Dipsology: Beyond the Basics – On Black Friday, Line up to Nab Some Bourbon County Stout

This annual Bourbon County release is something every suds savorer should be seeking out.


[This is the first part of a dual entry. In a few days I will be offering reviews on a number of these beers aging for years and tasted this month.]

While the day after Thanksgiving is normally regarded as a day to avoid the throngs of shoppers, there is one item offered up that warrants the pilgrimage to stores. Each year at this time, Goose Island releases its signature series of deeply crafted brews aged in barrels and delivering complexities not found in many labels. These have become highly sought-after offerings for those appreciating top-level beers.

Goose Island revolutionized the craft beer industry when it first released this line of beers using bourbon barrels acquired from Booker Noe, the famed craftsman from the Jim Beam distillery. Noe has been the master, delivering a number of the respected bourbon labels from that sector, and the act of taking stouts and having them cure in the oak casks that housed Noe’s spirits was a novel concept that shook the craft brewing industry.

This year, the brewery is marking three decades of this special release, with an expanded line of Bourbon County labels, including a 30th Anniversary release, along with the standard Bourbon County Barrel Stout. 

Here you see the BCBS base, Coffee Stout, Biscotti Stout, Sir Issac’s Stout, the Proprietor’s Stout, 2-year-old Barley Wine, and the 30th Anniversary release. As the years have promised, acquiring any of these labels is sure to be the desired experience. 

Beyond the base offering, the coffee stout comes in at 13.2% alcohol, using beans from a local roaster, Intelligentsia. The Biscotti variant was made with the additions of toasted almonds, anise, and chocolate nibs and weighs in with a strong 14.3% ABV. The Sir Isaac’s Stout is an attempt at replicating Fig Newtons, with the beer aged with figs and graham crackers and landing with 13.9% in the bottle. 

The most limited edition might be the Proprietor’s Stout, a variant over the years where Goose Island gets deeply experimental. In the past, they tried out combinations such as maple syrup and peppers, or pistachios and cherries. This year, they attempt to replicate an exotic cocktail, adding elements like toasted coconut, and banana, with juices from limes and pineapples. Another tough find might be the 2-year-old Barleywine Ale, which is aged in Old Fitzgerald bourbon barrels that themselves are well over a decade old. If you find this one be ready — it clocks in at 17% ABV.

The 30th Anniversary edition is highly unique in that it is actually a blend of the beer aged in four different brands of bourbon barrels. 36% was aged in Booker’s, 33% using Nob Creek, 17% in Basil Hayden, and 14% in Baker’s. 


Now – Some Controversy

It is perfectly understandable the brewery would celebrate the 30th anniversary, and the editions crafted to commemorate the date should be savored. The problem is that this may not be the perfect – make that, accurate – anniversary dating taking place. While the brewery contends that it was in 1992 that they first drew up the Bourbon County line for customers at its tasting room, that may not be the true debut.

Local Chicago writer Josh Noel has done the research for a book on the Goose Island Beer Company and came to the conclusion the date, embedded into the glass bottles, is off.

I’ve concluded there’s almost no chance that Bourbon County Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of interviews and hours of research point to the first keg of Bourbon County Stout being tapped in 1995.

There are a number of signposts that Noel uses to come to his valid conclusion (one being Goose Island master brewer Greg Hall was inspired to use bourbon barrels by a Sam Adams bock beer made using whiskey casks, which Sam Adams was not making until 1994) with the most concrete evidence being the submission of the beer for judging. The brewers involved with making BCBS say they took their innovation to the Great American Beer Festival the year it was first created, and records from the event show no BCBS entry prior to 1995.

Ultimately, it is a trivia item from an era when the craft brewing industry was still in its infancy of sorts, and there was a looser Wild West mentality at the time. These days, with many craft breweries falling under the tent of major beer companies – such as Goose Island’s acquisition by Anheuser Busch in 2011 – these details would be far more codified and established.

In any case, get out on Friday but avoid the crowds. Instead of battling for discount TVs in the maw of rabid shoppers, line up with like-minded quaffers at your spirits emporium and get your hands on some quality beer made to be savored in leisurely conditions. It will be your holiday present to yourself.


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