Beer Review 0572: Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2013)

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Each year, Goose Island (Chicago, Illinois) produces variants of its Bourbon County Brand Stout. New for 2013 is Bourbon County Brand Barleywine, a beer that has been aged in third-use barrels. The first use? Bourbon, of course; the second use: these barrels were once home to Bourbon County Brand Imperial Stout! Now that’s excellent use of resources.

While barrel-aged beer was around long before 1994, Goose Island made it popular in the United States when they placed Imperial Stout in bourbon barrels to celebrate their 1,000th batch of beer made at the original Clybourn brewpub. After tasting the results, it seemed like every brewery either had or wanted a barrel aging program. Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout achieved legendary status.

Goose Island opened in 1988. John Hall was the visionary, and he was inspired by the beers he had tasted in travels across the country. He started the brewery with the notion that drinkers wanted to see their beer being made, so Goose Island actually started as a brewpub. In 1995, a dedicated facility was built with a bottling plant to keep up with demand.

In 2011, 58% of the company was sold to the world’s largest brewer, ABInbev. As result of the sale, many of Goose Island’s everyday brews are now made in New York. However, Goose continue to produce the more connoisseur-friendly bottles in Chicago, of which Bourbon County is part of.

Bourbon County Brand Barleywine was sold in four-packs, and Goose Island produced only about 600 barrels of the beer. It’s an English-style Barleywine brewed using Pale, Crystal, Caramel, and Dark Chocolate malts, along with Pilgrim and Styrian hops. The alcohol by volume (ABV) is 12.1%, while the IBUs (International Bitterness Units) check in at 60.

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The pour slipped out a very small, creamy head that was light tan in color and quickly fizzled away. The beer is a nice tawny brown color, similar to deep colors of rust, and has a beautiful ruby red glow when held to light. It’s opaque and the body is quite murky, but there didn’t appear to be any evidence of particles or sediment. Lacing never formed, likely thanks to the 12.1% alcohol — but there were plenty of alcohol legs left running down the glass when the beer was swirled.

On the nose, this brew is flat out AMAZING. The level of which this blends together and develops as it warms is about as good as it gets. There’s thick, syrupy bourbon and caramel that collide with just about the entire kitchen sink — milk chocolate, dark chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, toffee, bread, and even a strong hit of dark fruits (raisins and cherries, rum-soaked) as it approaches room temperature. This is dessert in a glass; this is complex, welcoming, like a soft blanket after a long, hard day. Perfect. Make it into a candle. Or a soap. Or a cologne. Something!

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As for the taste…wait for it… a knuckle sandwich of bourbon, caramel, and orange peel up front. But it’s not like a knockout blow of bourbon, it’s more like a, well…third-use barrel that’s completely smoothed out and only hits you with the slickest of sanded and rounded edges. ROUNDED. That’s the perfect word for this beer — notes of charred barrel, burnt brown sugar, and dark chocolate delight on the tongue, transitioning to one hell of a conclusion after the swallow. We’ve got sugared dark fruit, rum-soaked raisins and sweet cherries, sticky bourbon that edges more into vanilla and toasted marshmallow. Take a pause here. Then kicks of toffee, cigar tobacco, and a nice gentle layer of alcohol warmth. It’s sweet and slightly boozy in the absolute right way. Wow. Bourbon County Barleywine is full-bodied with a thick, creamy mouthfeel.

I say without any reservation: this is one of the best beers that I’ve ever tasted. I think this brew is a perfect storm of delicious; obviously, we’ve got a solid base beer, then it’s teamed with barrels that have had a chance to tone down and contribute more nuanced and delicate flavors. You know, I really do dig the Bourbon County brand of beers (as if you couldn’t tell by my high ratings) but I do feel the bourbon is overwhelming at times. Not here, this is just a delight to sip on and I must warn you, it’s dangerously drinkable. I’m partial to Barleywine to begin with, but this has become my gold standard of barrel-aged Barleywine. An incredible twelve ounces of perfect beer.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2013), 100 points. Price: $5.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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