First Look: 2014 Bourbon County Stout Is Better Than Ever

Black Friday is the day where people across America wait on line all night long to buy stuff at big discounts. Beer nerds didn't have much of a reason to leave the house (I was doing just fine sleeping in) until Goose Island decided it was no longer acceptable for us to sit at home watching the news of how many people got trampled at outlet stores. Black Friday has become the official annual release day of the entire Bourbon County Stout lineup, the darkest of stouts meant for the darkest time of year. I got to try the new edition of this cult barrel-aged stout as well as the Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (BCBW) thanks to Goose Island Innovation & Planning Manager, Mike Siegel. It'll be released to the public on Friday, November 28.

Spoiler alert: this year's batch still kicks serious ass. Boasting a 13.8% ABV — high but certainly not the 15.1% of 2012 — there's tons of vanilla, bourbon (duh!), oak, dark chocolate, coffee, dark fruits with emphasis on cherry, as well as molasses and licorice.

That might seem like the same flavor profile as past incarnations and, sure enough, it's the same recipe, but each year's release differs from others in the barrel. Goose Island has about 3,000 barrels each year for the Bourbon County releases, with the majority reserved for the stout. "Our philosophy is the blend is better than the single barrel," says Siegel. "It's a mix: Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, various [Jim] Beam, Knob Creek and others." This beer stands out in smoothness and balance, thanks to all those delicious barrels.

Fans went crazy for last year's release of Bourbon County Brand Barleywine after years of hoping for another release of the now-legendary King Henry, Goose Island's Pappy Van Winkle barrel-aged barleywine. Last year's was good, but this year's is even better. The barleywine is a whole different beast, explains Siegel. "We want a present bourbon character but we don't want it to be as forward as Bourbon County Stout, so we reuse Bourbon County Stout barrels for about 70% of the barleywine. The other 30% are first-use bourbon barrels." The blend is apparent in the taste and smell. You get roasted notes from the stout, which amplifies the fruit notes. This year's version has less brown sugar and is far more dark fruit-forward with a ton of cherry up front. At 12.1% it's a big beer (though not as big as the stout) but it's suprisingly easy to drink.

The third release is the coffee version of the stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout (BCBCS), which returns again after several successful years in the lineup. It's my favorite of the three annual releases (there are two more variants which change every year). Each year they use coffee from their neighbors, renowned Chicago roasterie Intelligentsia. This year they chose a Rwandan coffee called Zirikana, a new direction for the beer as the coffee has previously come from Central American producers. Siegel described this year's as the "brightest" coffee flavor they've ever achieved. Although the label of the Bourbon County Coffee says to age for up to five years, you should drink it (see: sip, not chug) right away. "Our philosophy is on Black Friday, when it's released, it's ready to go. You don't need to age it," says Siegel. I couldn't agree more: the huge aroma and taste of coffee does start to dissipate after a few months.

The other beers from the Bourbon County line are Vanilla Rye and this year's edition of Proprietor's Reserve. Vanilla Rye is a return to the limited 2010 release of BCB Vanilla. The original edition built on the strong vanilla flavors in the barrel with massive additions of vanilla bean. The introduction of aging in rye barrels should be fantastic, but it simply wasn't ready in time for the tasting. Don't worry, this version will be shipping out nationwide in limited quantities. (So, maybe do worry.)

The final release in the Bourbon County lineup is Proprietor's Reserve, which was born out of crazy experimentation. Sure enough, it took the team at Goose Island until the end of the summer to dial-in the right combination. Some of the experimental flavors sounded great but simply didn't work: ripe banana and peanut butter were both unfortunately turned down, but I'm still hoping one day we'll see a ripe banana, bacon and peanut butter sandwich variant (Elvis would approve).

This year's Proprietors is a blend of Bourbon County with cocoa nibs from Congo, cassia bark from Vietnam, coconut water from Thailand and panela sugar from Mexico. The brewers were inspired by the use of simple syrup in cocktails, so they created to their own variation: sugar cane dissolved in coconut water. The unrefined sugar comes in a block form and once it was dissolved in the coconut water, the cocoa nibs were added to steep. Siegel said the fragrance was "like the most amazing hot chocolate you've ever had." The final beer, Proprietors Reserve, won't see distribution outside of Chicago, so unfortunately I wasn't able to try it but you can be sure I'll track some down to review.

If you were wondering what happens to those used bourbon barrels after they're used for your favorite stout or barleywine, here's a fun fact: many of them are sent to Scotland for aging whisky. Although no Bourbon County Scotch editions have been released yet, you can be sure that sometime in the future there will be a single malt with stout influence.

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