Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Goose Island - Bourbon County Brand Stout Review

Brewery: Goose Island (IL)
Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 15%
Grade: A

You might say that barrel-aged beers were the new Hot Trend these days, if there weren't so many other Hot Trends in craft beer. But certainly, they are hot, and I don't just mean boozy. So it's kind of crazy to recall that Goose Island has been brewing Bourbon County Brand Stout since before Bill Clinton was in the White House — 1992. That BCBS isn't just a pioneer of the style, but a standard-bearer of excellence and balance, is mighty impressive.

How do you make a 15% ABV beer balanced? I'm guessing a long, long aging period before bottling. (The bottle says you can age this "up to five years," which is kind of hilarious to me, since it's higher ABV than most wines. You could probably age this for a hundred years.) As I'm pouring the beer, the aroma of bourbon and booze fills the air, and I wouldn't expect something this huge to taste even moderately balanced. There's heat, especially in the finish, but it's acceptable, drinkable. You can taste the booze, and it's as warm as whiskey going down your throat, but that's half the point. Put your nose close, and it smells exactly as you want it to taste: rich, malty, with dark fruits, fig and caramel. Oak-y, with a focus on the vanilla. The mouthfeel is creamy, slick, and enveloping. Decadent, but coherent. Any beer this massively rich is going to be impossible to drink more than one of — and it's so palate-wrecking, you could hardly taste anything else afterwards. (Of course, one bottle is enough to send you to bed anyway). So drinkability is kind of a moot point, but this drinks as well as many smaller examples of the style, with a melding of bourbon beer flavors that's much smoother.

Bourbon barrel aged stouts normally kept tripped up in their balance — after all, it's a style that almost defies flaws to show their face, because the flavors are just so inherently huge. The trick, then, is either timing the barrel aging precisely, or getting the flavors to where you want them with blending. Other bourbon-barrel aged beers I've had taste one-dimensional, with either too much bourbon, too much sweetness, a subpar stout flavor, or some combination of these. Bourbon County Brand Stout is undeniably sweet, but its bourbon and its beer are a well-melded pair. Age it a few years, and watch them pair even more perfectly.

Availability:  Rotating, I guess? Seems to hit the East Coast about once a year. 12 ounce bottles.

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