How’s this year’s Prop? What’s up with Northwoods? Those questions and more about the 2017 Bourbon County Stout series, answered.
There’s a bit of a chill in the air. The sun is setting earlier and earlier. My music playlists turn to regular spins of the Misfits and Type O Negative and my collectors edition Dawn of the Dead DVD set comes out of storage. That can mean only one thing – it’s once again time to taste through the annual offerings from Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout series.
This year’s lineup of barrel-aged beers are a little more expansive than last year’s toe-dip into the BA world. (Read our tasting notes from last year’s lineup here.) After Goose Island’s much-discussed 2015 infection issues, the 2016 lineup was curtailed to just the Greatest Hits version — Original, Coffee, Barleywine, Proprietors. In 2017, we see the release list now up to six, adding the Northwoods variant and also a late-lineup Knob Creek Reserve.
We learned early last week that Reserve Barleywine was pulled from the lineup — according to this post on the Goose website, “it doesn’t taste like what we wanted it to.” Representatives from Goose wouldn’t comment to us about any sort of latent infection in that beer, but if they’re talking about off flavors it sure sounds like they’re going with Better Safe than Sorry on that front.
The final bit of late-breaking news was about the Double Barrel potential variant of BCS, whose label just crossed the TTB this week. We didn’t get a chance to give that a try — only 10bbls were made — but I wouldn’t be surprised if a little bit shows up at FoBAB this year. Oh, and we spotted some labels for a new barrel-aged stout outside the BCS family — the scotch-barrel-aged Islay — come through the TTB recently as well. But as we all know, that doesn’t mean it’ll ever see the light of day.
Without further ado, here’s our take on this year’s BCS lineup:
Last year was a return to form for the trailblazing bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout. This year’s version has plenty of rich flavor accentuated by some interesting notes of black salt licorice along with a healthy amount of bourbon-y vanilla barrel character followed by a crisp, dry finish. It also drank lighter and thinner than expected — almost like the brewery was in such a rush to get to the really fun stuff, the base beer got a little left behind. Nothing wrong here, but after our surprise and delight at the strength of character in the 2016 version, I was just a little let down by the OG.
Holy hell, Coffee BCS is BACK and in a big way. Utilizing the Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso that made up the original Coffee BCS back in 2010 (which stole our heart in this vertical post from 2012) to blend the base BCS with cold brew retains a coffee aroma that totally blew my wig back. No joke — I probably inhaled this beer as much as I sipped it, and unlike other samples I finished this whole thing, not wanting any to go to waste.
I found most of that coffee presence to be in the aroma, as the flavor backs off quick in the beer itself but it’s got lots of chocolate and roasty malts to fight against there. Quite satisfying, and I’m learning that as I get further into coffee beers I think I really prefer more dark-roast options rather than lighter roast options like last years which had a very green, raw character to it. This dark roast is right up my coffee beer alley.
Would it shock you to discover that I, a noted anti-barleywine non-aficionado, really enjoyed this year’s BCS Barleywine? Hearty without being syrupy, this year’s barleywine is sweet, sweet, sweet with rich caramel and rum-raisin fruitiness alongside that nice vanilla/oak barrel character which is a little more forward thanks to the use of fresher barrels — this year’s version is second-use as opposed to seeing age from barrels that had previously held stout.
Absent was any bracing alcohol heat and there was also none of that distracting herbal hop character that keeps me from enjoying most barleywines. Usually I can tolerate a BCS barleywine after a year or two of age, but this year I found myself actually enjoying a fresh version. Maybe that is a turnoff for true barleywine fans, but whatever, I enjoyed it for a change.
Here’s where we get into the divisive stuff. Northwoods Stout, with its almond and blueberry pastry party going on, is going to be a love-it or hate-it option. Maybe even like-it or hate-it. I don’t see anyone falling head-over-heels with this one — the base beer is annihilated in the aroma with bombs of blueberry juice and almond paste, and the stout flavor is similarly bulldozed over by adjunct. “There should never be such a nuance [that] people are asking…is it in there?” said the Goose Island brewer guiding the tasting. No question here.
This is a blueberry pie cannon backed up by a 12.6% abv brew beneath…somewhere. The most interesting part for me was the way the blueberry left behind a very acidic film on my palate as if to say nope, not going away, deal with it. Northwoods is one of the beers that truly benefits from a draft tasting or a 355ml bottle — I don’t see anyone clamoring for a full bomber of this one. A smaller portion is all you’ll need to sample one of Goose’s weirder stout experiments.
Coming into this tasting I was truly skeptical about this year’s Proprietor’s blend. Bananas foster? There’s no way that could work, right? Guess what. It did. With a surprising amount of success.
That success is largely based on the smart decision to have the banana puree and extract play a supporting role to the cassia bark which brought a huge cinnamon flavor up front which helped deliver those caramelized-sugar and rum flambe flavors that are the best parts of a bananas foster.
The banana isn’t hiding, though — it’s present through and through, but in the right levels that never make it overwhelming, and none of it covers up the fact that you are drinking a beer.
It’s not a weird alcoholic dessert smoothie — it’s a barrel-aged beer. This year’s Prop doesn’t let you forget it, but is also a happy reminder that craft beer was once a parade of new experiments and styles that made you say “there’s no way that’ll work” — and then it does.
Looking back over the last few years of weird pepper-beer experiments and coconut-water weirdness, this may actually be the safest Prop varietal since 2014 or so, even though it sounded ridiculous at the outset. I think a lot of people will find themselves as surprised as I did with this one.
Knob Creek Reserve:
Aside from a chance to revisit the Bourbon County origin story once again (this is Knob Creek’s 25th anniversary, a bourbon created by distiller Booker Noe who was the one responsible for getting Greg Hall some bourbon barrels way back when), this beer says to drinkers: You like bourbon? You really like bourbon?
Well, strap in, kiddo — this beer has got bourbon for days.
Big. Bold. Rough. Unrefined. Monstrous raspy malts fighting it out with huge alcohol character and a ribbon of milk chocolate running throughout. This is old-school stout character where it couldn’t be roasty enough, couldn’t be boozy enough.
It’s for Illinois and Kentucky only, two states that share a border and a heritage of aging things in barrels to see what’ll happen. And the 25th Anniversary tasting of Knob Creek we had was as strong, bracing, and wickedly aggressive of a bourbon as I’ve had in a real long time.
More Bourbon County Stout Stories:
You can’t not do a ranking, so here’s how we’d prefer them after a few days of consideration. I would love to get my hands on Coffee again the quickest, followed by Propietor’s. After that comes OG, Barleywine and then Northwoods — but all these trail behind the initial two by quite a bit. Also, holy hell, did I just say I’d rather have a barleywine over another stout? Even I’m surprised by that.
Goose Island is the brewery that originated/popularized the barrel-aging of beers, but there’s been such turnover since those early days that we can’t pretend there’s a rich history of institutional knowledge that goes back decades. Instead, the current brewers stand on the shoulders of giants to bring out an annual parade of fun barrel-aged offerings in an environment rich with those types of brews.
Make no mistake, Goose still definitely knows how to make a bourbon-barrel-aged stout in vast quantities — and they’ve proven it once again this year. The highs may not be quite as high as they used to be, but the broader nationwide reach of these premiere beers make for lucky Chicagoans who can get their hands on them pretty much as much as they want.
In Chicago, we’re allowed to be picky about our BCS selections. It’s an annual embarassment of riches. Choose wisely.