Words by @edkinguk
If asked to conjure up an image of bourbon whiskey and beer, the first association in the mind of the average American or British drinker will very likely be the blue-collar Boilermaker ‘beer cocktail’, consisting of a cold beer served alongside a ‘chaser’ of cheap bourbon whiskey, sometimes mixed together.
But since the 1990s, the American craft beer revolution has given rise to a new association between these two alcoholic beverages, one that has elevated the traditionally humble and lowly beer or ale into a highly sought after, critically lauded (and sometimes condemned), limited release, wallet emptying product. The ‘bourbon barrel aged imperial stout’ had been born.
The history of storing or ageing beers in wooden barrels goes back centuries, very likely several millennia. Since Roman times wooden casks have been used to store and transport goods, and up until the beginning of the 20th century it was still the only practical method to store and transport beer or ale. Most barrels for storing beer would have been lined with pitch, meaning that almost no character from the barrel would be imparted in the flavour of the beer. Inevitably though, there are some traditional beer styles in which the ageing and use of the wood in the barrel have become an integral part of the flavour and conditioning process of the beer. Belgian wild yeast lambic beers, Flemish red ales, and barrel aged Czech pilsener being a few examples.
The idea of resting a beer in a barrel to impart flavour from the previous contents of that barrel is nevertheless a relatively new concept in beer brewing. Perhaps inspired by the manner in which sherry barrels were being used to ‘finish’ Scotch (as pioneered by David Stewart MBE of The Balvenie in the 1980s), Greg Hall of Goose Island Brewing in Chicago took six empty Jim Beam barrels in 1992, filled them with beer and then presented the end results at the Great American Beer Festival. Thus, according to legend, the barrel aged beer revolution began.
A couple of decades later and the international top 50 beer lists on Ratebeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com are a who’s who list of the most sought after American bourbon barrel aged beers. Goose Island’s ‘Bourbon County Stout’, Three Floyd’s‘ Dark Lord Imperial Stout’, Cigar City’s ‘Hunahpu Double Barrel Aged Imperial Stout’ and Founders ‘Kentucky Breakfast Stout’ being some of the most prized beers. Annual release days for many of these beers result in thousands of people queuing at the breweries to get a bottle. In secret unofficial Facebook groups, bottles exchange hands for up anything up to $1000 a bottle for the rarest releases. It’s a story familiar to bourbon whiskey drinkers trying to get their hands on a rare release, but maybe even crazier for a beer that has to be completely finished in one sitting. The style has now been mimicked around the world, with brewers in Europe and the United Kingdom developing their own bourbon barrel aged beers.
Like many of the ‘ultra-aged’ special release bourbons, barrel aged bourbon imperial stouts are very much an acquired taste and, to those with an unfamiliar palate, the hype around these beers can seem like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. This is not an altogether unreasonable reaction: certain brewers go out of their way to limit supply of these beers, use guerrilla marketing to create mystique and reverie, and build support up through online beer geek networks.
Eight years ago my first experience of this style of beer, a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Vanilla Edition resulted in a drain pour. A thick, overly sweet, cloying, treacly, bourbon infused liquid, barely resembling a beer. Several years later and that beer changes hands for several hundred dollars between collectors. Had I known it at the time I’d have hung on to it! More recently at a tasting I was given a rare dram of Bourbon County Stout Proprietor’s 2014 release and it was truly epic. Balanced, silky, smooth tasting, rich and not at all cloying.
So, if you’re just starting out in the brave new world of beer, here’s some advice. Before you start throwing your cash around, familiarise yourself with the style. First, try a few of the better priced beers to establish what you like. Remember that in the world of barrel aged beer, hype and price are not necessarily arbiters of quality, good taste or refinement. As seasoned beer connoisseurs will tell you, most of the best beers in the world can be bought for less than a fiver. However, if you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of barrel aged imperial stouts, here’s a list of a few you should be able to get, without breaking the bank:
1. Bourbon County Stout – one of the original barrel aged imperial stouts, released yearly in the UK, and selling out quickly. From 2016 this has been pasteurised due to a high incidence of infections in the bottle in 2015, but friends tell me it’s still decent.
2. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) – less cloying and rich than BCS and with a much better balance of flavours, this beer has become much more widely available in the UK in the last year.
3. Old Chimney’s Good King Henry Special Reserve – strictly speaking not bourbon barrel aged as it’s actually aged with oak staves in the 8 month ageing process. However, this is the most highly sought after and highest rated English beer on Ratebeer.com. A beautiful ale.
4. Mikkeller Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (Bourbon Edition) – a ‘Danish gypsy brewer’ (i.e. he gives his recipes to another brewer who makes it for him), Mikkeller is a controversial figure in brewing but the Beer Geek series are probably his best and most successful beers. If you can’t get this particular version, any other will do.
5. Struise Cuvée Delphine – barrel aged in Four Roses bourbon barrels by Belgium’s original modern craft brewers.