Everything You Need to Know About Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout in 2022
Goose Island is celebrating the boozy stout's 30th anniversary this year.
Barrel-aged stout season has arrived. That arrival elicits a truckload of feelings from people who love the big, high-ABV, boozy stouts that trickle onto shelves in the fall and winter. Many drinkers are looking for something new, while others are loyal to their favorites and will wait in line for a bottle. Amidst all the hype, Bourbon County Stout (BCS) from Goose Island remains a divisive pillar of the style.
The 2022 lineup celebrates Bourbon County Stout’s 30th anniversary. (When exactly the beer was first released has been a topic of debate, but Goose Island says it was 1992.) It is an interesting group of beers that includes the return of barleywine and coffee, as well as variants that use pineapple and attempt to evoke biscotti.
Three decades is a long time, and Goose Island has changed a lot over those years. It has gone from a plucky craft brewery to part of the Anheuseur-Busch InBev portfolio. Still, the 2022 roster pays fitting tribute to where BCS has been and where it is going in the years to come.
What Is Bourbon County Stout?
Bourbon County Stout is Goose Island's most iconic creation, first bottled long before the brewery's sale to Anheuser-Busch. The recipe hasn't changed, outside of "minor process tweaks," since former Brewmaster Greg Hall first released Bourbon County in the early '90s, ex-Brewmaster Jared Jankoski previously told Thrillist.
Barrel-aged stouts are a winter staple for many breweries. Goose Island, though, is credited with being the first to age stout in bourbon barrels, whichever year you believe was when the first bottles hit the taproom.
Bourbon County Stout often costs a little north of $12 per 16.9-ounce bottle when it is released. (Though, you can often find it for a little less months later if you know which bottle shops still have it around.) The variant versions of the classic can cost more. Still, BCS is a bit more affordable than other barrel-aged stouts that can run you up to $100 for a single bottle.
Where Can I Buy Bourbon County Stout?
Broadly speaking, barrel-aged stouts have a reputation for being hard to get. The style can evoke images of people standing in long lines waiting for a chance to grab a bottle. That is still true for some breweries and has been true in the past for others. It is also a bit of marketing to make it feel exclusive.
For Bourbon County Stout, those lines are mostly a thing of the past. Its success has led to ubiquity.
Goose Island annually releases Bourbon County Stout and variants on Black Friday. Though it is far easier to get now than in the early years, some BCS lovers in Chicago still wait in line to be among the first to grab a bottle.
If that isn't for you, the beer is released nationwide in relatively large quantities. On the days around Black Friday, you can find it at your favorite bottle shop. Since it is a limited release, it can be worth asking ahead of time if the store will carry Bourbon County Stout, though. The high alcohol content can restrict its sale in some areas where that is prohibited by local law.
John Zadlo, Senior Brand Manager at Goose Island, says that most of the variants will be released in equal amounts around the country this year, with a couple of exceptions. The Proprietor's Stout is only released in Chicago every year. The Barleywine will be a little more limited than other variants, and "Biscotti is going to be a little more allocated just based on yields," Zadlo says.
What are the variants of Bourbon County Stout this year?
The Original Bourbon County Brand Stout - 14.3% ABV, $14
The original is similar to what you find most years. It's a thick beer with strong notes of coffee, oak, whiskey, cherry, and vanilla. In most years, the stout in your bottle has spent time in bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Heaven Hill. This year, they've added Four Roses to the list, giving it something unique for its 30th anniversary. Todd Ahsmann, President of Goose Island, says this year's release reminds him of the 2019 release.
The original and variants are usually released in their distinctive bottle. However, this year, as a throwback for the anniversary, it will also be released in a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles as it used to be. Mike Siegel, Senior Innovation Manager, has hinted that this packaging may be available again in future years.
30th Anniversary Stout - 14.4% ABV, $40
It may be a toss-up between this and the 2-Year Barleywine Reserve if I'm trying to pick the best of the variants. The Anniversary Stout is a blend of Bourbon County Stout that is aged in bourbon barrels from Basil Hayden, Booker's, Baker's, and Knob Creek. Additionally, for the first time, a hanging tag around the bottle's neck breaks down the percentages of the blend.
