The Goose Island Bourbon County Stout 2021 Lineup, Reviewed

In Beer Reviews by Karl

Bourbon County Stout 2021 Lineup

Hello, friends. Here we are again.

After a genuinely impressive and joyously rewarding 2020 Bourbon County Stout lineup – the best in years, by far – we find ourselves at the outset of another season of BCBS tastings and thoughts on said tastings.

And once more, we gathered with a few of Chicago’s beer media representatives to sip our way through the eight different Bourbon County Stout variants for 2020 on a Zoom call. Last year I hoped this was a one-and-done type of tasting, but given that I’m the outlier up here at the 45th Parallel, I’d like to request that you keep these virtual tastings coming for as long as you can, please, Goose media relations team.

“Are we going to outdo ourselves this year? I think we have.”

Mike Smith, Senior Goose Island Brand Manager

So after the pretty much universally glowing reviews for last year’s lineup, was there any way possible that they could keep that streak going, if not improve? Well, we’ll say that this year’s variety could fairly be described as Universally Pretty Good, which, given the quality of most barrel aged beer at FoBAB is still a considerable victory.

But what about <waves hands at all Josh Noel’s reporting>?

Yeah. I know. And I don’t feel great about any of that.

For those of you just wandering in on a BCBS Google search, we encourage you to read this Tribune story about Goose Island managing to let go a number of employees who were agitating for a union. (And if you guessed “pandemic” as the reason for their dismissal, you win.) Not to mention the instance of sexual harassment included in that story as well. All pretty not-great stuff.

How are we possibly able to rationalize a big BCBS writeup this year? Well, there’s a ridiculously antiquated and insensitive quote from a Texas politician about lobbyists that goes a little something like this:

“If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.”

Jesse M. Unruh, apparently

Are we the only beer blog on earth to also cite Molly Ivins? It’s likely. And I’m not saying this is 100% a parallel, but I chose to take Goose Island’s beer, drink it, talk about it and still use it to hopefully make you aware of their current labor issues. Judge me how you will. Also, yeah, the Tribune once again wasn’t invited to participate in this year’s media tasting.


Okay, Here’s What We Thought About The Beer:

As befitting a barrel-aged stout program older than anyone else’s on earth, we finally have a repeat variant, though one that got some tweaks: Fourteen Stout is a slightly spicier remix of 2014 Proprietors, justifiably a cult classic. We also have the first two-Reserve year, the first BCS aged on a secondary wood type (cherrywood) and just the second-ever Double Barrel release.

As for other firsts: This is the first lineup in years – perhaps a decade plus – to not include either/both a coffee variant or a barleywine/wheatwine option. So it goes. We’ll survive.

A Quick Disclaimer: When reading this or any other story about a BCS preview, please consider that we in the media received all these beers gratis from the brewery.

Let’s get to it. Here are our tasting notes and thoughts about the Bourbon County Stout 2021 lineup, presented in the order we tasted them. With emojis!

Bourbon County Stout 2021: The Barrel Variants:

BCS Original 🙂

Usually we cop out with something like “you’ve had this before, this year’s tasted like that one.” And for once we actually have something to say about this one!

Per the team at Goose Island, they decided to dial back the ABV on this for 2021, from nearly 15% down to a couple options, one at 14% and the other at 14.3%. This doesn’t seem like a huge deal, until you consider that nearly every other variant is completely dependent on them nailing the OG stout. So any change here completely affects every beer down the line. That’s a big deal!

And I genuinely enjoyed this year’s OG. Now, it was shockingly smooth compared to other roastier vintages of Original, with this one bordering on slick. It’s ridiculously raisin-y this year as well, with a big tail of fig, oak, char and vanilla. And yet, the body…

Look, maybe I let these warm up a bit too much before cracking them open, but this was so much lighter in body and mouthfeel than past years. It gets thin. Fast. And I equate thinness in a barrel-aged stout with cheapness – so much about BA stouts are wrapped up in thick, chewy, sticky, hearty superstructures that if that’s missing, it’s easy to write them off.

So what does that mean for this year’s lineup if the base is … shall we say, slighter than in previous years? Chaos! But in a fun way.

