For many people around the United States, Black Friday means deals, deals, and more deals. For a large swath of beer lovers, the day after Thanksgiving means Goose Island’s annual Bourbon County Stout (BCS) release day has finally arrived.
A little background: The series started in 1992 to celebrate Goose Island’s 1,000th batch of beer. It’s referred to as one of the first beer barrel-aging programs in the U.S., and it’s certainly the most famous and coveted. The releases are strong (closer in alcohol percentage to a glass of wine) and varied. Some people chase after the bottles to try them immediately (guilty), while others pick them up to age for years and see how they develop over time (often favorably). The BCS program has only gotten more momentous over the decades with new releases and collaborations each year.
The original Bourbon County Stout still makes an appearance each year, but it’s the variants–nearly 70 released to date–that get dedicated fans really going these days. Other strong beer styles like barleywine have made it into the mix in the past, but for the 2023 lineup, it’s all about barrel-aged imperial stouts.
Ahead of the Black Friday release date, I sat down over Zoom with other members of the media and the Goose Island team to taste through and talk about what’s new, what’s consistent, and what especially stands out.
For Fans of Originals: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Original Stout
There’s nothing like an original. Clocking in at 14.6 percent and 14.1 percent ABV and available on draft in select markets as well as 16.9-ounce bottles, the beer is strong on cherry and chocolate notes with a touch of nuttiness. It’s aged for an average of 12 months in barrels that aged bourbons from Buffalo Trace, Heaven HIll, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey. As I sipped, the last bit of a cherry Tootsie Pop came to mind. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny new releases of things never tried before, but when it comes to standbys that are just as interesting alone as they are when tasted side-by-side with past releases of the recipe, it’s hard to beat the original.
For Oak Lovers: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Eagle Rare 2-Year Reserve Stout
As the name suggests, this variant draws on barrels from beloved Kentucky bourbon brand Eagle Rare. The barrels previously were used for Eagle Rare 10 Year. After being filled with BCS, the barrels rest for another two years, this time in Chicago’s climate—wildly different than what’s found in Kentucky, but special in its own way when it comes to the interaction between liquid and barrel. The oak flavors come through strongest, though there’s a balancing acidity that runs through as well.
For Port Drinkers: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Angel’s Envy 2-Year Cask Finish Stout
In the world of spirits, cask finishing (letting the spirit sit in a different barrel after the initial aging) has been all the rage in recent years. Now it’s come to Bourbon County Stouts. This is the first to get the treatment in Goose Island’s history. First, the beer is aged for a year in freshly emptied barrel that previously held Angel’s Envy bourbon. Then it’s poured into Ruby Port barrels where it ages for another year. A few flavors get extra emphasis from the double barrels—particularly cherry. Drinking it, I’m reminded of cherries covered in dark chocolate. Those layers of fruit notes come without any actual fruit added, a testament to the power of cask finishing on a final beer. For an extra special treat, pour a little Angel’s Envy into another glass to sip alongside the beer.
“What’s exciting about the Angel’s Envy BCS collaboration is the beer is finished in a way that replicates how we finish our award-winning bourbon, in port wine barrels,” Owen Martin, master distiller of Angel’s Envy, says in a press release. “We believe that the secondary finishing process, when done with intention, opens up exciting, new opportunities to enhance and elevate bourbon–or in this case, stout–to unexpected places.”
For Dessert Lovers: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Bananas Foster Stout
One of the great things about following the BCS releases over the years is when old favorites make it back into the rotation. For me, one of those favorites has always been the Bananas Foster Stout. It first came out for the Chicago-only marker in 2017. Innovation brewer Quinn Fuechsl led the charge for the brewery’s first foray into using bananas and added almond (in this case, three different types of almond) and cassia bark to round it out. This year, the 13.9 percent bananas foster stout is available on draft and in 16.9-ounce bottles nationally. The flavor, obviously, is loaded with overripe banana and a light nuttiness that layers over the caramelized sugars found in the original base beer. It has a leg up on bananas foster for anyone who is a fan of the dessert: rather than being a full nutty sweet sensory overload, there’s balance in the beer interpretation that makes it easy to return to another glass once the first one is finished.
For Fruit Lovers: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Backyard Stout
Bananas Foster Stout isn’t the only throwback to previous Goose Island recipes to make it into the releases this year. In 2013, the brewery released Backyard Rye after senior innovation manager Mike Siegel drew inspiration from picking fruit in his own backyard. For the beer, hand-picked mulberries from trees around the Chicago Goose Island Barrel House were added. That beer spent its aging period in barrels that previously held rye whiskey. It was a hit, with a perfect 100 rating on BeerAdvocate.
This, however, is bourbon barrel release season. After aging in ex-bourbon barrels for at least a year, the beer was finished and blended with mulberries, boysenberries, and marionberries. These add a fruity freshness to the final 12.9 percent beer, which is available on draft in select markets and in 16.9-ounce bottles nationally. It’s not so much to make it taste like a milkshake, but it is more than enough to add complexity through the fruits’ natural acidity and sweetness.
For People Who Enjoy Chasing Down a Worthy Bottle: 2023 Bourbon County Brand Proprietor’s Stout
Goose Island made one of its biggest additions to the annual releases in 2013 when it introduced Proprietor’s Variant. The goal was to create something adventurous using ingredients that many wouldn’t consider feasible (or at least not an obvious natural fit). The Proprietor’s Variants are also special in that they’re only available in the Chicago market. These have often been personal favorites–particularly the release last year that was inspired by a jungle bird tiki cocktail. This year is another hit if you can get your hands on it.
The 2023 Proprietor’s Stout was designed to put the flavors of rice pudding into a beer. To achieve that, the brewers added toasted rice (the first time rice has made it into a Goose Island stout), cassia bark, raisins, and natural flavors. Rice pudding is hit or miss for me, but rice pudding flavors in a hefty 14.3 percent barrel aged stout? I’m all in for that. The baking spices, malt chocolate, and deep dried fruit notes make this the perfect beer for an after-dinner sipper or for anytime you want something on the dessert side of the flavor spectrum.