When I went on the hunt for this Goose Island limited release a couple weeks ago, the liquor stores that hadn’t already sold out weren’t even shelving what they had—the bottles had all been spoken for by phone. Vanilla BCS was rapturously received at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in November 2009 and at Goose Island’s own Stout Fest this March, where I had my first sample. At this summer’s Great Taste of the Midwest, I was waiting at the GI booth when it was tapped, and before I got to the head of the line it was gone.
Is the hype justified? In a word, yes. The beer pours almost totally black, with a fleeting cocoa-colored head. Even before the first sip it floods your nose with aromas of vanilla, bourbon, coffee, bittersweet chocolate, and creamy pralines. Inhale deeply and you can feel a slight sting of booze—that’s the 13 percent alcohol content. Vanilla BCS is brewed with real vanilla beans, and John Laffler, who runs the barreling program at GI, says this batch required around 20 pounds of them. It took four days to scrape the beans out of the pods by hand, and each bourbon barrel used for aging the beer got 40 pods’ worth. Unsurprisingly vanilla leaps out first in the flavor profile, followed by rich roasted malts and whiskey. As those notes recede, the barrel oak—which sometimes imparts a taste like toasty vanilla even to beers with no actual vanilla in them—comes forward. The mouthfeel is silky, almost syrupy, and an intense aftertaste of butter toffee lingers luxuriously. This is very much a dessert beer, right down to the calorie count—like all the Bourbon County stouts, it has almost 900 in a 22-ounce bottle.