The arrival of Goose Island’s annual Bourbon County series is one of the most anticipated and hyped beer releases of the year. For the last couple of years the lineup for the release has been the standard stout, a coffee version of the stout and a barleywine that all see pretty wide national distribution. There are also two much harder to get variants that change from year to year as well. This year’s stout variants were vanilla rye and Proprietor’s, which was a cinnamon chocolate stout this year.1 The beers are simultaneously released across the country on Black Friday. This massive release throws the beer nerd universe into temporary chaos with people waiting in line for hours to get their hands on the elusive bottles.
When the beers were released in my home town the few stores that had bottles sold out in minutes and most of them were sold for well above MSRP2 and limits of one bottle per person were set by most shop owners. I am all for putting in the effort to chase down rare beers but this seemed a little crazy. I read stories from across the nation about people waiting in lines for hours in freezing temperatures for the chance to get a few bottles. I tried to get a bottle or two but struck out this year. Luckily for me being a writer for Tenemu has its perks. I had a couple bottles of the Barleywine arrive on my doorstep.3
The Barleywine is unique in its place in the lineup since it is the only non-stout to wear the coveted Bourbon County label. The Barleywine does have more than just a label in common with the stouts due to the fact that the majority of the beer was aged in the same barrels that held the previous year’s stout release. Roughly 600 of the second use bourbon barrels were used to make up 70 percent of the final blend for the 2014 release. The remaining 30 percent came from freshly emptied bourbon barrels. Most of the barrels are left to age for about a year with none of them being emptied before they hit the eight month mark.
Roughly a month after the release I am finally able to sit down and enjoy the bottles of the barleywine I had been waiting to crack open. The bottle opens with a very slight hiss and the beer has a very light carbonation as I pour into the glass. The beer is a deep dark brown that when held up the light reveals rich mahogany edges. The moment I start to pour BCBW I can smell the big bold aroma of the beer. Like the name would suggest there is a huge bourbon quality that brings vanilla, burnt caramel and of course alcohol. It is a really boozy smelling beer that almost burns the nose a bit like a glass of whiskey would when you burry your nose in the glass. It is a wonderfully powerful yet complex beer with notes of raisons, molasses and brown sugar that all seemed to work together perfectly to create the powerful bouquet.
With such an intense aroma I got exactly what I was expecting when I took my first sip. All of the same characters that were present in the smell were there. It starts out with a big malty sweetness that brings to mind rich toffee, vanilla beans, raisons and brown sugar. The flavors are intense but not cloying in anyway. The alcohol arrives in a big way but is not a negative as it helps cut the sweetness and helps dry out the finish just a bit. The flavors linger for ever and I find myself enjoying the subtle nuances for a while after each sip. The beer is remarkably easy to drink considering the almost 12% ABV and the massive flavors.