My introduction to bourbon barrel aged beers began much like my introduction to sour beers,1 with a brewery considered to be among the best in the world at the style: Firestone Walker. In this case that formative beer was Parabola, an impeccable bourbon barrel-aged Russian imperial stout and I’ve been a Firestone Walker fan from that day since. Since that experience, I’ve made it a point to get my hands on and try as many of Firestone’s annual bourbon barrel releases as possible.
When the bourbon barrel-aged barleywine was first introduced in 2006 as a brewer-only release, it was known as Abacus. In 2011, Firestone Walker changed the name after litigation from ZD Wines who makes a cabernet sauvignon called Abacus.3 The 2014 release included 3,500 cases, with six bottles per case.
As with all of Firestone’s Proprietor’s Vintage series bottles, §ucaba comes in a handsome box bearing the brewery’s logo and the bottling information on the front, flanked by the Firestone Walker flagship lion and bear on either side. It’s pretty slick packaging, and I guess it might make you feel better about spending $17 on a bottle if you were on the fence, but once you actually taste the contents I’m sure all doubt regarding the price tag will be erased.
Speaking of which, it’s time to open the 2014 vintage of §ucaba and get down to business. It pours a very dark ruby red into a tulip glass with the color only really distinguishable when held to the light, otherwise it sits almost black in the glass. There is a small bit of fleeting tan head that immediately recedes to a quarter-inch ring of foam around the edge of the glass but with no other lacing to speak of and there is not a single active bubble visible in the beer.
The first whiff of §ucaba greets me with a fairly intense brown sugar sweetness followed by a commanding alcohol volatility. Considering this is a boozy style of beer aged in an empty barrel of booze to make it even boozier, I would not expect anything less. I’m a little apprehensive about what’s about to happen, but manage to proceed. The second sniff brings to mind fragrances of caramel, butterscotch, ripe bananas, and vanilla. It is honestly a delicious smelling beer and I only hope that the flavors support what my nose picks up.
The opening taste is much like the nose, with brown sugar sweetness up front and a noticeable amount of warmth from the alcohol. The carbonation is minimal but pretty much in line with the style of beer, and it coats the mouth with a sticky sweetness on the finish. So far, so good. As I continue to sip on this big boozer I pick up some flavors reminiscent of chocolate covered cherries, and while I do occasionally get a little bitterness immediately on the finish it quickly fades into a sweet prune that is quite pleasant.
§ucaba is definitely a beer that you want to take your time with, and as it sits and warms up in the glass I am able to pick up a little more of the barrel character with nice hints of vanilla and smooth oak. The carbonation does seem to be fading a bit and combined with the sweetness makes it almost syrupy in the mouth, but I can’t seem to put the glass down until it is empty.