This article is brought to you by our friends at Goose Island Beer Company.

Each fall on Black Friday, hordes of beer enthusiasts crowd the sidewalks and parking lots outside beer shops and liquor stores, anxiously awaiting a chance to purchase the current vintage of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. The liquid inside the bottles—a silky, jet black Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon barrels—is the culmination of years of work by Goose Island’s brewers, the Kentucky-based distillers who first appropriated the barrels, and the meticulous cellarmen who track the barrels and blend the beer that’s been resting in them for 12 months.

Amid the BCBS buzz and bustle are the most coveted versions of the beer, the so-called variants. “They’re the same base beers, differentiation,” Goose Island brewmaster Jared Jankoski says. This year’s variants include Coffee Stout, Regal Rye Stout, Proprietor’s, and Rare.

Goose Island Brewer Jared Jankoski

For its 2015 Rare, Goose Island used 35-year-old Heaven Hill barrels, a happy mistake serendipitously discovered in a corner of the Kentucky distillery’s warehouse. (The Bourbon wasn’t supposed to age nearly that long; the barrels were all but empty, the Bourbon having evaporated into the ether after 35 years.) After aging Original BCBS for two years in these extremely rare barrels, it was blended and bottled for release.

“The blending is the X-factor,” says Jankoski, who noted subtle variation between each of the 200-some Heaven Hill barrels. “Some were deep and chocolaty, and some smelled of fresh tobacco,” he says. “Others were oaky and redolent of sweet rotting cherries.”

The blended Rare contains all of these flavors and more. It’s edgier and oakier than Original BCBS with tannic, whisky-laced flavors and a deep undercurrent of char and smoke. The alcohol is amped up too—14.8% compared to Original’s 13.4%—but the beer is remarkably well balanced despite being so assertive.

“It’s a testament to the fact that the base beer is big enough to stand up to these extraordinary barrels,” says Jankoski.

This year’s Proprietor’s variant—available exclusively in Goose’s homebase of Chicago—is the creation of brewer Di Rodriguez, who was inspired by last year’s Thanksgiving meal. “BCBS is released the day after Thanksgiving, and the flavors of the holiday were on my mind when I was developing this particular recipe.”

Rodriguez says she was still an intern at Goose Island when she took home a 4-pack of last year’s Original BCBS and began experimenting, first adding toasted pecans and then Bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. She wanted one more component to tie the sweet and roasty flavors together so she chose guajillo chiles. “They’re low on the heat index but have tons of fruit leather and raisin flavor,” she says, adding “I watch a lot of cooking shows, and they’re always talking about balance. That’s what I was going for here.”

One of the most popular variants is also the simplest. BCBS Coffee Stout contains beans sourced from Goose’s Chicago neighbors, Intelligentsia Coffee. “We make a cold brew concentrate in-house and just blend it straight into Original BCBS,” says Jankoski. The coffee echoes and amplifies Original’s already roasty character, giving it a robust notes char and resin. The 2015 beans are an organic blend from Nicaragua called Los Delirios with aromas of peach, tamarind, and dark chocolate.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout

Finally, this year’s most tinkered with variant is Regal Rye. Aged in rye whisky barrels with fresh Michigan sour cherries, candied Luxardo cherries from Italy, blackberry juice, and sea salt, it boasts competing currents of fresh berry and preserved fruit flavors with a gentle brininess from the salt, making all of the components seem accentuated. In the background the rye adds spicy aromas and a dry, tingling finish.

Bourbon County Barrel Stout variants

BCBS and its variants are perfect after-dinner beverages simply on their own. But they’re also great paired with full-flavored fall dishes and desserts. Try Original BCBS with roasted or grilled meats and earthy root vegetables like parsnips or beets. Coffee Stout is great with aged cheddar or, if you prefer something sweet, poured over a scoop of creamy gelato like an affogato. Of course the 2015 Proprietor’s pairs great with desserts like salted caramels or pecan pie, while Regal Rye is better suited for dark berry cobblers and dried fruits. Rare is one of the few beers robust enough to stand up to a cigar.

“These aren’t your everyday beers,” says Jankoski. “They’re a product of many years-long processes that culminate into something unique and special.”

Visit Brew | Cook | Celebrate to find out more about barrel-aged beer, beer articles, and recipes. | All photographs by Brian Dieck

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