This year, I went Black Friday shopping for the first time.
The reason? Beer. Specifically, for Goose Island’s annual limited release of Bourbon County stouts. The Chicago brewery first started aging beer in bourbon barrels in 1995, a process by which the beer absorbs bourbon flavor out of the wood, creating a rich mixture of flavors. This Black Friday, Goose Island released six such beers in limited quantities at local bars and liquor stores.
To get my hands on at least a few of these beers, I found myself standing outside the Downers Grove Binny’s Beverage at 8:20am, in a line that appeared to include every white dude with a beard in the Western suburbs. By the time I got to the front of the line, only one of the six styles was left. Even though this was my first time participating in Black Friday “shopping,” I’d heard enough horror stories to know that I’d either have to go in with elbows out and head on a swivel, or outthink the competition. My dad and I opted for the latter and went with a divide and conquer strategy. He snagged the Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout from the Oak Brook location, while 90 minutes (and $50) after my arrival at Binny’s, I was on my way home with the four bottles of Bourbon County Stout.
My dad, a friend from high school, and I tried both beers at an impromptu tasting in my parents’ kitchen. I needed at least two wingmen to avoid getting smashed while trying to review the beers. You see, the beers come in 16.9 oz bottles (the typical serving size is 12 oz), and have an abv. that clocks in around 15% (equal to a strong wine). The high volume and alcohol content help to explain away a bit of the $12 per bottle price tag, but the main reason is that craft beer enthusiasts are eager to try the bourbon barrel master’s latest concoction, and they are willing to pay the price for it.
We tried the Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout first. It is to other coffee stouts what espresso is to standard coffee—a concentrated, flavorful and bitter drink best enjoyed in small doses. The Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout is a robust, complex beer with prominent coffee flavors that overshadow the hint of bourbon. The finish is as long as any beer I’ve had, making it a great brew to slip and savour. In the end, I found it tasty, but I didn’t crave more after my 5 oz. tasting.
In contrast, the Bourbon County Stout is definitely good for a pint or two. The balance of malt, hops and bourbon is perfectly struck, creating an excellent cold weather beer. It has all of the great flavor of a top shelf bourbon, with the smoothness and texture of a great beer. One of my companions observed that it could pass as a dessert drink. I agree, both because of the noticeable yet moderate vanilla flavors from the bourbon, and because the strong flavor would be too overpowering early in a meal.
As good as the Bourbon County Stout is, you’re buying more than alcohol from Goose Island; you’re buying an experience. The effort required to get your hands on the beer creates something of an IKEA effect, in which the work you put into getting the beer makes it seem tastier. Furthermore, it’s a beer that brings people together to enjoy in company, as the large bottles, high alcohol content, and steep price tag are too much collectively to enjoy the beer by yourself. And these moments of sharing aren’t limited to a single release day—the beers can age for up to five years in the bottle, so future special occasions can be planned around cracking open the next one. My dad and I are already planning on bringing one to family Christmas downstate, and I can’t wait to see what my family’s other beer lovers think of it.
You’ll have a hard time finding any of the Bourbon County beers at this point. Goose Island’s Lincoln Park brewpub doesn’t currently list it as being on tap, and liquor stores are assuredly sold out. Your best bet will be checking your local watering hole and hoping for some luck; Eater’s list of where to try the beer is a good start. If you’re unable to find it, fear not—there are still plenty of excellent limited-release beers coming up from Chicago breweries. In fact, my favorite Chicago winter beer, Two Brothers’ Northwind Imperial Stout, was just tapped at their Warrenville location. Find it at any of their brew pubs or at your local liquor store. And be sure to mark your calendar for Black Friday 2018, when you can join me in a quest for next year’s Bourbon County lineup.