Bourbon County Reserve 150 🙃

My first thoughts on cracking into this one: “Is that leather?” What a wild ride this one was – Following the initial bomber jacket impression, I got allspice, clove, a touch of orange and even a touch of deep red wine and molasses.

While tasting through this one, Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann said about their dedication to barrel-focused variants, “We knew that we could taste the difference … [but] we weren’t entirely sure that everyone else would.” I understand that concern – this variant was the first hint that this would be a more subtle, occasionally delicate BCS that demanded time, patience and appropriate temperatures to appreciate.

I came back to this later and got a massive wave of nuttiness, plus some black currant and a finish of oatmeal raisin cookie. Give this time and it’ll reward you. It’s still quite lightbodied, built on the basis of the thinner OG BCS – consider this to be a Summer BCS.

Bourbon County Stout Blanton’s 😐

I’ve been extremely excited for this variant ever since we got a whiff of its existence over a year ago. I’m a Blanton’s guy through and through; it’s my go-to special event bourbon and I love the ceremony, the single-barrel-selection status and the fun bottle toppers.

So why was I more or less nonplussed by this barrel variant? … I don’t know. It just didn’t land for me. It’s (again) very smooth and lightbodied as it warms; there’s a bit of astringency and acid up front as well. I also got a bit of Dr. Pepper fruitiness with some Hershey’s chocolate syrup and coconut as it breathes. This was one that I came back to later on in the tasting to see if I was crazy but upon my return, it was a lot like RC Cola that had gone flat. Bummer.

Also, apparently the president of Blanton’s flew into town on a private jet to check in on the BCS Blanton’s and found it to be favorable. So is my palate superior to that guy? Or did I just miss the window? What do you think?

BCS Cherrywood 😘

If you’re like me, you didn’t spend more than about ten seconds thinking about this variant when it was announced. With all the other options in the lineup, who would bother with a beer that spent a little more time on another kind of wood? It’s already spent a ton of time on wood – wood that held bourbon! A cherrywood variant did next to nothing for me on first blush.

And yet, I loved it.

This variant became deliciously cinnamon-toasty and toffee-waffle-y thanks to the extra expressions of tasty, toasty wood. Others are probably going to insist they taste cherries in there. Don’t listen too much to them. Cherrywood doesn’t equate to big, fruity, Robitussin-like cherry cordial flavor. If they wanted that, there’s a zillion ways to get to a cherry stout. This is about the wood; don’t get distracted.

Bourbon County Stout Double Barrel 🤨

The Goose team had so much to say about the different levels of toasted-ness on the two types of barrels that the 2021 Double Barrel spent in, and yet all I could think on cracking this one open was:

“Wow, the nose on this is weird.

I still can’t quite place the flavor of the aroma – my brain said “bugs” (yeah, still don’t understand that one) and then “fresh cut pine” and “plum” for some reason. But that can’t be right, can it? Once you get past that you get into some major marshmallow and vanilla behind it. This variant is wood, wood, wood almost to a fault; if you sip this and envision split logs and sawdust (plus some fresh-cracked pepper for good measure) I can’t blame you.

I do have to say that it’s impressively smooth for a 16% ABV stout, and it isn’t quite the sledgehammer that their previous Double Barrel was – but I’m okay with that. The previous Double Barrel was not just aptly named based on bourbon barrels but also akin to a shotgun, it hit you with a double-barrel blast of booze. This is more tempered, and again more subtle with notes of pear, apple and black pepper popping in as it progressed.

Give it time. It’ll grow on you. It did for me, which I didn’t expect at the first sip.

The Bourbon County Stout 2021 Adjuncts:

BCS Classic Cola Stout 😌

And now, we get to the really fun stuff.

I’d been looking forward to the Classic Cola variant from the second I knew it was confirmed, and honestly, was a little bit nervous to try it lest I be disappointed. And so I’m happy to report my first thought on the first sip was: “Whoa. This works.”

