While a lot of brewers and distillers save their best for last with Q4 releases of the really special stuff, Goose Island's annual Bourbon County Stout series is particularly well-timed. Though they're not as high in ABV as, say, even a medicinal-strength light whiskey like Buffalo Trace's Prohibition Collection, these imperial stouts are a heavy drink simply due to their rich body and deep flavors. A little goes a long way with these 16.9-ounce stouts, which are best served by the ounce like the whiskey that occupied the aging barrels before them. That makes them ideal for pouring at Thanksgiving when you're gathered in the garage with your high school buddies or the basement with your cousins, or wherever you huddle with lifelong friends you're not reunited with often enough. Once you've punched through an entire bottle of these badass beers, you're bonded with your drinking buddies for life if you weren't already.
By enjoying them in eager company you can actually try all six of the 2023 releases without overdoing it. But just in case you're only budgeting for one of the pricy series, we've done the work for you. Here's every flavor of the 2023 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Series, ranked from our tasting with some of our beverage-writing buddies and the Goose Island team themselves.
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Angel's Envy 2-Year Cask Finish
Angel's Envy is highly regarded (though just as often contentiously) as a game-changer for innovating the second-barrel finish, moving its straight bourbon from new oak barrels to used ones that had housed port wine. Replicating that in this stout proved tricky for the Goose Island brewing team, which found that simply using Angel's Envy barrels captured the whiskey, but not enough of its wine notes. So in a greater parallel, the beer company's first cask-finish stout was then transferred into Portuguese port wine barrels. Even then, the team reports, it struggled with how little port was coming through, until one good Chicago summer had a breakthrough effect.
The nose, unsurprisingly, comes across much like the Proprietor's, but with that beer's intense brown sugar swapped for a stronger cherry and raisin vibe, though neither fruit actually went into the barrels with this bottle. Credit the port wine with that, which ceases to play games and reveals itself in full on the finish. Still, there's just a sourness here that doesn't quite play right. Imagine making a beer cocktail of a flat lambic with a cask stout, and you'll have a rough idea of the incongruent notes. At 15.5% ABV, this is the heftiest beer in a lineup that hovers around 14%, and we wonder if the port wouldn't play nicer with a beer in the 10% range that has less of its own sour-sweet alcohol taste.
It's the national debut of a recipe previously used as 2017's Proprietor's stout, and you can easily see why the brewer brought it back. Bananas Foster was another technical challenge for the brewing team to reach its target, ultimately using 10,000 pounds of almonds in three forms: whole roasted, sliced, and granulated. (Those of you scoffing should at least consider the precedent of garlic's cut-axis matrix effect on flavor.) Goose Island's senior innovation manager Mike Siegel says "Almonds are tricky because you have to use a lot of them," to get the desired characteristics, and even then they tend to fade very quickly in the flavor.
As hoped for, this beer is all bananas on your nose, and real nice ones, too. (Has anybody tried making banana bread with spent grains? Get on that, baking scientists. Here's your proof of concept.) Sadly, a strong contender for the top comes across a bit scorchy when you sip it. After that the vanilla resettles, and you really have to appreciate it for both its merits and the on-point landing. This is, indeed, what Bananas Foster tastes like.
The closest counterpart in last year's lineup would be the Sir Isaac: equally seared in flavor, and also based on a baked good with a fruit ingredient. Unlike that still-impressive achievement, we're not putting Bananas Foster last, but it does taste more like the flambé than its caramel remains. A smidge less singe and you'd see this one much higher.
Eagle Rare 2-Year Reserve
Boy, does this one live up to its name, with the purest imperial stout smell in the rack, seamlessly piping into the pure-stout tastes as you're drinking it. It has all the same notes as this year's Bourbon County Original, but condensed. You won't get a standout whiff of chocolate or cherry as with the Original, mostly because they've been compressed into a single brick of "Wow, that is most definitely one stouty stout!"
