Age-wise, anyway. Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout was first brewed back in '92 as one of the U.S.'s very first commercial barrel-aged beers, and the recipe hasn't changed since. The base beer, by the brewery's own admission, is an unbalanced, not-all-that-great stout that's never released on its own. As soon as the stuff is done brewing, it's laid to rest in whiskey barrels for about a year, during which time the beer picks up intensely boozy notes -- vanilla, caramel, oak -- and turns from so-so into a jaw-droppingly delicious, 14% ABV monster of a beer.
The final product is one of those critically acclaimed rarities with such high demand that it's not easy to come by. Each year the stuff is released on Black Friday, and people line up at shops for hours for the chance to snag a few bottles. But if you keep an eye out, you can get lucky and find it on tap or on a store shelf around this time of year.
In addition to the normal version, the brewery also puts out a few variants. There are two standard ones -- the coffee and barleywine versions -- and two that change each year. We got the whole 2014 lineup, and tried them all side by side.
Bourbon County Brand Stout
The standard imperial stout that's been aged in bourbon oak barrels for a year.
This is everything a big, boozy barrel-aged stout should be. There's a sticky malt sweetness and tons of rich, oaky bourbon flavor. It's strong as hell -- there's no doubt that this is a double digit ABV beer -- so even the 12oz bottles are best enjoyed with a friend (or two), but the alcohol doesn't overwhelm. Instead it's layered in with the toffee and vanilla notes, making for a terrific slow sipper. It's maybe a touch too sweet, but that's the only fault we can find with it.
Bourbon County Brand Barleywine
A barleywine ale that's aged in barrels that previously held Bourbon County Stout.
Even though the base beer is different, it's surprising how similar this tastes to Bourbon County Stout. There's a heavier, lasting sweetness to this one, though, that borders on cloying. It's got more caramel flavor and less roasty malt character, and is a great beer by any standard -- and is certainly the best barleywine we've tasted -- but isn't quite as outstanding as the others in the lineup.
Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout
Bourbon County Brand Stout that's been blended with cold brew. Each year's batch uses a different kind of coffee bean for subtle changes.
If you like coffee (or, hell, even if you don't), this one will blow your mind. The cold brew helps to mellow the huge boozy and syrupy taste of the stout, and adds an aromatic roasty aspect. Even though there's a strongly noticeable coffee note -- it's like sticking your nose in a bag of freshly ground beans -- it doesn't overwhelm, so there's still plenty of the bourbon-y goodness at play.
Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Rye
Bourbon County Stout that's been aged in rye barrels with vanilla beans.
The vanilla jumps out right away. There's wave after wave of it, a warming, mellow note up front that pairs beautifully with the stout's already great bourbon flavors, and then a sharp kick in the aftertaste from the rye barrels. The sweetness of the standard stout seems very slightly toned down, and that plus the vanilla rye aspects make this a seriously impressive beer, even in the face of already great competition.
Bourbon County Brand Proprietor's Stout
Bourbon County Stout that's been aged in rye barrels with cassia bark (cinnamon, basically), panella sugar, coconut water, and cocoa nibs. This one's only available in Chicago, and is the most elusive in an already rare bunch.
Woah, there's a lot going on with this one. There's definitely a spicy twinge up front from the cassia bark and rye barrels, and a subtle coconut note and even more sweetness than usual in the finish. The cocoa nibs seem to get lost in the mix -- we couldn't taste it.
It's good, and interesting, but the coconut and panella sugar seem to add a little bit too much sweetness to an already sugary-tasting stout, and some of us ended up favoring the other variants over this one. Which is ironic, since this is far and away the hardest to come by, and most highly prized among beer collectors. Though in fairness, some others thought it was evenly balanced, and the best variant of the bunch.
We'd venture to say that it's a beautiful and thoroughly unique beer, but maybe not worth the arm and a leg you'd pay for it in a beer trade -- if you can even find someone willing to part with a bottle to begin with.
They're all terrific, and well worth your money if you find them on a tap list or bottle shop shelf. The winner is a toss-up, though. We could all agree that the coffee, proprietor's, and vanilla were especially outstanding, though some said it was a tie between the coffee and vanilla rye, and others thought it was between the coffee and proprietor's. Though that's just splitting hairs considering how impressively crafted each one is.
If you want to try some for yourself, plug your zip code into the Beermenus pages for the regular stout, coffee variant, or barleywine and you might get lucky. Unfortunately, you're probably out of luck on the other two if you didn't get a bottle already, since collectors go especially crazy for those ones.
Bottles and kegs usually sell out quickly after the release day on Black Friday, but your local shops and bars might have some lying around if you want to try to hunt it down.