Everything You Need to Know About Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout in 2020
It's a good year for stouts, at least.
With all the bonus time spent indoors this year, you might have missed that we've fully transitioned into barrel-aged stout season. It's the perfect drink for a cold night inside. There are great ones at breweries all over the country, but the most recognizable is pretty easily Goose Island's classic.
Bourbon County Stout (BCS) was once a beer that drove people to wait in line to make sure they got their hands on the annual release. Years after Goose Island was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev, that's not the case anymore. If you hit the right store, you could probably find a bottle of last year's release right now. Nonetheless, it remains a beer that excites beer lovers, and this year's batch is proof that despite the extra money going into the series, it's not hype keeping drinkers excited. This batch is one of the best set of BCS variants in recent years.
Here's a look at what to expect from the 2020 line-up.
What Is Bourbon County Stout?
Bourbon County Stout is the most iconic creation of Goose Island prior to its sale to Anheuser-Busch. Though, brewers there have attested that the purchase by the beer giant hasn't made any impact on BCS. That's mostly true, as long as we're just talking about the liquid. The recipe hasn't changed, outside of "minor process tweaks," ex-Brewmaster Jared Jankoski previously told Thrillist, since former Brewmaster Greg Hall first released Bourbon County in the 90s.
Barrel-aged stout is old hat now. Almost every brewery does some version of it. Goose, however, is credited with barrel-aging a stout in bourbon barrels first. What trickles out of the barrel is a complex, sweet swirl of malts, chocolate, vanilla, oak, char, booziness, and licorice. Bourbon County Stout gets aged 12 months in a mix of bourbon barrels from Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill. It's worth the wait.
When you pick it up at the local liquor store, you're probably paying north of $12 for a single 16.9-ounce bottle. The variants often cost even more. It's not cheap, even if it pales in comparison to other breweries that charge up to $100 for a single bottle.
Where Can I Get Bourbon County Stout?
Barrel-aged stouts, in general, have a reputation for being hard to get. At least, that's supposed to be the case for the best of the best. Once upon a time, that was true, but success has bred ubiquity for many brewers, and that's absolutely the case for Goose Island.
The beer is released annually on Black Friday. The release prompts long lines and enthusiasm. Though, neither of which are required to get your hands on the original BCS. It's distributed nationally and made in relatively large quantities. Though, the high alcohol content does restrict the sale in some areas where that's prohibited by local laws.
It's not quite like walking down to the corner for the readily available locally-made IPA, but it's not far off. Some retailers will even still have some of last year's on hand if you know where to look. Though, with limited quantities distributed to each store, it's worth calling ahead just to be sure your local shop still has some.
There's a big old asterisk on that ubiquity, however. Variants of the classic BCS have become part of the annual hoopla and those are harder to get your hands on. There are seven versions of the stout this year. (Okay, ten if you count the updated "secret" ones that are only available in Chicago.) Each variant is going to be a little harder to find. Some might not be sold in your area at all.
This year, Birthday Bourbon County Stout and Anniversary Bourbon County Stout will primarily be distributed in Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky. Outside of those markets, according to Brewmaster Keith Gabbett, it's "few and far between." You'll find a limited quantity available in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout, as is the case every year, will only be sold in Chicago.
What Are the Variants of Bourbon County Stout for 2020?
Bourbon County Brand Stout
The original, aged for a year in a mix of barrels from distilleries that include Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey. This year's batch is as good as ever. It's a boozy, sweet stout with a lot of layers. You'll get notes of vanilla, cherry, chocolate, tobacco, and a whole lot more. It's not going to surprise you, but you're not going to be disappointed.
Bourbon County Kentucky Fog Stout
This is Goose Island's first "tea-inspired variant." It's a take on London Fog using Earl Grey and Black Tea from Kilogram Tea, as well as clover honey. The tea is not a subtle ingredient, but it's a balance that works for this variant. The aroma is dominated by the Earl Gray. It will overpower any pours of other variants you've got sitting nearby. That's real Earl Grey in there and not just bergamot to give a sense of it. It's also not steeped, avoiding the bitterness you might expect when looking over the ingredients.
Bourbon County Special #4 Stout
This variant is an oatmeal stout aged in bourbon barrels, making it one of two variants this year that does not use the original stout as its base. The beer gets a hit of Intelligentsia Coffee after the aging has completed, as well as some bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. It's a somewhat familiar flavor combination for a stout with a lot of coffee in the nose. It's a little thinner than the variants with the original BCS as the base.
Bourbon County Caramella Ale
Caramella Ale is a wheatwine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple, cinnamon, and caramel flavor. The name seems appropriate since there's a serious caramel apple vibe to every sip. You are getting everything that's advertised there in each sip. Lots of red apple, caramel, and cinnamon. It's a departure from most of this year's variants that hue close to the original and don't go too far afield.
Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout
This is the other variant that stands out from the crowd for its surprising ingredients. Goose Island says this year's Proprietor's Stout was "inspired by third-generation Italian American brewer Emily Kosmal's love of spumoni." The beer is blended with pistachios, cacao nibs, vanilla flavors, and candied Amarena cherries. It stands out alongside Kentucky Fog as the boldest flavor profiles among the variants. Every layer of the spumoni comes through. You have to love these flavors and the sweetness of BCS, but this will undoubtedly be a favorite for many.
Birthday Bourbon County Stout
They're calling this a "truly unique variation," though it has little to do with cake if you're reading too deep into the "Birthday" part of the title. This stout was aged in Old Forester Birthday Bourbon barrels, mixing with the sought-after bourbon. This is my favorite variant of the year. It comes across a little drier than the original with more bourbon and oaky vanilla flavor. Mike Siegel, R&D Manager at Goose Island, said the fruitier notes may be the result of Old Forester's unique yeast.
This variant also comes in a unique box that unwraps like a birthday present.
Anniversary Bourbon County Stout
This last variant was aged two years in Weller 12-Year barrels as a celebration of Goose Island's "10-year tradition of releasing Bourbon County Stout on Black Friday." The vanilla, stone fruit, raisin, and bourbon flavors are amplified with a rich flavor. This is another favorite, providing a slight alteration on the original. If you're picking just a few to taste side by side, the Anniversary and the Birthday provide a fun contrast with the original.
Three "Secret" Bourbon County Stouts
It was confirmed over the weekend of December 6 by Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune that Goose Island has secretly released three more variants that are available exclusively in Chicago. Each of these is the original aged in barrels from Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill or Wild Turkey. Though, you won't know from the outside of the box what you're getting. It's more of a lottery. The box looks like the original, but the fine print on the back of the bottle, near the date, ends in two letters if you've managed to grab one of these special bottles. It will end in "BT," "HH," or "WT," a shorthand for each of those three distilleries.