WITH HOW OFTEN Russian imperial stouts are tricked out via exclusive barrel-agings, specialty adjuncts, or other such rarefied accoutrements, it’s easy to overlook the standard issue brews from which they often derive. This is particularly so when those special releases are treated like artifacts: wax-dipped bombers with regal or austere relabeling, they’re swiped from the shelves on the day of release by superfans who tracked the delivery truck to the store, then used as rare currency on the second-hand market. Admittedly, such exclusive vintages can be astounding and worth the wait, price, and sometimes the hype. But for the other 360 days of the year a plain old, 12-oz four-pack of year-round Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout remains one of the world’s premier stout experiences.
Pouring perfectly clear despite a deep molasses complexion tinged with ruby, Rasputin considers his drinker confidently from the glass. The beer’s light tan head is tightly packed, tenacious, and creamy almost akin to a nitro stout, though with none of nitrogen’s dampening effects on the mouthfeel. In fact, the carbonation level of Rasputin is one of his hidden strengths: a small, splendid wash of effervescence clears and refreshes between the midpalate and the finish without ever overpowering the beer’s sturdy, off-full body (approx.. FG 1.022).
Rasputin’s aroma is imposing and dense, though neither ornate nor overwhelming. Decisively roasted, its interplay of black malts, oak, char, vanilla, and brush of alcohol persuasively emulate barrel-aging. Once on the palate some shades of dark fruit emerge in the background—black currants, cherry, prune—but are subtle enough to keep Rasputin more stern than sweet. So, too, does the bitterness, both from the espresso-blackened malts and its robust bittering. At 75 IBUs Rasputin is no Ten Fidy (98), but it comfortably surpasses Narwhal, Stone’s version, Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate, Storm King, BCBS, Dark Lord, etc., and expertly integrating earthy, herbal, and spicy notes into the lasting malt roast of the finish. The 9% ABV is assertive, not conspicuous, apparent in the aroma with a prickle and giving some lifting heat on the back of the palate at the finish.
Indeed, there are hardly any aspects of Old Rasputin that are not precisely placed. One might ask for a notch more warmth or dollop of port-like fruit preserves, but these are both more often found in those specialty barrel-aged versions mentioned above. (Which, as it happens, North Coast releases annually with unimpeachable results.) If Old Rasputin seems to lack for anything it is only through comparison to exclusive releases that are often twice the price. And who’s to say? Maybe after a year or two in the cellar this ‘average’ version would emerge a hoary beast of its own volition. Either way, Old Rasputin is as redoubtable as its namesake, a world-class beer, and a world-class buy. Never say die.
Served: 12 oz bottled June 23, 2013