The Bourbon County Horizontal / GI Migration Week Experience
Isn’t it nice when friends come together to achieve a common goal? I’ve been partaking in more bottle shares with friends lately. We’ll request and complete unique trades with our contacts in different parts of the country, then get together and share the wealth. Typically good food is involved too. At one recent share in Pasadena we grilled steaks and imbibed everything from Black Raz Bu to 2014 Bourbon County Vanilla Rye, Veritas 016, Map Of The Sun and Black Tuesday Reserve. Vanilla Rye is probably one of the best beers I’ve ever had. This was my last bottle. I could only acquire so many when it was released, and now they sell for hundreds of dollars so unless I miraculously win the lottery it’ll be a long while before I taste it again.
While we were consuming that Vanilla Rye, one of us had the great idea of trying to procure all of the Bourbon County releases from 2015, and tasting them side-by-side. At that point I’d already acquired the “regular” Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout, and Bourbon County Brand Barleywine. All three – along with Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, and Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout – were released on Black Friday this past November. The “regular” base beer was easy enough to obtain, I think I ended up with about a case of it when all my shopping was done. Regal Rye and Barleywine came from a well-connected friend. All we needed to complete the “horizontal” tasting would be the coffee, rare and proprietor’s variants.
We knew coffee wouldn’t be too difficult to obtain because a large portion of this year’s batch – along with the Barleywine variant – had developed “off” flavors that were not consistent with previous years’ batches. Although Goose Island never came out and said the beer had been infected with bacterias normally consistent with creating “off” or sour flavors, pretty much everyone on the Internet took it upon themselves to claim it was a full-blown infection and rushed to get rid of their bottles. That just left us in search of Rare and Prop, two of the harder-to-obtain variants from this past year.
Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout was the most-limited of all the widely-released variants this past year. The base beer (aka “regular”) was aged for two years in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels that were previously filled with bourbon for over thirty years. It was sold all over the country, but it was very, very hard to obtain. Even friends of mine who work at local stores were unable to procure me a bottle. Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout might have been even more limited. It was available only in the state of Illinois. The base beer was brewed with maple syrup and aged in bourbon barrels with toasted pecans and guajillo peppers.
I’m not entirely sure what my buddy had to trade to get Rare, but I took on the task of getting Prop. It took surprisingly little time to complete a trade, but once the goods had changed hands I had successfully flipped a bottle of the Bruery’s Black Tuesday Reserve for both Prop and the coffee variant. Our horizontal tasting complete, we could finally get together and taste ’em all.
Since only two of us had managed to snag all the necessary bottles, we allowed a third person to join us in the tasting provided he brought some intentionally sour ales and lambics to give our palates a break between all the heavy stouts. He provided us with a bottle of Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise and Highland Park Lazier Susan.
We started with Rare, which was shockingly bourbon-forward in both its aroma and flavor. I would describe it as “hot” in the sense that you could taste some of the burn you would normally associate with whiskey, but it also offered flavors of chocolate and dark fruit. As it warmed up the taste mellowed out, but at 14.5% ABV even when mellow it still offered a nice little shot of alcohol in every sip.
From there we attempted Barleywine, which was so godawful I almost choked on it. The aroma was a pleasant mixture of raisins and chocolate but the taste…what a mess.
Next up was Prop. The maple syrup was mostly present in the nose, while the pecans and peppers offered very little in the way of aroma or flavor. Served cold I thought the first few sips I had were the best of any variant I tasted this year. Unfortunately, as the temperature rose closer to room temperature the beer became very, very sweet. The drinkability was hampered over time. If you served this to me chilled and asked me to drink it fast, I would say it’s one of the better Bourbon County variants I’d ever tasted. But…if you’re like me and you’d rather enjoy your beer slowly while conversing or socializing…man it gets cloyingly sweet awfully fast.
The bottle of Coffee Stout was also sour. Not to the extent of the barleywine, but it tasted more like a mixture of coffee, chocolate, and sour cherries. My buddy enjoyed this much more than I did, so I let him dome the rest of the bottle while I focused on some of the other variants.
Regal Rye was the variant I was most-interested in because reviews ran the gamut from “Oh my God this is amazing!” to “This is the epitome of filth.” The base beer was aged in rye whiskey barrels with blackberries, candied cherries, sour cherries and salt. Weird combination, right? I thought so too. This had a more tempered sweetness than the Prop, but I also found it a little one-note, whereas the Prop had the maple aroma and a slight hint of peppers at the finish. As it warmed up the salt became more present, which I enjoyed.
The base beer, Bourbon County Brand Stout, is one of the most consistently great beers made by any brewery in America. Since discovering it back in 2005 or 2006 I’ve had it ever year and I’m always amazed at the unchanging high-level of execution with each successive batch. Personally I like to drink it after it’s been aged for about a year, but I still have bottles dating back as far as 2011 I’m sure will taste fantastic when I get around to drinking them. This year’s bottles are tasting excellent, rich and complex and deceptively strong (14.3% ABV).
If I had to rank this year’s variants, I would say in order from best to worst: Rare, “Regular”, Prop, Regal, Coffee, Barleywine. It’s a shame the drug store down the street has had bottles of Barleywine sitting on the shelf for the past month that no one has purchased. I’m not willing to risk that godawful mess in the hopes of finding a good-tasting bottle. Hopefully in 2016 Goose Island will get back on track, and offer a flawless set of variants.
Less than a week after our little horizontal tasting party in Pasadena, the Surly Goat over in West Hollywood announced they were hosting Goose Island’s “Migration Week,” which would include this year’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, last year’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye Stout, one of Goose Island’s “Sour Sisters” Madam Rose, and that great white whale, 2014 Bourbon County Vanilla Rye. The rumor was that the Vanilla Rye keg was going to tap at 10pm, so my buddy and I met over there after work to grab seats at the bar and drink until the time came. To our complete surprise, the keg was tapped right when they opened at 6pm so we were able to drink several glasses of ‘nilla, walk around and play some shuffleboard, make a new friend, and then go back and get more ‘nilla. We were amazed at how few people turned up for the event, and even more amazed that we were able to get multiple pours of each beer before the kegs kicked. I heard later that shortly after we left the keg kicked. I thought I’d get to drink that beer again after I’d finished my last bottle. A few months later there I was drinking a couple bottles’ worth on draught. If I never see it or taste it again, at least I know I’ve had my fill.
You know what’s terrifying? The new computerized menus at Surly Goat have an Untappd ticker that shows live check-ins as people are using the app on the premises. So every time I checked into a beer I had to see my ugly mug on their computer screens. No one needs to see that.
No one cares about me, or my beer adventures. Sorry. I’ll go back to the music thing now.
Have A Nice Life – The Icon And The Axe [MP3]
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