There are very few beer releases that can match the notoriety and hype of Goose Island Beer Co.’s Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Released every year on Black Friday, the barrel-aged imperial stout is one of the most anticipated beers every year, with fans in larger cities camping out hours ahead of the time it goes on sale at stores. Having debuted in 1992—it was another four years before the stout was bottled for the first time in 1996—the base beer is brewed with two-row, Black, Caramel, Chocolate, Munich 10 and Roasted Barley malts and is hopped with Millennium hops before being aged in barrels that previously held Heaven’s Hill bourbon for an unspecified amount of time.

While 2016 included only four variants—regular BCBS, coffee BCBS, barleywine and Proprietor’s BCBS—there were six variants of Bourbon County Brand Stout released last year:

  • Bourbon County Brand Stout 2017 — imperial stout aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels
  • Bourbon County Brand Stout Reserve 2017 — imperial stout aged in freshly 11-year-old Knob Creek bourbon barrels
  • Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout 2017 — imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with Black Cat Espresso coffee from Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago
  • Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout 2017 — imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with bananas, roasted almonds and cassia bark
  • Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout 2017 — imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with blueberry juice and almond extract added
  • Bourbon County Brand Barleywine Ale 2017 — barleywine ale aged in fresh bourbon barrels

A seventh bottled variant—Bourbon County Brand Barleywine Ale Reserve 2017, a barleywine ale aged for 20 months in 35-year-old Heaven Hill barrels—was shown off with the other six, but on Oct. 19 Goose Island announced that it would not be releasing the beer due to the fact that it did not “taste like what we wanted it to.”

In addition, Goose Island released Double Barrel Bourbon County Brand Stout 2017, a 17.2 percent ABV imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels, as a draft-only option during the brewery’s 2017 Proprietor’s Day event on Nov. 19, 2017.

The subject of today’s review is the Bourbon County Brand Northwoods Stout 2017, a 12.6 percent ABV imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with fresh blueberry juice and almond extract added. This is far from the first time that a BCBS variant has included fruit—2013’s Backyard Rye was conditioned on boysenberries, marionberries and mulberries, while the Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye release in 2015 was brewed with blackberry juice, cocktail cherries and sea salt—but it is the first time that a bottled variant was brewed with either blueberries or almond extract.

As with the rest of last year’s BCBS releases, Northwoods Stout is packaged in 500ml bottles ($29.99) a change that Goose Island introduced for the Bourbon County Brand family in 2015, replacing the 12- and 22-ounce bottles that had been used for years before that. In addition, all but one of the different bottled Bourbon County Brand releases were released at retailers nationwide starting on the day after Thanksgiving, which last year fell on Nov. 24. The exception was Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, which has always been exclusively available in Chicago since its debut in 2013 and was released on Nov. 19 during 2017 Proprietor’s Day.

Finally, each of the seven Bourbon County Brand Stout releases in 2017 were pasteurized using a process called flash pasteurization, which Goose Island began implementing in direct response to the multiple infection issues the brewery encountered with 2015’s releases of Bourbon County Stout, Bourbon County Stout Coffee, Bourbon County Stout Proprietor’s and Bourbon County Barleywine.

Immediately after pouring the Bourbon County Brand Stout Northwoods, the scent coming from the glass is almost overwhelming: the bright fruity sweetness is easily dominant, while strong creamy almonds, bourbon and oak were left to flounder behind. The stout is pitch black with about two fingers of mocha brown head that dissipates slowly, leaving behind a thick ring that sticks around for quite a while.

I knew this was going to be different going into the review, but even I was not aware of just how different the profile would be. My first thought after my first drink was to note that the beer was not as sweet as I was expecting, followed by a thought that, much like in the aroma, the sweet blueberry fruit note easily takes the top spot on the palate, although it does seem to shift from blueberry to more of a cocktail cherry note as it warms up. In addition, the creamy almond flavor on the finish is strong enough to balance out the sweetness that otherwise would have been overwhelmingly off-putting.

Other flavors are noticeable in the profile as well, including dark chocolate, marzipan, bourbon, oak and bitter dark chocolate, along with vanilla and amaretto, but most of them are not strong enough to really affect the main flavors in any meaningful way. There is a bit less carbonation than I expected and while the mouthfeel is creamy, it is also a tad thinner than I remember the regular version of BCBS being, albeit not thin enough to cause any issues.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout Northwoods (2017)
BREWERY: Goose Island Beer Co.
LOCATION: Chicago, Ill.
STYLE: Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
ABV: 12.6 percent
IBU: n/a
PRICE: $29.99
RELEASE DATE: Nov. 24, 2017
AVAILABLE IN: 500ml Bottles
Honestly, there are very few fruit-laden stouts that I have really enjoyed—although the aforementioned Backyard Rye and Bottle Logic’s Jam The Radar buck that rule—and the Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout Northwoods 2017 is a very interesting addition to the style. The profile is easily one of the most interesting I have tasted in a while, with the overt blueberry note on the palate and the creamy almond extract a strong enough note to cut the inherent sweetness as well as help the overall balance. In the end, the uniqueness of the profile won me over—I even purchased two more—but after drinking it I absolutely understand why this is one of the most debated variants in recent memory and it is definitely not for everyone.
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