The flavor is similar to the Original, but there are certainly differences from that aging process. In particular, it takes on a stronger chocolate flavor and a bit of nuttiness, along with dates and other more subtle notes. It is very approachable despite the ABV and list of bourbon barrels. It's nuanced without being over-the-top with booze.
2-Year Barleywine Reserve - 17% ABV, $40
This is the first time Goose Island has put a barleywine into the lineup since 2018 when it released the Coffee Barleywine. This one was aged in rare Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond barrels, including a mix of its 14-, 16-, and 17-year-old statements. About 60% of the blend was double-barreled (moved from one barrel to another barrel), amplifying the oak and bourbon flavors of the barleywine.
It pours dark for a barleywine, nearly matching the darkness of the stouts. This too carries strong cherry flavors with figs, oak, and vanilla, but also tobacco, plum, and toffee. The oak in particular is pronounced from that portion of the barleywine that got doubled casked. It’s a high-ABV drink at 17%, even for BCS. Though, it does not come across as overly boozy.
Coffee Stout - 13.2% ABV, $25
A coffee variant was part of the lineup when variants were first introduced in 2010. They were a staple for a handful of years, but this is the first time a coffee-focused stout is among the variants since 2017.
As soon as it pours, the surrounding aroma makes it feel like you've actually poured a cup of coffee. Cold coffee and beans from Intelligentsia are used to bring the coffee addition to the forefront. The beans used for the stout were grown by female coffee farmers in Burundi, and the addition adds a pleasant bitterness that cuts into the usual BCS sweetness. It is a nice variant if you love coffee stouts. If not, you probably won't find a whole lot to love here, as coffee is the star of the show.
Sir Isaac’s Stout - 13.9% ABV, $25
Every year, the brewery holds an internal contest to see what kind of variants the staff can come up with. They’re judged by brewers and at least one is selected to become a BCS variant. One of last year's variants attempted to evoke Good Humor strawberry shortcake bars. This year, Sir Issac’s is one of those variants. The concept was to bring Fig Newtons to mind. (Thus, Sir Issac is on the label.) The final recipe used whole black mission figs along with graham crackers to make that connection crystal clear.
The fig flavor in the finished product is strong. As the brewers have pointed out, it has more of a fruit leather characteristic than the sticky-sweet fig flavor of those familiar Newtons. The figs are strong, but the graham cracker is a little more subtle in the profile.
Biscotti Stout - 14.3% ABV, $25
This one was conceived by a member of the brewery’s people team. The stout is meant to remind you of a chocolate-dipped biscotti. The chocolate flavor comes from cocoa nibs, while 7,000 pounds of toasted almonds give the unmistakable sense of eating biscotti. The brewers have also noted that a small amount of anise seed in the recipe was a key component of bringing out the full flavor.
A sweet almond flavor, along with a bit of licorice and chocolate, surfaces instantly from the pour. The brewers note that the flavors may change more on this than any other variant as the beer warms toward room temperature.
Proprietor’s Stout - 13.4% ABV, $30
Proprietor’s has been an annual release since 2013. The flavor changes every year, but the idea stays the same. Jason Krasowski and Paul Cade came up with this recipe. They’re the team behind last year’s cherry cola release. On paper, this is an off-the-wall idea for BCS. The recipe has toasted coconut, bananas, lime juice, pineapple juice, and vanilla sugars added to the stout. It may seem odd, but Goose Island says the only ingredient that has never been in a BCS release before is pineapple.
As soon as it pours, there’s an overwhelming aroma of coconut rising from the glass. There is a whole lot going on in each sip. Banana and coconut come through strongly on the first taste, with the pineapple lingering throughout. Though, during a media event, Goose Island brewers said there have been heated debates among staff about how the flavors land and which is strongest. It seems to come across with slight variations for different individuals. It’s a strange release, but it works.