Not terribly long ago, I wrote up my experience with Goose Island’s 2018 bottling of its Bourbon County Stout. As a bit of a throwaway comment, I remarked that it would be fun to crack open another bottle a year on to discover how it had evolved.
The advantage of having a gang of friends who love their beer and follow your blog is that you always have something interesting to talk about. The disadvantage is that for the last couple of months all they’ve been talking about is when I’m going to taste the 2018 Bourbon County Stout again. So with my sour-loving partner out of the country, last week was the perfect opportunity to host a vertical BCS tasting, comparing the beers from 2017, 18, and 19.
I don’t know what it is about BCS – whether it’s subtle differences in the recipe year to year, or the different whisky barrels they age it in – but every time cracking it open is an adventure. Comparing editions side by side is a real treat.
Bourbon County Stout 2019
The gang voted to run from youngest to newest, so we started with the 2019. This was also unique out of the three bottles for the label: it’s the only one without the brewer’s signature. This year’s edition has been barrel aged in Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey casks, so I’m expecting a good amount of sweetness from this one.
Immediately after opening the bottle we’re greeted with a strong, heady aroma of dark molasses, cinnamon, and Marmite. There’s some of those more traditional roasty notes in there too: someone describes it as chocolate-coated coffee beans. Except in this packet of Revels, it’s the one everyone actually wants.
Then we take our first sips, and things get really interesting. Between us we pick up flavours of sweet soy sauce reduction, burnt sugar, dried cranberries, and candied peel. The finish on this beer goes on for what feels like forever: five minutes later, I can still feel the brandy-soaked raisins stuck to my teeth.
We’re all feeling very good about this beer. Deviating from his normal whisky scoring methodology to my curmudgeonly 0-5 scale, Conor places this as a solid 5 for him. Rich, Oli (with some coaxing to avoid fractional scoring) and I all rate it as a 4/5 – a solid start to the evening.
Bourbon County Stout 2018
Next up it’s last year’s edition, the BCS I reviewed here. To some extent, that means we know what to expect. But having been urged to keep a bottle cellared to see how it develops, I’m hoping there’s at least some differences from last year’s write up.
We crack the bottle open and we’re immediately greeted by waves of sticky vanilla and chocolate fudge. On the palate the 2018 provides a fruity berry bouquet of blueberry and raspberry, coated in chocolate syrup.
For a beer weighing in at a hefty 15.2%, the body on the 2018 is surprisingly light. There’s no finish, remarks Conor. Oli’s not convinced by this one either: “I enjoyed the savouriness of the 2019, the journey it took you on. There’s none of that in this version, it’s much simpler.”
“It’s like Harvey’s,” Conor adds wisely. “Yes it’s wine, but that doesn’t mean you’re drinking a ‘papa de neuf’.”
“Do you mean Châteauneuf de Pape?”
Perhaps the aging process has not been kind, or we’ve cracked it too soon: the brightness of the berry flavours has faded but there isn’t the complexity there to replace it. Perhaps it’s just simpler by comparison because of the barrels it’s aged in: just Heaven Hill bourbon rather than the mix we see in the 2019 edition. One way or another, it’s 3/5 across the board on this one.
Bourbon County Stout 2017
This is where things get really exciting. There are still dozens of bottles of BCS 2019 sitting on the shelves at the Goose Island brewpub next to Liverpool Street, and BCS 2018 is still easy enough to get hold of if you know where to ask. 2017, however, is getting on in years. Their numbers are diminishing purely by virtue of nuts like me drinking the damn things.
We get our first sniff of the 2017 and our spirits lift. Here we have more of that lovely umami aroma we were picking up from the 2019, laced together with a strong whiff of marzipan.
We take our first sips and receive a rum smack to the face. Caramel, coconut, banana notes mingled with cane sugar and vanilla. I’m alone in getting porcini mushroom on the palate, but we can agree there’s umami flavours in the mix here. Someone else likens it to the Hotel Chocolat espresso martini truffle.
In many ways this is similar to the 2019 edition, but they diverge on the finish: while 2019’s sticky sweet finish goes on for days, 2017 fades away more gently. We’re unanimous again in rating this a 4/5, though for me I think the balance on the 2017 gives it the edge.
Bottles of Bourbon County Stout retail at £20 a pop. That immediately raises questions about whether you’re getting good value for money out of it, especially if you’re buying more than one bottle. With a nod to my colleagues in the real estate business, I reckon the way to figure this out is to look at the comparables.
Specifically, it’s about picking the right comparable evidence to look at. It’s no good pointing out that a Wetherspoons will pour you a flat pint of Guinness for £3; you’re buying into an entirely different product and experience.
Given the complexity of the beer, the time and resources it takes to produce, and the ABV, I’d say you’re better off comparing this to a bottle of wine. And as Conor astutely pointed out: there’s a big difference between buying Harvey’s and a papa de neuf.
The question, then, is not whether BCS represents good value for money; it’s how on earth all the other, much cheaper barrel-aged imperial stouts are so cheap. For now, I’m going to leave that question until after I’ve drunk a few more.