In which I taste my way through the Bourbon County Stout 2020 lineup in peak pandemic-year style — on a Zoom call.
For the last few years, I’ve been able to sit down with every single variant of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout as a participant at Goose’s BCS media tasting events. And for each of those years, I’ve basically said something to the effect of “we’ve got some hits and misses here.”
You’ll forgive me if I tip my hand a little bit when I say that I won’t be making that statement this year.
This year’s media tasting was like none other, as befitting this pandemic year. In 2020 we drank remotely, logged into a Zoom call whilst spread across the Midwest from Kankakee to Milwaukee to northern Michigan. The Goose powers that be stayed hunkered down at the Barrel Warehouse (all socially distanced, of course, which is easy in a facility that large).
As such, I missed the crosschatter and commiseration that each year’s tasting allows, but moving the tasting to all our respective dining room tables allowed for some more considered, less distracted beer tasting. Better paced, too — I am not writing this under the penalty of the annual BCS Headache for once. The more time to sample seven different 14-16% ABV beers, the better.
The Lineup: Some Familiar Faces
This year’s outing isn’t quite as large as 2019’s or 2018’s (both eight beers), but it’s close — the stouts feature three barrel-focused options and three adjuncted options, with one non-stout option (wheatwine). The successes of this year’s crop can largely be attributed to the team’s familiarity with a lot of these ingredients, if not outright replications of prior taproom brews.
For example: The Goose team confirmed that year’s Caramella Wheatwine already had a test run in a stout form called Apple Cart Stout, and the Special #4 variant with coffee and maple already hit the taproom last Prop Day in the form of Fulton Morning Stout. Even the cinnamon flavor imparted by cassia bark has been utilized time and again by the BCS team, this time in the Caramella wheatwine.
All in all, it’d almost be a surprise if these weren’t all standout beers. What we’re seeing this year is mostly a team of world-class barrel-aged-beer creators leaning into what they know best, and largely succeeding. Bourbon County Stout 2020 has a lot of known variables, and it worked out.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no new ground being trod here. There’s definitely some fun and interesting choices being made this year.
A Quick Disclaimer: The following tasting notes are presented in the order we tasted through them, and of course, please consider that we in the media received all these beers gratis from the brewery.
With all that in mind, here’s how the Bourbon County Stout 2020 lineup looked to us:
Bourbon County Stout Original:
At this point, Goose really has this one dialed in to be as consistent a barrel-aged stout as one could imagine. “This is Greg Hall’s beer,” as R&D Manager Mike Siegel likes to tell us, and they treat the beer with the respect it deserves. That said, there are annual differences in barrels and weather to account for — temperature fluctuations causing different barrel intensities, basically — and so while this beer isn’t 100% the same as it always is, it’s close enough.
While this always seems to be thinner than I hope for, there’s no denying that BCS OG is still quite simply a damn good barrel-aged stout. Very smooth, not too much heat from the liquor, with wisps of cherry and tobacco notes bouncing around on the palate. Lots of balance between the malt, roast and bourbon. Slow pitch right down the middle.
The fact that the Goose team has this dialed in as much as it is, is good news — because with just a couple exceptions, OG BCS is the foundation on which all the other Bourbon Counties are built. They kind of have to get it right.
This one’s a sleeper hit, for sure. Aged for a couple years in Old Forester Birthday bourbon barrels, this blend sits back a bit to start — to the point where, when it’s cool, you might think it’s just a regular OG. Give that a swirl around the palate, though, and let it open up a little bit and BAM.
Big huge spice, almost rye sharpness with heavy barrel notes of oak, vanilla and leather. There’s also a very long tail on this one, to the point where it sticks on the palate and even creeps up your nose. The body is a little heavier and there’s a nice big black pepper and raisin hit up front as it warms.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t take your time and allow this to warm. I returned to this later on in the evening where I started picking up some crazy Dr. Pepper cola notes and wisps of vanilla cake frosting. Super fun, and probably one of the most successful of these distillery-specific experiments of the last few years.
One thing of note is that Old Forester is part of Brown Forman, who makes their own barrels to their specifications. This means they can specify the level of toasting and char on the inside of the oak, and when these barrels came up for grabs it was “like a fire drill” (per Siegel) to get down there and grab ’em. I’m glad they did. Clearly it worked out.
Anniversary is a bit of a comedown from the heights of Birthday, but only because I found that last variant to be so much fun. Even though Weller was long a go-to bourbon for me (and still is, when you can find it) I don’t get the same kinds of complexity and variety that I saw in the Birthday.
