Sometimes, being a beer writer—or beer even drinker—takes you to some pretty decadent places. Such was the case for me last Tuesday when, in an effort to reschedule a Bourbon County tasting due to conflicting dinner plans (those dinner plans involving Garrett Oliver and the very talented team at a new restaurant called Gloria), I walked into Maysville half an hour before the scheduled media tasting hoping to steal a few quick sips of this year’s six variants.
Instead, what I was greeted with was this: my own separate table in the rear of the restaurant, with each of the six variants lined up and poured, room-temp and ready for my inquisitive lips. Not only that, but Goose Island brewmaster, Jared Jankoski took a seat next to me on my left (with communications manager of ABI’s High End division, Lisa Derus on my right) to graciously lead me through my own private tasting.
Bourbon County Brand Stouts & Barleywine – 2017 Variants
To preserve this memory and keep things interesting, I’ve ranked the six variants of Goose Island Bourbon County Brand stouts and barleywine from my least to most favorite. This is based on my notes and memory. Admittedly, both are limited.
The biggest takeaway for 2017 from a production standpoint is the bourbon barrels, which, for the first time, were all first-use, freshly dumped and four years or older. On the shelves, the standout will be this year’s big focus on dessert-like, fruit-forward recipes, with both the national and Proprietor’s variants featuring fruit and almond extracts.
6. Goose Island Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (Banana, Almond and Cassia Bark)
Don’t get me wrong: this is a delicious dessert of a beer, especially—and maybe only—if bananas foster is your thing. I’m not a big banana fan, or almond fan for that matter. Baked banana comes on strong, with warm, nutty flavors from the roasted almond extract sneaking in subtly, then sticking around. Meanwhile, the cassia bark brings in a cinnamon kick, tickling the nose and tongue as it marries the chocolate, nut, wood and roast notes with its pungent spice.
5. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout (National Variant: Blueberry and Almond)
Aroma plays a big role on this one, with a big, warm waft of blueberry pie and then burst of marzipan hitting you with your first and second sniffs. About mid-sip, those berry, sugary almond notes meld with the barrel and dark chocolate roast of the malt to create a truly badass bourbon-laced brew.
Northwoods has become Jared’s pride and joy, and it’s easy to see why. After kicking around the idea for this beer, playing with flavor additions of blueberry juice and almond extract, he and his team clearly put the time in carefully, chemically getting this one just right.
4. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Barleywine
The Barleywine is admittedly delicious, with the high gravity fermentation and lighter malt bill allowing for a fruity, less intense Bourbon County experience. Tasting it on Tuesday, I thought of the lighter, fruitier, more acidic qualities of Third Wave coffees, as opposed to the stout’s big, bold, dark chocolatey, roasty flavors.
There’s no coffee in this barleywine, but tasting it after the BCB Coffee Stout, I found myself wishing there was. Jared did say the barleywine has been put through a Randle with coffee beans in the past, which I will dutifully experiment with at home as soon as possible.
(I already have my coffee picked out: Wartega’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Kenya Bold.)
3. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout
Who doesn’t love a coffee stout? Espresso hits you quick with this year’s variant, with a big, roasty nose reminiscent of the First Wave (think dark chocolate and bitter roast, versus today’s tendency toward single-origin fruit- and acidity-forward coffee flavors). Appropriately, Goose Island returned to their first coffee of choice this year, using Inteligentsia’s Black Cat which was used in the original Bourbon County Coffee Stout. It finishes with an almost salted caramel flavor, likely due to the bourbon barrel.
2. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
There’s nothing like the original. Big, boozy, chocolatey notes swirl among bourbon heat and sweetness, with the roasty character and thick, syrupy body of the malt balancing things out. Sticky, supple and self-indulgent, this is the stout from whence all barrel-aged stouts came, and you must respect it.
1. Goose Island Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout
…That being said, bring more bourbon into the equation, and I’m even more in. For the Reserve, original Bourbon County Stout was aged in 11-year-old Knob Creek bourbon barrels. The special bourbon barrel-aging imparts a whiskey-like heat that you just don’t get from the original. Adding to that aged wood character is a slightly sweet touch of maple, creating a Knob Creek illusion that’s right up my alley.
Along with sitting down with Jared Jankoski and head brewer of R&D, Quinn Fuechsl (who’s responsible for this year’s Proprietor’s Stout), I was also able to briefly meet Fred Noe, Knob Creek’s master distiller. I have a feeling he’s quite a character.