If you’re a regular reader, you know that bourbon makes bad things bearable and good things great—even when those things are beer, and therefore already awesome. There’s definitely a time and a place for boilermakers (very late at night or very early in the morning), but my favorite bourbon and beer team-up comes from the increasingly-popular trend of aging beers in bourbon barrels. After the bourbon has aged in the barrels, they’re sold to brewers, who then age their beers (most commonly stouts, Scotch ales, and barley wines) in them in order to pick up some of the smokey, caramelly flavors the bourbon left behind. Some of these beers are limited releases—breweries will take a favorite, year-round stout and do a limited run of a bourbon-barrel aged version—and some of them are seasonal offerings, but all of them are worth getting your hands on.
Brewed first in 1992, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is arguably the OG of bourbon barrel-aging (and, for that matter, the entire barrel-aging trend). BCS is released once a year after aging in Jim Beam barrels for 100 days. And, despite Goose Island’s buy-out by Anheuser-Busch, the rich, chocolate, and undeniably boozy beer is still a great bet that can be enjoyed immediately when you buy it, or cellared for up to five years.
While stouts are some of the most popular types of beer to be barrel-aged, Founders’ Backwoods Bastard, a Scotch ale, is one of the most highly regarded. It’s another yearly release, and it’s perfect for fall weather, with hints of candied yams, smokey oaks, and barely a hint of its 10% ABV. Though most of the bourbon notes come through upfront, It’s heavy, it’s sticky, and it’s a beer that’s definitely not messing around.
If you’re like many of the Bourbon & Banter team, you’ve got a healthy respect for Wild Turkey—and in that case, Anderson Valley’s Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout is the beer for you. Since Anderson Valley has an exclusive partnership with Wild Turkey (and therefore have a consistent source of used barrels), this beer is a little easier to find year-round. You’ll definitely want it year-round, too, with everything from smoked gouda to beer-and-ice-cream floats.
Maybe I’ll get in trouble for telling you about this one, but it’s honestly too good not to spread the wealth: Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops. When asked about Black Ops, the brewery responded with: “We have no idea what you’re talking about, and if there was such a beer, we would certainly not be able to tell you it’s released every November in exceedingly small quantities.” Well then. Guess if you get some, it’s best to keep it to yourself, especially since this stout is aged for three months in Woodford Reserve barrels, lending it a charred vanilla finish. The mouthfeel on this one is a little lighter than most (possibly due to the Champagne yeast used to bottle re-ferment the brews), so if you’re looking for a more approachable option, this is it.
(EXTRA CREDIT: If you’re really feeling ambitious, try hunting down some of Brooklyn’s Cuvee Elijah—one of their elusive “ghost bottles” not available for wide release. It’s aged in—you guessed it—Elijah Craig 12 year barrels, and picks up a bit of coconut from there.)