- Goose Island sent me several sexy photos of this years’ Bourbon County lineup, but because I am stubborn and prideful I insisted on taking my own.
When I reviewed Goose Island’s Bourbon County beers last year, I explained that I had mixed feelings about stoking the “alarming acquisitive frenzy” surrounding these sought-after limited releases. But I know the Bourbon County train will keep a-rollin’ no matter what I do—and it’s not as though I want to stop it. In fact, the task of actually buying some of this beer will get less aggravating only if Goose Island can make enough so that everybody who wants some can find it.
That happy day remains a distant dream, but this year’s five Bourbon County variants filled a total of 3,000 whiskey barrels, up from 2,500 in 2013. On Black Friday, Goose Island hosts release events in nine cities: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville. Last year, aside from Chicago, the brewery threw parties in New York, San Francisco, and Austin.
Goose Island has scared up all kinds of advance coverage this year, including a pro-gear, pro-attitude post on the blog of Chicago distributor Lakeshore Beverage that provoked a spasm of envy in your humble Beer and Metal correspondent. An expert roundtable met at Kaiser Tiger to discuss the 2014 Bourbon County lineup: Christopher Kolodziej from Lakeshore, Pat Brophy from Binny’s, Kim Leshinski from Hail to the Ale, and Collin Moody from Intelligentsia. Their conversation is smart and wide ranging, accompanied by beautiful, expensive-looking photos—if it hadn’t taken place under the nose of Goose Island marketer Jesse Valenciana, it’d be almost impossible to improve on it. But when I asked the brewery for a set of bottles to conduct my own roundtable, it was with the express intention of finding out what sort of shit beer nerds would say about this year’s Bourbon County variants when unsupervised. So I invited over five of my awesome friends so we could be idiots in my living room.
BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT (four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, 13.8 percent alcohol)
Goose Island innovation manager Mike Siegel says that the growth in the 2014 Bourbon County program mostly happened here—which means nearly 1,900 barrels filled with BCBS, before you even get to the other four beers. A single distiller couldn’t possibly provide all of them, especially since Goose Island wants wood at least eight years old. This year the brewery acquired barrels from the likes of Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Jim Beam (mostly via its Knob Creek brand). That almost makes BCBS a cuvee, right? Here, try this: The next time you’re at a bar enjoying an adorable little snifter of this beer, turn to the person next to you and call it a cuvee. See if you don’t get slapped in the mouth.
To my taste, this year’s BCBS is an improvement over last year’s—it’s silky and rich but not too cloying or sticky, and its charred, roasty flavors don’t overpower the subtle hints of nutty oak and dark dried fruit. Molasses, vanilla, and dessicated coconut balance gentle bourbon, bittersweet chocolate, and burnt raisin. With that out of the way, what did my esteemed guests have to say for themselves?
Erin: Previous years have been too sweet right out of the bottle, despite all that alcohol. This does not taste like pancake syrup, so big ups to Goose Island.
Nick: It’s not as mouth coaty. I take a sip, and then it goes away. And it smells hotter than it tastes. I think the aroma will develop better than the flavor when you cellar it.
Ed: Besides finishing sort of dry for BCS, it’s also less bourbony. [Pause.] This tastes like a blackout. [Longer pause.] I wish I was less stuffed-up.
Courtney: It’s not offensively boozy. I like it.
Sei Jin: This year is the first year in several that I could probably drink more than one bottle.
During this discussion, Sei Jin admitted that he’d mixed Fernet and Malört the night before. In the same glass. (Thus was born the dread Fernört, ravager of palates.) Anyway, bear that in mind before you decide that you too could drink two bottles of BCBS.
- I know “Zirikana” sounds like somebody Captain Kirk would’ve slept with, but it’s actually a single-estate Rwandan coffee from Intelligentsia.
BOURBON COUNTY BRAND COFFEE STOUT (four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, 12.6 percent alcohol)
The coffee variant accounts for about 230 barrels of the total, the same as last year. From the beginning Goose Island has worked with Intelligentsia for this beer (“They don’t cremate their beans,” says Siegel), and the 2014 coffee is a Rwandan variety called Zirikana. The brewers started early this year with a series of blind cuppings, to exclude the effects of compelling back stories. Once they’d picked a coffee, Intelligentsia set aside 1,800 pounds of green beans, to be roasted and ground only when the beer was ready. “It’s not how you brew that much coffee,” Siegel says. “It’s how you filter that much coffee.” The Goose Island crew ended up with almost 1,200 gallons of double-strength cold brew, which they added to the stout from a small mobile grundy tank after it’d come out of the bourbon barrels.