What a wild collision of flavors this is, and one that’s greater than the sum of its parts – per the Goose team, this went through something like 20 different blends to find the one that nailed that legacy cola flavor and I’m glad they did. The lime and brown sugar alone could have been a winner (especially if you love tiki flavors), but when you jam the big nutmeg-y nose on the top, plus orange juice and lime/lemon zest and – apparently – coriander? – you get a ridiculously complex yet charmingly complete beer.

Now, when this comes out I bet a shiny nickel that you’ll see a lot of people tick this saying “It tastes like a whiskey and coke!” It does … but it doesn’t. It’s more than that. It’s fully a beer, with whiskey aspects, that embodies the sweet-savory-citrus notes of cola. Calling it a “whiskey coke beer” cheapens it.

Also, to confirm, the Goose team said there’s no cocaine in here. Just in case you were wondering.

BCS Fourteen Stout 😋

“We’re aware that this one had a bit of a cult following. We thought about that a lot.”

Mike Siegel

I’m glad they did, because this beer is great. Just great. Prop ’14 has a wild following and now the whole world gets to enjoy the intersection of international flavors on top of a barrel-aged stout. Between the panela sugar (Colombia), cassia bark (Vietnam), cocoa nibs (Ghana) and coconut water (Indonesia) I don’t even want to consider the carbon footprint of this beer.

(And hey, how’s that Green Goose Sustainability Program going these days, y’all?)

This variant is going far and wide, and now the nation gets to know the joys of Prop ’14. Lucky us. Even better is that this beer got a special brew with a variety of rye malts (unlike the usual base BCS) plus time spent in rye barrels, so it’s spice all the way down for this one.

The Goose team also noted that they still have some Prop ’14 on draft that comes on occasionally at the Fulton taproom, so if you think they’re not going to put these on side to side, I think you’ll be wrong on that count.

BCS Proprietor’s Blend (aka Strawberry Shortcake Good Humor Bar Prop) 🤨

And now we get to the final beer of the night. And the one that turns out to be what I imagine will be the most divisive. Why? Because … it’s so green.

What do I mean by that?

Most strawberry flavor is sweet, juicy and ripe. The strawberry flavor in this beer is tart, vinuous and young. If you were worried that this would be a sugar bomb, worry not – there’s a lot more complexity on top of the vanilla and coconut than you might have expected, which in a way is almost required. This beer would get overwhelmingly sweet extremely quickly, so I’m quite glad they recognized that and adjusted accordingly.

This is also a pretty wild Prop compared to the tamer Spumoni, Choco-Nut and Really Really Chocolate versions from the last few years. It’s the craziest since the Bananas Foster of 2017, and while this doesn’t hit quite the same heights, it’s still a fun experiment, and definitely not a safe choice.

The Rankings:

Honestly, this is tough. I think I’m going to give the nod to the adjuncts as the better half of the roster this year, with Fourteen and Cola and Prop all having a lot to offer an interested drinker. The barrel experiments are fun, and worth undertaking, but is anything as awesome as last year’s Birthday? I can’t say they were. So let’s give this year’s selection an overall ranking of Pretty Good, which is still hella respectable in this day and age of barrel-aged beer’s ubiquity.

For comparison’s sake, I just had a can of a Michigan barrel-aged stout that I paid about $7 for 12 ounces. Is a larger bottle of BCS Original more than twice as good as that run of the mill barrel experiment? I’d say so. Are the more expensive barrel variants worth the $40 that Goose said they’d be running? Considering how easy it is to spend that much on a mediocre bottle of wine, I’d still rather spend that on a Blanton’s BCS bottle if I found one, even though it didn’t do much for me.

So, fine, here’s the ratings:

  • Fourteen
  • Cola
  • Prop
  • Cherrywood
  • OG
  • Double Barrel
  • Blanton’s
  • Reserve

That’s what my gut says now, and I’m sure everyone else’s will look completely different from mine – I always seem to be the outlier with these. There you have it – another 2400 words about eight beers very few people will ever have. Now is the time of year where I ask myself why I do this. Will we see you again next year? As ever, it’s a coin toss.

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About the Author

Karl

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Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago, AskMen and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, is now available via Amazon and other booksellers.If you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.

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