2013)
5. Bramble Rye (2011)
6. Proprietor’s 2017