Sei Jin: I didn’t like last year’s coffee BCS, but this year’s seems more balanced. Maybe a touch sweeter. I don’t think it’s overpoweringly sweet. I like this a lot.
Courtney: This reminds me of the way the Gloria Jean’s coffee shop in the Gurnee Mills mall used to smell. I’m just thinking coffee shakes with whipped cream and shit.
Ed: It feels sweet up front, but then I get this super dry coffee astringency.
Nick: This is going to sound harsh, because this is a good beer. The top thing I’m getting is “mocha from a bad diner.” Where they put Hershey’s syrup in a mug of Sanka. Even the bourbon is an afterthought.
Erin: There’s intense caramel in this. I like this a lot, but I wouldn’t want more than a shot glass of it.
Siegel described Zirikana to me as having cocoa and caramel notes atop its roasted character—it’s not a citric coffee, he said, and that should help its flavor mesh with the base beer rather than sit off to one side of it. He’s spot-on about that—the huge bloom of coffee in this one combines hot chocolate and dark caramel with something pleasantly unctuous and bitter, like black walnut. It’s mind-breakingly dense but surprisingly lively. My brain is what’s getting fatigued here, not my palate—and that’s only because I’m trying to write a review.
- This is probably straight-up Bourbon County Brand Stout. I gave up on taking photos of my glass very early. Anyway, all four stouts look the same.
BOURBON COUNTY BRAND BARLEYWINE ALE (four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, 12.3 percent alcohol)
The Bourbon County barleywine filled about 600 barrels, most of which had previously been used to age BCBS. This year about about 30 percent of them were first-use bourbon barrels, a slight increase compared to the inaugural batch in 2013.
Erin: Oh my God, this tastes like licking raspberry jam.
Nick: That’s damn good. Now here’s the pancakes, right here. I’ve never had a beer like this before. It’s very complex. I feel like it’s outsmarting me.
Courtney: This is the one I bought more than once last year. [Long pause.] My mouth is very confused right now. I think I like it? The reoccurring theme for me is that none of them really taste like bourbon.
Ed: I don’t know if I can say anything smart about the barleywine. It’s similar to standard BCS in that I could have more than one.
Sei Jin: I like it more than last year’s. It’s a little less sweet. Kind of a Frankenstein’s monster of a beer, not a straight barleywine.
I was alone among the assembled company in rating this as highly as the 2014 incarnation of Proprietor’s. It’s got the intense, malty fruitiness of a top-tier English barleywine, like dried peaches and apples stewed with raisins, touched with cinnamon and clove. The bourbon comes through mostly in the nose; on the palate, I love the way each sip seesaws from mellow but vivid fruit and chocolate-covered butter toffee into dry, prickly spice.
At this point in the afternoon, I felt it necessary to ask my friends, “Why are we talking about dicks already?” It turned out Erin had brought up a friend who works digging geoduck clams.
- How much of these beers can you drink before you type “barleywine” as “barelywine” every single time?
VANILLA RYE BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT (22-ounce bomber, 13.6 percent alcohol)
The trucks that deliver barrels to Goose Island hold 288 whiskey casks apiece. This year, like last year, one of those trucks carried rye barrels; the brewers filled 200 with this beer and 88 with the Chicago-only Proprietor’s variant. Both use the same base stout, with a bit of rye malt in the grain bill, but the barrels do the heavy lifting. The entire batch of Vanilla Rye called for 470 pounds of whole beans from Madagascar and Mexico—far too many to cut and scrape by hand, but not a problem for the buffalo chopper at Kendall College. The Bourbon County beers all spend close to a year in barrels, and Vanilla Rye gets dosed with those beans for the last two months. Even after it comes out of the wood, the brewers recirculate it through more vanilla in that grundy tank I mentioned a minute ago.
Erin: This smells like Whoppers.
Nick: It literally smells like a bottle of vanilla extract from the Spice House. It’s the most alcohol heat of any beer we’ve had.
Courtney: As a pastry chef, I’m super sensitive to people putting too much vanilla in things. And when people make vanilla beer, they usually put too much in. I can’t drink that. It makes me angry.
Sei Jin: I wasn’t a fan of vanilla BCS in the past. And I’m not a fan of this year’s. I think the rye cut some of the sweetness, but I’m still not a fan. But there will be plenty of people who love this.
Ed: It’s completely out of whack and way too sweet, but I’m not at all reluctant to keep drinking it.
