Last year around this time, hundreds of gallons of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout were being distilled at Rhine Hall to make bierschnaps. The spirit originated in Bavaria, where small brewers who owned a still would often distill leftover beer. Despite increasing interest, it’s never really become popular in the U.S. (though several local distilleries, including Koval, Chicago Distilling Company, and CH Distillery, have made spirits from beer). Turning unwanted beer into spirits is a no-brainer; the first step to making whiskey is essentially to make beer, minus the hops. But taking a beer as sought-after as Bourbon County Stout and making it into something else seems a little counterintuitive.
“Because of how distinctive Bourbon County Stout is, that supermalty finish, we really wanted to see just what would happen to it,” says Rhine Hall co-owner Jenny Solberg Katzman. The distillery focuses on schnapps—which it calls fruit brandy or eau de vie to avoid confusion with oversweetened bottom-shelf schnapps—so making bierschnaps was a natural step, and Goose Island is a Fulton Street neighbor. Rhine Hall’s first experiment was with distilling Goose Island’s Matilda into schnapps, though the version made from BCBS was released first, in mid-December of last year. At the time it was identified only as “a stout beer from a brewery neighbor of ours,” and the distillery declined to answer a direct question about its provenance from the Guys Drinking Beer blog.
Solberg says that Rhine Hall and Goose Island agreed that it didn’t make sense to co-brand the unaged version. “They don’t want to confuse their customer base with something clear,” she says. “A lot of people don’t understand that whiskey starts out clear before it goes into a barrel.”
Some of the schnapps was bottled and sold, but most of the spirit went back into the beer barrels to age. On Black Friday, November 24, the same day that Bourbon County Stout and all its variants are released annually, that beer-barreled bierschnaps will be released at the same stores where BCBS is being sold (mostly Binny’s, but also many smaller retailers). It’s priced at $29.99 for a 375-ml bottle, and is 40 percent ABV.
“It’s really fun to see how big of a correlation there is between the beer and the distilled version of it,” Solberg says. In addition to the two Goose Island beers, the distillery has made a bierschnaps with a saison from Church Street Brewing in Evanston, and according to Solberg, the difference between the spirits is notable. “They’re very distinct, to the exact flavor profile of the actual beer.”
The aged version of the BCBS bierschnaps is much like the unaged version, she says, but amped up a bit. “The maltiness is more pronounced, but the [unaged] is already supermalty. You get some characteristics of the wood; barrels tend to round out clear spirits, take the edge off. It’s a little more approachable.”
Solberg says that Rhine Hall may continue the series with other breweries if this release sells well. “Ideally we’d do different types of beer,” she says. “We have good ties with a bunch of breweries. We’re already talking with Pipeworks about doing one.”