Here we have a bit more balance towards the stout side of things, along with some drying cocoa nib sweetness and sharpness, a healthy amount of dark fruit expressions in the fig/plum realms and we move on. There’s nothing wrong here, it just doesn’t hit the same heights as other beers. And we’ve got some really fun stuff to get to so let’s try the…
I was a definite skeptic coming into this one. Apple flavors on top of a bourbon-barrel-aged wheatwine? With cinnamon and caramel? This one had all the potential in the world to be a total car wreck, but man, Goose stuck the landing. Everything just works on this one.
All of the flavors blend together beautifully on top of the already-sweet wheatwine in a delicate balance that is pure pastry but in a great way. The tartness of the apple flavor (which we discovered was achieved using a very thick, viscous apple juice concentrate) with the sweet caramel and spice of the cassia bark all swims around in equal measure making sure that even though it’s overwhelming in flavor, it’s also really fun.
The one caveat — this builds up quickly, to the point where the palate can get overwhelmed with sweetness. The stickiness also stacks in a way the other stouts don’t suffer from, so I’d recommend this as something to split versus savoring a full bottle. Or stretch it out over a day or two.
I originally called this one the most divisive variant, and I still stand by that — there’s certainly people that this isn’t going to appeal to. But for me, this is seriously like “Bananas Foster Prop” levels of surprise. It’s delicious. Grab it.
BCS Kentucky Fog:
I’d never had a stout with tea in it, so no matter what, we were getting into unknown territory here. Kentucky Fog features English Breakfast tea, bergamot oils (for that Earl Grey “purple-ish” taste) and clover honey as adjuncts. In spite of that, the first thought that popped into my head on the first sip was “lemon!”
Yes, bright lemon and lime zips up front on the palate while the nose is rich with black tea wafting up from the neck of the bottle. A very floral bouquet dances around the midbody and the finish as the honey sweetness bats cleanup, and throughout you still get the hefty, dark stout and bourbon flavors as a backbone.
It’s interesting on an intellectual level and while I don’t see this one being as craveworthy as the other adjuncted stouts, it’s a legitimately unique beer and I hope that it finds a fan base somewhere. I also anticipate that the delicate flavors here will fade off quicker than most, so if you have any interest in trying a tea-infused stout I’d advise you to do it ASAP.
This is the second swing at a Prop blend from brewer Emily Kosmal (she created the 2016 blend as well), who apparently literally dreamed this into creation. After waking up from a vision of eating spumoni and drinking BCS in the taproom, she submitted this for the annual contest and, well, here we are.
I’m not any sort of spumoni expert, so I can’t 100% tell you how closely this mimics the dessert, but I can tell you that the cherry aspect of this definitely steals the show. On the nose you get some real major nuttiness from the pistachios but on the palate the rich, liqueur-like cherry tartness (from Fabbri Amarena cherries, FWIW) powers over the top of everything. There’s a good chocolate richness beneath there, though, and I appreciate how the bourbon plays with that cherry syrup and expresses itself as vanilla and cola.
It’s fun! It’ll probably be very popular. But TBQH … thinking about how well the cherries pop in this beer, and how well the orange flavors came out in the Midnight Orange variant a few years back, well, I’d love someone to take a swing at an Old Fashioned cocktail BCS with both of those flavors incorporated.
Goose doesn’t pay attention to my ideas very often — if they did we’d have Mild Winter back by now — but maybe someone on the inside can submit an Old Fashioned BCS for 2021.
BCS Special Stout #4:
“Internally, we called it ‘Brunch.'” And with that quote from Mike Siegel, dear reader, please put to rest any other idea that anyone will remember this as “Special #4.” This is now and forever Bourbon County Brunch. Moving on.
If you’re disappointed that there’s no official Coffee BCS this year, take heart — the flavor of this one is fully dominated by the two kinds of Intelligencia coffee used to amp up the roastiness of the otherwise-smooth oatmeal stout.
On the hunt for the maple syrup promised in this beer? You’ll have to look closely — it was barely perceptible to me, emerging only a little bit in terms of a lingering sugary sweetness at the finish, which is really right where it needs to be. I’d have loved a little more of the flavor in the beer but Goose clearly erred on the side of “let’s not make this taste like a maple donut” which I don’t fault them for.
Just be aware … this is mostly a coffee beer. And for most of us this isn’t a bad thing. Though I could also see returning to this in a couple months and finding a fully different beer.
The Bourbon County Stout 2020 Wrapup … Without a Ranking
I agree with Josh at the Trib: Ranking these for 2020 is pointless. I definitely have my particular favorites from the above group, but we’re looking in very miniscule degrees of difference here and for the first time I can say I’d love to return to each of these for varying reasons.
We finally got something good out of this stupid pandemic year: Bourbon County Stout 2020 is excellent.
Don’t forget to check out all our other Bourbon County coverage through the years, starting with our 2019 rankings. Remember Mon Cheri? Us either.