JUST AS GOOSE ISLAND developed a luxury mini-brand with their Vintage Ales, so, too, have they finally done with Bourbon County Brand Stout. Though first brewed in 1992 (long before Matilda, et al) it’s only relatively recently that BCBS branched off into new permutations—cherry, rye, coffee, even coconut—and now, more than 20 years after its creation, a different style entirely: barleywine.
Perhaps the idea of a ‘Bourbon Country Brand Stout Barleywine’ seems a little contradictory, but the connections are justified. Not only is barleywine a natural cousin to imperial stout, but Goose Island’s interpretation was also aged in BCBS barrels, thus entwining the two literally as well as figuratively.
This deep mahogany ale is far from just a rebranding exercise, though, and proves itself a welcome contrast to the thoroughly blackened complexions of the remaining lineup. One might even argue that Goose Island’s barleywine is a more suitable candidate for bourbon barrels than their stouts, as its dense toffee maltiness, caramel-rich body, and dried berry flavors match seamlessly with the sweet corn crackle of bourbon and complex barrel notes of vanilla, tannins, and a little leather and charcoal, too.
Aside from the obviously American stamp of bourbon, this barleywine’s overall impression is more distinctly English than the typically sucrose or lactose-heavy American interpretations of dessert-style beers. The 12.4% ABV, though still clobbering, is also relatively modest when compared to other BCBS ales. This allows a slightly larger head to develop and leaves a creamy residue on the glass. The alcohol sensation on the throat is also more warming like a port than crackling like a whiskey, as befits this beer’s rounder, more velvety flavors than, say, the aggressive spikes of the Coffee stout. All share IBUs of 60, and in this case contribute some moderate bitterness and a bit of herb.
Dark chocolate malts appear mostly later in the flavor, and their slight grit and roasted notes help sop up the accumulation of caramel and fruity sugars. These also speed the transition towards the finish and its swirl of barrel notes, which overall are more cleanly of oak and wood grain than char. Carbonation approaches medium in the early going, rather higher than expected, before tapering steadily to allow the finish to settle in slowly, slowly. The aftertaste is set well back on the tongue, vaguely fruity, with a touch of minerals. Assuredly this beer will develop further with some cellaring, but already its balance of textures and flavors seems mature. And though less immediately striking than some other American indulgences of comparable rarity, it is no less worthy. To the contrary, it’s better than most and a royal successor to King Henry. Long may it live.
Served: 12 oz bottled 9/17/13