Senior Brand Manager John Zadlo says this year the unifying idea with the flavors and decisions of this year's release was to tell the story of the Goose Island BCS family's history. Siegel adds that Eagle Rare was a great counterpart for that storytelling, with its own origins weaving through the complete history of Kentucky bourbon, from its invention by Charles L. Beam at Four Roses, and being produced in one fashion or another at nearly every big name worth dropping before landing presently at Sazerac's Buffalo Trace. The label is flying to even greater heights this year, having just dropped its border-shattering warhead Eagle Rare 25-year expression and topping our tasting of the 2023 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, so it's a great time to release this solid sipping stout, which lands in the middle placement just as surely as it consolidates everything great, and even daring, about the beers on either side of it.
Another dusted-off recipe from the archives — in this case, 2013's Backyard Rye — the Backyard stout really was devised with mulberries from Goose Island's yard, although the name itself refers to Siegel's fond memories of plucking fruit from his own backyard as a child.
From underneath the imperial stout weight wafts the jammy aroma of three kinds of berries: mulberry, boysenberry, and marionberry. Once you get a swig of it in your mouth, it's still pretty stouty (or is that astout?), so don't expect it to come across like a Malbec, whatever the nose might tell you. In fact, the Backyard actually tastes more like wine than the port wine-casked Angel's Envy finish. In any case, the berries play expectedly well with the hefty, pervasive cocoa in a stout, and might be proof of concept for a sweeter Angel's Envy Cask Finish. Siegel says the production process of using such juicy flavoring was "Diluting with fruit juice, essentially" to a ... well, let's not say mere, but manageable 12.9% ABV. The result: a deceptively drinkable flourish from a still-stalwart stout. We're in the winner's circle now.
Bourbon County Original
The main edition of the Bourbon County Stout series spent an average of 12 months aging in used bourbon barrels (though we hear at least six for some, so figure even longer in others) while it developed the notes that Goose Island aimed to create. The whiskey that welcomed this batch of beer into its home is a tour of Kentucky champion distillers: Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Expect great things.
And oh, what things! Bend off the top and stick your schnoz in this bottleneck: chocolate, cherry, rye bread. Boy howdy, is this a stout! Banana, too, with all deference to Bananas Foster.
The taste delivers exactly what the aroma promises: dark chocolate, like 80% cacao or more complete with attendant fruitiness, invites you to experience this really nice stout. BC Original is probably one of the few beers in existence that justifies a beer koozie; it's hard to picture anybody getting through this beast in under two hours without skipping a meal. Though maybe even then, you want to take its creators' advice to pay attention to what layers of flavor emerge as the liquid warms up.
Heavy at the first sip, the BCS series returns to what it does best: being a terrific beer that you only need a little of. Going camping? Take it with you and sit around a fire all night; this is all you need. You won't regret it. It was made to be shared, and slowly.
You'll have to visit Chicagoland if you want Proprietor's, but that's always a fun idea. The team assembled "a beer worthy of the city of Chicago" based on rice pudding. Is that a Chicago thing? We don't believe it. You'd have heard about Chicago rice pudding by now. This is a town where people can't wait to pour Malört liquor down unsuspecting gullets and dunk innocent sandwiches in broth. You'd absolutely hear about rice pudding if it were Midwest metropolitan food identity.
Anyway, toasted rice is best spiced subtly; you need blandness as a base for what it carries, and that's the wise case here. You'll mainly pick up the smell of brownie and blondie, which might be a way to say brown sugar, or as another taster noted, caramel. Then comes some chocolate again, but way less cherry than other stouts in this collection.
On your tongue, the actual raisins used burst forward from their silence. The cassia bark, aka cinnamon, is surprisingly subtle, given how a pinch is as good as a mouthful with that spice, but the brown sugar is evident from nose to finish and is very welcome indeed. The final beer is sweet and fruity thanks to the raisins. It's easy for imperial stouts to become cloying even unseasoned and dry, but that's not so here — this is a real champion beer. Better buy your airplane tickets.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.