How Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stouts Came to Dominate the Craft Beer World

Bourbon barrel-aged stouts like Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout forged a path that helped lead the American craft beer revolution.

Chandler Bondurant

This Black Friday, beer lovers will once again line up in frigid temperatures for the annual release of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. Over the past 15 years, the hype and excitement around these iconic bourbon barrel-aged stouts helped spur everything that American craft beer is today. Here’s everything you need to know.

In 1992, Greg Hall was eager. Goose Island’s brewmaster was seated for dinner at LaSalle’s in South Bend, Indiana with industry representatives from prominent cigar, bourbon and beer outfits, listening to a big man with a heavy Kentucky accent wax poetic on the magic of liquid sloshing around charred oak barrels. Hall loosened up. That was it.

On the eve of brewing Goose Island’s one-thousandth batch of beer, Hall had wanted to make something special. Two years earlier, his contemporary and friendly rival brewer Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery had done this Bell’s Batch 1000 Ale — a head-turning, hard-to-get strong ale — and he wanted to do his own spin on celebrating his one-thousandth batch. It was at that dinner Hall decided his bombshell beer would be a bourbon barrel-aged stout. The only problem was that didn’t exist yet. Not really, anyway.

The man with the Kentucky lilt was Booker Noe, Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer, then master distiller of Jim Beam Distillery and the grandson of the Jim Beam, and the beer, which he called Bourbon County Stout, changed beer forever.

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The earliest Bourbon County stouts were not like the Bourbon Country stouts of today, save the basics — they’re rich, dark stouts with sweet chocolate notes and a hint of bourbon bite. In 1995, Hall decided to enter the earliest versions into the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). American craft beer was still in its infancy, and new styles were not accepted so easily (today’s hazy IPAs would have never seen the light of day back then). In the mid-90s, standard brewing practice was replicating and sticking to the tradition of old-world European styles.

Because Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) did not fit into any style category, it was disqualified by the judges. But two things happened that convinced Hall he was onto something. First, there were hoards of other brewers waiting in line for BCBS and Goose Island poured every drop of it. As Hall recalls, the positive feedback from brewers at GABF was immense. Brewers like Garret Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery, John Harris from Ecliptic Brewing (Harris was with Full Sail at the time) and others convinced him Bourbon County was indeed “special.”

(It’s worth noting that, while Hall may be credited with the proliferation of the bourbon barrel-aged stout, it was Jim Koch of Sam Adams that first put dark beer into a spirits barrel stateside. The beer was called Triple Bock, and there’s about one percent of the OG stuff in Sam Adams’ Utopias. In his 2016 memoir Quench Your Own Thirst, Koch recalls getting the idea for his first barrel-aged beer by looking at planters made from cut-in-half bourbon barrels.)

And despite being disqualified for competition purposes, BCBS still received an honorable mention from the judges. “In retrospect, it was pretty brave of the festival to begin honoring innovation in future years,” Hall said. “Recognition of new styles at GABF led to a flowering of innovation in craft beer.”

After that 1995 GABF, other American brewers — particularly those in the Midwest — took note. Founders Brewing Co. debuted Kentucky Bourbon Stout for the first time on draft in 2002. Two years later, the high-ABV bourbon barrel-aged stout would become the number two-rated beer in the world on Beer Advocate. In 2004, Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds released Dark Lord, a Russian-style imperial stout brewed with Mexican vanilla beans, Indian sugar and coffee, to huge fanfare. The brewery released it on what it called “Dark Lord Day” in 2005 (an event that made waiting in line for a beer release and the single-day beer festival became norms).

“An entire day revolving around one rare beer,” author and booze writer Aaron Goldfarb said. “That led to tons of copycats with their own ‘days.’ Eventually, every new beer release seemingly became an excuse for people to gather around, drink all day and celebrate.”

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It should be noted that, at this point, Goose Island still hadn’t bottled BCBS for public sale. After dozens of iterations, it wasn’t until 2005 that it was first packaged and sold outside of their Fulton Street brewery.

But the technique continued to spread. Matt Brynildson, who had worked at Goose Island and been a witness to its barrel-aging experiments, moved to Firestone Walker in 2001 and expanded the existing barrel program hastily.

“I was just an observer of the program at that point,” Brynildson said. “That said, I was able to taste the beer at different stages from stainless through the barrel aging process and later as it developed in package. It gave me some ideas that stuck with me and I formed some early opinions on what I believed would work for us once we embarked on our program.”

