In a few weeks, on Black Friday, beer fans across the country will gather outside bottles shops in the wee hours of the morning. Amidst lines of lawn chairs and sleeping blankets that snake to the entrances of these establishments they’ll wait for hours for the doors to open. It’s not a deal these people are hunting; it’s beer they’re after. More specifically, these determined drinkers have Goose Island’s famed Bourbon County Stout—and, more precisely, its elusive variants—in their crosshairs.
The Goose Island team was cool enough to invite me to a prerelease tasting of this year’s 2018 Bourbon County Stout lineup, allowing me to share my thoughts on each big boozy beer with you guys. While taste is clearly subjective, I decided to rank each of them. Will you agree? I’m not sure. But this is what I thought of this year’s lineup. I should note that they are ranked from my least favorite to my favorite, you know, to build anticipation and whatnot.
8. Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout – Goose Island aged its BCBS in rye whiskey barrels and then added raspberry and blackberry juice and puree to form this unique variant. I wish they hadn’t. This is the only one of the beers I tasted that I would not return to. It was cloyingly sweet and tasted more like juice than beer, which was extra weird with the barrel notes coming through in the background. If you’re expecting something like 2015’s Regal Rye, I think you’re in for a glass of disappointment.
7. Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout – This one pains me the most to report. The fan favorite returns and will no doubt become the most sought-after variant of the year. Unfortunately, I don’t think it doesn’t hold a candle to Vanilla Rye or other past vanilla iterations of BCBS. The vanilla on this batch is very perfume-y and dominates the beer. I’ll allow that this could mellow with time and find some harmony, but as it stands, I can’t say this year’s Vanilla is worth the hype.
6. Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine – The story goes like this: At the Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer some years back, one of the Goose Island employees accidentally ran Bourbon County Brand Barleywine through a Randall of coffee beans, and based on the few people who got to try the oddity, it became the stuff of legends. It also inspired this new variant, which I rather like. It smells fantastic and you get lots of coffee and caramel in each sip. My biggest qualm is that I liked the regular barleywine and the regular coffee stout better, so I would have preferred one of those two this year. Still, this is really good and rather unique, so I’d gladly drink my fair share.
5. Original Bourbon County Brand Stout – The original never disappoints. Aged in 4+ year old Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels, this year’s BCBS definitely leans more on the chocolaty side of things, which is all good with me. All the caramel, vanilla, and leathery goodness is still present, but it’s definitely the rich chocolate notes in the driver’s seat this year.
4. Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout – This beer had a real nostalgic effect on me. Growing up, I often had these Germany candies called Erfrischungsstäbchen. They’re little chocolate sticks filled with a sweet orange liquid, and I loved them more than any other candy in existence. This beer smells and tastes just like those little sticks. For that reason, I had a really hard time rating it. I would buy all the bottles of this possible just to get drunk on childhood memories. If you didn’t once fuel your tiny body with the same German candy, I’m not sure Midnight Orange will be such a hit for you.
3. Bourbon County Wheatwine – I really, really like this idea. Goose Island is introducing Bourbon County Wheatwine this year, a beer that’s the first to veer from the original stout since the brewery unveiled Barleywine in 2013. Designed to highlight the impact the bourbon barrels have on the beer aged in them, Wheatwine is a light amber beer with mega notes of toffee, butterscotch, and vanilla. It’s like licking the innards of a Heaven Hill Bourbon barrel—and I mean that in a good way. It’s a winner.
2. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout – This year’s Proprietor’s—the variant that only hits stores in Chicago—plays on the chocolate profile of this year’s BCBS, ramping it up with a combo of dark chocolate and two types of cocoa nibs. Not to sound too much like your mom enjoying a pint of Häagen-Dazs, but it’s sinful. It’s a bit like boozy chocolate milk, which I just realized is a thing someone should make to earn unimaginable riches. All I’m going to say is, I wouldn’t consider you crazy if you booked a trip to Chicago just for this beer.
1.Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout – Reserve uses the same recipe as the original, but ages that beer in 12-year-old Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon barrels. In case you didn’t know, Whisky Advocate awarded that bourbon “Whisky of the Year” last year, so acquiring these barrels was a pretty big deal for Goose Island and a pretty big deal for the beer. What does that mean for the taste? A bigger, bolder, barrel-er stout. It’s like someone turned BCBS up to 11. All the individual notes pop yet simultaneously blend together. I recommend gobbling up as many bottles of Reserve as possible, as it’s my favorite of the lineup for 2018.