So it’s that time again when Goose Island Brewery (whose parent company is ABInBev) releases their batch of Bourbon County (BCS) beers. Billed as one of the first beer barrel-aging programs in the country, beer geeks across America look forward to BCS bottles being sold at their local liquor stores every year on Black Friday. Their excitement is not just for the original Bourbon County Stout that started it all, but for the variants, some easier to find than others. This year there are no other styles like barleywine or wheatwine: the focus is all barrel-aged imperial stout.
I tried all six beers in early November alongside the Goose Island staff via Zoom and here are my thoughts about each beer, ranked from my least favorite to the best.
6. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Original Stout
I agree with Porchdrinking’s editor Mike Zoller (whose Chicagoland themed instagram page @ChicagoBeer is great fun) that the original BCS is the worst of the bunch, not because it’s bad, but because it seems like a better vessel for the adjuncts and flavorings of other varietals.
The original is an imperial stout base aged for an average of 12 months in a variety of barrels from Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Wild Turkey.
There are some issues with it: it’s quite hot and alcoholic tasting, but that will mellow with a few years in the cellar. This is the beer you hold onto and it’ll undoubtedly get better. A cellaring rule: any beer with fruit or spice added should be drunk sooner rather than later because those flavors will subside with time while straight imperial stouts are usually better with some age on them.
Some facts: ABV is 14.6% or 14.1% ABV. It has national distribution in 500 mL bottles and draft.
5. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Proprietor’s Stout
Proprietor’s is the brand that’s only for the Chicagoland area as Chicago, Illinois is home to the original Goose Island Brewery. It’s a gift they make for their local fans and the stout adjuncts change every year.
This year, the flavors are supposed to be reminiscent of rice pudding and is brewed with cassia bark, brown sugar, raisins and toasted rice. The aroma is similar to the original BCS but the flavor is a full on candy vibe: cookie, caramel, and milk chocolate. If you have a sweet tooth, this one is for you.
Some facts: ABV is 14.3%. It has limited Chicago area distribution in 500 mL bottles and draft.
4. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Backyard Stout
Backyard was a brand they had brewed before, back in 2013 as an imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with mullberries added. This year, they used an imperial stout base aged in bourbon barrels for a year and then added mulberries, boysenberries and marionberries. The beer is real jammy and the fruit flavor is very big. Brewing with fruit against a high ABV backdrop is hard to do as berries don’t usually present themselves in this style of beer without using a TON of them. I like it because I haven’t had anything like it before. More fruited imperial stouts please!
Some facts: ABV is 12.9%. It has national distribution in 500 mL bottles and draft.
3. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Eagle Rare 2-Year Reserve Stout
This is the one I think most people are going to lose their minds over and will probably sell out the quickest. This is BCS aged for two years in special Eagle Rare 10 year barrels. It’s much smoother than the original with excellent flavors of cookie, molasses, black cherry, almond, and it almost has this cherry cola note that I like. If you are an Untappd ticker that likes to give your friends severe FOMO or a hardcore Goose Island or bourbon fan – then absolutely try to get your hands on this one. The cherry note alone is worth it and would pair wonderfully with Christmas cookies.
Some facts: ABV is 14.5%. It has national distribution in 500 mL bottles only.
2. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Angel’s Envy 2-Year Cask Finish Stout
Double barrel/cask finishing isn’t a new phenomenon in craft beer but this is the first time that Goose Island has done it with their BCS. The imperial stout base was first aged in bourbon barrels for a year and then transferred to Ruby Port barrels for a year. The port is front and center with this one with flavors and aromas of almond, Italian pannetone, dark cocoa, deep toffee, sticky toffee pudding, fig, and red grape. This beer is for snowy evenings, good times, and definitely for sharing/drinking after a big, hearty meal.
Some facts: ABV is 15.5%. It has national distribution in 500 mL bottles.
1. 2023 Bourbon County Brand Bananas Foster Stout
The Bananas Fosters version was my favorite by far, which is kind of insane as I don’t like bananas! The aroma is very spicy, rummy, and definitely the best smelling of the six with aromas of cinnamon stick, banana bread, and marzipan. It smells amazing, like you’re in a kitchen and your family is making fresh banana bread. It’s more banana bread than bananas foster because of the warm spice notes but who cares, it’s delicious. I could have enjoyed the whole bottle, which would have been a problem. This beer is the star of the show and worth seeking out.
Some facts: ABV is 13.9%. It has national distribution in 500 mL bottles and draft.