All of This Year’s Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Variants, Ranked
Which of this year's offerings are most worth your money?
Traditionally speaking, Black Friday is the time when most people spend the day braving long lines and fighting over mall parking spots to snag an absurd deal on a new TV or get as much of their holiday shopping done as possible. For craft beer enthusiasts, however, the day after Thanksgiving is full of long waits and massive crowds for an entirely different reason: it’s when Goose Island releases its beloved Bourbon County Stout lineup.
Of course, that release day will look a little different this year thanks to the ongoing pandemic. In order to avoid crowded, in-person events, this year’s variants will all be available for purchase online beginning on Black Friday (Nov. 27), with the exception of the Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout, a Chicago-only release that will be sold at a multi-day, contact-free pickup event at the United Center.
Here at InsideHook, we were fortunate enough to get our hands on the 2020 lineup early, and we’ve tasted and ranked each one. (It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it, right?) It’s worth noting, however, that there’s not a bad beer in the bunch. There’s a reason beer fans go nuts for these every year; we’re ranking from “great” to “excellent” here.
7. Bourbon County Caramella Ale
The only non-stout in the bunch, Caramella is a wheatwine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple and cinnamon (plus natural caramel flavor added after the aging process) meant to evoke classic fall desserts like apple crisp, and it accomplishes what it set out to do. It’s definitely sweet — whether or not you find that to be a good thing depends entirely on your palate. (It’s not cloying, though: the bourbon flavor still manages to come through.) If the idea of taking a caramel apple, tossing it in a blender and adding a bunch of booze appeals to you, this one is a must-try, but it’s certainly an outlier compared to the rest of this year’s variants.
6. Bourbon County Special #4 Stout
Special #4 is an oatmeal stout variant of the Bourbon County Stout recipe featuring Chicago’s own Intelligentsia coffee (both their cold coffee and their single-origin Ethiopian beans called “Metad Buku,” which has some fruity notes to it) and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup from Bissell Maple Farm in Ohio added after the aging process. It’s got a really nice, nutty aroma to it, and between the oats, coffee and maple syrup, it kind of feels like you’re drinking a breakfast platter (in a good way, of course).
5. Birthday Bourbon County Stout
This one’s a must-have for beer geeks and bourbon enthusiasts alike, because it’s aged in the highly sought-after 11-year barrels of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. It’s smoother than the original Bourbon County Stout, with notes of chocolate, vanilla, black currant and a touch of maple. And because both Bourbon County and Birthday Bourbon are annual, limited-edition releases, it’s a true collector’s item: this particular blend of unique flavors is strictly limited to this batch.
4. Bourbon County Stout (Original)
You can’t go wrong with a classic. There’s a reason why beer enthusiasts keep coveting this barrel-aged imperial stout year after year: it’s extremely good. Aged in bourbon barrels for a year, it has notes of chocolate, toffee, oak and of course, a warm whiskey flavor and rich mouthfeel that makes it difficult to put down. The recipe reportedly hasn’t changed since 1992, but it doesn’t need to. You don’t mess with perfection.
3. Anniversary Bourbon County Stout
Anniversary is a special variant made this year to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Bourbon County Stout being released on Black Friday, and it’s an outstanding tribute to the occasion. It’s aged for two years in Weller 12 Year barrels, and the extra time aging plus the use of the Weller, which hails from the same distillery as Pappy Van Winkle, elevate the beer to another level. It’s more chocolatey on the nose, and it’s got a stronger oak flavor as well as more tannins. It’s nicely blended, with the sweet booziness complementing the amped-up woodiness.
2. Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout
I was fully prepared to hate this beer. On paper, it sounds a little dicey; it’s Goose Island’s first-ever tea-inspired variant — their take on the London Fog tea latte, made with Earl Grey from Kilogram Tea and clover honey from The Honey House. To my surprise, it not only works — it’s exceptional. You get the tea aroma pretty strongly on the nose, but the flavor profile is beautifully balanced. There’s a pleasant orange citrus flavor to it along with some floral notes, hints of graham cracker and traces of pepper. Add to that the normal chocolate-and-vanilla base Bourbon County flavors, and you’ve got a delightfully complex (but not overwhelming) beer.
1. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Stout
This year’s best variant is also the hardest to get your hands on; it’s only available in Chicago, unlike the other variants, and it’s only available for purchase at Goose Island’s Proprietor’s Day events (every Saturday and Sunday between Nov. 7 and Nov. 29, though you have to enter a lottery for access). But if you’re lucky enough to get a bottle, you’re in for a real treat. It’s inspired by spumoni, the tricolored Italian dessert consisting of pistachio, cherry and chocolate, and it absolutely nails all three of those flavors. It smells exactly like spumoni on the nose, and it’s blended with fresh pistachios (15 pounds per barrel), cacao nibs, candied Amarena cherries and natural vanilla flavors. It’s extremely rich and complex, but not excessively sweet. The vanilla manages to tie all the different flavors together, and it’s got a really nice, nutty finish.
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