I liked this beer more than anybody else, but it does smell like Whoppers. (Or as Binny’s beer manager Adam Vavrick put it, like opening a packet of Swiss Miss with marshmallows.) I also loved the bourbon-barreled 2010 version, though now that I look back at my review, the figure of 20 pounds of vanilla beans for the batch is obviously wrong. This year’s beer has a fluffy, desserty smell, like vanilla meringue and Dutch cocoa powder, cut by peppery booze. After that aroma, the finish is startlingly dry, spicy, and bittersweet. Everything about this one gets more aggressive at it warms—you’re going to want to have at least a couple people on hand to share it with.
- The 2014 Proprietor’s is made with cinnamon and chocolate—cassia bark and cacao nibs if you’re nasty.
PROPRIETOR’S BOURBON COUNTY BRAND STOUT (22-ounce bomber, 13.2 percent alcohol)
After the coconut-based religious experience that was last year’s Proprietor’s fresh out of the bottle, I’m pretty sure everybody was itching to crack this cap all day. The beer is recirculated through the grundy tank for a dazzling infusion of Vietnamese cassia bark (which has the highest oil content of the common cinnamon varieties) and cacao nibs from the Congo; it’s no longer in the wood at that point, but the amounts work out to one pound of cinnamon and four pounds of chocolate per barrel. The finished beer gets a shot of what Siegel calls “not so simple syrup,” which mixologist Heather Zerr made by dissolving panela (unrefined whole cane sugar, also known as piloncillo) in coconut water using the brewery’s two-barrel propagator kettle. This added unfermented sugar to the beer, which is generally a risky proposition—but Siegel says that when the alcohol content is this high, there’s little danger of kick-starting a new fermentation. The yeast is dead as a doornail.
Proprietor’s is utterly flat, probably due to the oils from the cassia bark, but none of the Bourbon County beers has much of a head—nobody at my tasting even commented on the total absence of visible bubbles here. A refined, almost cedarlike cinnamon dominates the aroma, fronting on inky-black roasted malts and bittersweet chocolate. This beer really blows up when you put it in your mouth: dark rye toast, coconut custard, milk chocolate, vanilla and almond from the oak, and a peppery tingle from the whiskey. It’s as warming as a good bourbon without the sting of booze, and as spicy as a holiday cookie without all the sugar.
Courtney: It doesn’t smell as magical as it did last year, but I really like the addition of cinnamon. This is really good.
Sei Jin: The flavors blend really well. I think this might age better than last year’s.
Nick: This is one of the best beers you could do for yourself when it’s like minus ten degrees outside and you don’t want to leave your house. I’m shocked by how harmonious the flavors are. It’s like Mexican hot chocolate. It’s outstanding fresh—I wouldn’t want to cellar it.
Ed: This is so fucking lovely it hurts. The fact that this is Chicago-only makes me soar with municipal pride.
Erin: Incredibly balanced. It has a very warming character to it—it’s just very pleasant to keep drinking. Fuck all y’all, Chicago rules. Important beer fact.
On Wednesday a few Chicagoland bars will pour Bourbon County beers ahead of the official release, though not every location will have every variant. The tappings I’ve heard about from Goose Island are at Jimmy’s Bar in Naperville at 6 PM, at Sheffield’s at 6 PM, at Fountainhead at 7:30 PM, and at the Beer Bistro in the West Loop at 9 PM.
The Black Friday event at Goose Island’s Clybourn brewpub is sold out as hell, as usual. If you’ve got a ticket for the 10 AM session, though, make sure to jump on Cthulhu when they tap it at 11 AM. (If you can’t remember what I’m talking about, read this. The hazelnut version, Nuthulhu, goes on at 7 PM.)
The line to buy bottles will as usual snake around the big Binny’s on Marcey Street. Sales start at 9 AM, and Goose Island will provide doughnuts, coffee, and other treats for folks waiting. The other Binny’s locations around town will have the Bourbon County beers too, but not in anything like the same quantities. Goose Island can’t control retailer markups, but last year 22-ounce bombers and four-packs of 12-ounce bottles both tended to cost between $20 and $30. If you’re dealing with someone reasonably honorable, your price ought to be closer to the former.
I’m going to write about Obituary now, but not because they’ve got anything to do with Bourbon County. I don’t even have a specious wordplay-based segue. The Florida death-metal pioneers have a new album, Inked in Blood, and they open for Death to All at Metro on Tuesday, November 25.
John Tardy has been one of the best and most distinctive front men in the genre for more than a quarter century. His voice sounds so tattered and shredded that he might as well have ground meat for a larynx, but every growl and shriek erupts out of him with wrenching force. Even a handful of gravel can fuck you up when the wind’s strong enough to bury it in your face.
And as Monica Kendrick mentioned in her concert preview, drummer Donald Tardy and his wife, Heather, run a charity called Metal Meowlisha that cares for feral cats. “If you’re on the fence about going to this show,” she wrote, “think of the kitties.”