They first began aging in spirits barrels in anticipation of Firestone’s tenth anniversary for the release of Anniversary “X” in 2006. Brynildson, as nearly all brewers who age beer in oak, views these spent bourbon barrels as simply another ingredient at their disposal.

“The flavors that develop within a bourbon barrel throughout the long process of selecting wood, building and charring the barrel combined with the even longer spirit aging process creates a perfect medium for flavor development in beer. Those flavors pair so perfectly and effortlessly with well-made stouts. It’s a match made in heaven,” Brynildson said.

Years have passed since Goose Island, Sam Adams, Firestone Walker and the rest made bourbon barrel-aging beer cool. So many years that it became uncool, and now it’s cool again. Goose Island’s current brewmaster doesn’t think they’re going away any time soon.

“I think what makes them so appealing is the time, attention and care that goes into each barrel-aged beer,” Keith Gabbett said. “The quality that’s put into the barrel by the distilleries is further enhanced by the quality of the beer that we age in those barrels.”

Here are eight great options to see what all the hype is about.

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stouts to Try

Three Floyds Dark Lord

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ABV: 15%
Brewery Location: Munster, Indiana

Heavily demonic in many ways, Dark Lord is a good example as any of what bourbon barrels can do for a stout. It’s brewed coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar to create a very special drinking experience. Unfortunately, you may have a hard time finding it.

Learn More: Here

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout

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ABV: 15%
Brewery Location: Chicago, Illinois

The 2019 varietal of Bourbon County Brand Stout is aged in a mix of used Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey barrels. After all these years, it continues to be an impressive expression of the style — if not its very epitome. The rich mouthfeel increases double-fold the more you drink this one and it starts to taste like a double fudge brownie. You should be able to find it in all markets eventually this year.

Learn More: Here

Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops

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ABV: 12.4%
Brewery Location: Brooklyn, New York

This one is aged in Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon barrels and then re-fermented with Champagne yeast, making it something entirely different. The Champagne yeast brings a much fluffier mouthfeel to the table and is backed up with chocolate and coffee notes and a hint of vanilla-like oak. If you live in the Northeast, this should be one you’re able to get your hands on.

Learn More: Here

Revolution Brewing Deth’s Tar

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ABV: 14.8%
Brewery Location: Chicago, Illinois

Revolution Brewing is another Midwest brewery adept in the ways of oak-aged stouts. Using English specialty malts along with flaked and malted oats gives this one a soft, pillowy mouthfeel. Combined with the fact that it’s available in 12-ounce cans, this one can be a sneaky chocolate doozy. Midwesterners should find it readily available.

Learn More: Here

Kane Brewing Co. A Night to End All Dawns

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ABV: 12.4%
Brewery Location: Ocean, New Jersey

Kane Brewing Co. is a Garden State standout and has an exceptional barrel program. A Night to End All Dawns is the winner of a 2014 gold medal and 2018 silver medal at GABF and a 2016 gold medal at the World Beer Cup. Getting your hands on this one will be difficult, but if you’re around the New Jersey area when they release the beer, it’s worth seeking out.

Learn More: Here

Firestone Walker Parabola

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ABV: 12.7%
Brewery Location: Paso Robles, California

Parabola is consistently one of the top-rated beers in the world. The delicacy it brings to the palate at 12.7 percent is second-to-none. Thanks to a year-long maturation process in Heaven Hill barrels, it offers powerful bourbon-y vanilla notes. While it’s made in a limited capacity, thanks to Firestone Walker’s national footprint you can probably find this one when it gets released annually.

Learn More: Here

Toppling Goliath Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout

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ABV: 13%
Brewery Location: Decorah, Iowa

Probably one of the harder-to-find beers on this list, Iowa-based Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout is currently rated number one in the world on Beer Advocate for American Imperial Stout. It’s brewed with coffee for an extra kick and is described by the brewery as, “Chocolate chip pancakes drenched with maple syrup served with espresso and a shot of bourbon, all in one sip.” You have to enter a raffle to even get the chance to buy a ticket to the release to buy one bottle of KBBS. It’s possible to find bottles online, but you’ll certainly have to pay a pretty penny.

Learn More: Here

Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation

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ABV: 13.55%
Brewery Location: Anaheim, California

Bottle Logic is one of the newer breweries on this list but has already established itself as a major player in the bourbon barrel stout style. Fundamental Observation was aged in four different types of bourbon barrels and blended with Madagascar vanilla beans. The ultra-creamy beer is currently number six in the world on Beer Advocate for American Imperial Stout and is a bit hard to come by if you don’t live in Southern California.

Learn More: Here

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