These days, it’s easy to take bourbon barrel-aged stouts for granted. It seems like they’re everywhere and practically every brewery makes one. One of these robust, sweet, oaky, whiskey barrel-aged beers is such a no-brainer on a cold evening that it’s surprising to consider that it wasn’t always like this. Not only weren’t barrel-aged stouts once a lot harder to find, but prior to 1992, the style didn’t even exist.
That was the year when Goose Island’s brewmaster, Greg Hall got an idea to make a special beer to celebrate the Chicago brewery’s 1,000th batch. He met Booker Noe at an event in South Bend, Indiana, and managed to get some bourbon barrels from the famed Jim Beam master distiller. Eventually, that interaction and those barrels would lead to what we know now as Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
Since this year is 30th anniversary of the iconic, industry-changing, barrel-aged stout, we thought it’d be fitting to pay homage by ranking eight of our favorites. Lots of these beers are pretty easy to find at your local, and you can thank Greg Hall and Booker Noe for that.
8) Guinness Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout
Average Price: $21.99 for a four-pack
When Guinness opened its Stateside brewery in Maryland it was quickly clear the iconic Irish brewery was ready to start experimentings. While it has since made a handful of barrel-aged stouts, its original bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout is loaded with bourbon, vanilla, chocolate, and dried fruit flavors.
The nose starts with a nice mix of sweet bourbon, caramel, and a lot of alcohol smell. Surprisingly, the palate itself is a little more muted than expected for a barrel-aged beer. There are roasty, malty, caramel and, chocolate flavors, sweet bourbon, and raisins. Overall, it’s a little muted and watery than I’m used to.
This is a good effort from Guinness. It’s not a bad beer, it’s just that when you compare it to some of the popular versions on the market, it’s not quite at the same level.
7) New Holland Dragon’s Milk
Average Price: $16.99 for a four-pack
One of the more popular barrel-aged beers on the market, New Holland Dragon’s Milk is technically a year-round offering. But this bourbon-barrel aged, sweet, vanilla, oaky, and chocolate-filled imperial stout just tastes better on a cold fall day.
Bold notes of vanilla beans, woody oak, sweet bourbon, and fudge greet your nostrils before your first sip. The palate continues this trend with some coffee, chocolate, vanilla, and dried fruit notes. Its only downfall is that it’s sweeter than it probably needs to be. It makes it seem more like a dessert beer.
This sweetness element to this beer makes it more likely to be enjoyed during dessert than as an evening beer. It’s just too sweet otherwise. We suggest pouring it over ice cream.
6) Oskar Blues Ten FIDY Barrel-Aged
Average Price: $20 for a four-pack
When it comes to barrel-aged stouts, there are few as confusing as Oskar Blues Barrel-Aged Ten FIDY. The reason is the name refers to the alcohol content of regular Ten FIDY which is (you guessed it) 10.50% ABV. The barrel-aged version is 12.50% ABV. Shouldn’t this limited-release vanilla and oak-filled beer be called Twelve FIDY instead?
On the nose, you’ll find raisins, vanilla beans, chocolate, oaky wood, and bourbon sweetness. Drinking it reveals roasted malts, freshly brewed coffee, chocolate, vanilla, and more woody oak. The finish is warming and loaded with caramel and rich oak. The only downfall is that it all tastes a little generic.
This barrel-aged stout has everything fans of this style look for and it’s not a bad beer by any means. It’s just that all of the flavors taste a little generic and unexciting.
5) Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal
Average Price: $15.99 for a four-pack
The narwhal is the unicorn of the sea that at some point was thought to be more of a myth than a reality. This legendary sea creature is the perfect embodiment of the barrel-aged stout style. Sierra Nevada harnessed its power. It rested its Narwhal Imperial Stout in bourbon barrels to create this malty, vanilla, bourbon monstrosity.
Before your first sip, you’ll be met with aromas of charred oak, freshly brewed coffee, sweet bourbon, and toasted vanilla beans. The palate is swirling with flavors like raisins, dried cherries, rich chocolate, toasted vanilla beans, marshmallows, coffee, and warming bourbon at the very finish.
Sierra Nevada Narwhal might not have the name recognition of some of the other barrel-aged beers on this list, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it. It’s up there with the best of them.
4) Founders KBS
Average Price: $22 for a four-pack
Besides the iconic Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (and all of its various annual offshoots) there aren’t any barrel-aged beers as well-known as Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. This isn’t your usual barrel-aged stout. It’s brewed with coffee and chocolate before resting in ex-bourbon barrels.
The nose is all chocolate fudge, bold espresso beans, vanilla, cinnamon, and rich oak. The inviting nose brings you to an even more indulgent palate of dark chocolate, coffee, toasted vanilla beans, marshmallow, dried fruits, sweet bourbon, and oak. The finish is warming, sweet, and lightly spicy.
If you only drink one barrel-aged stout, we won’t be surprised if you pick Founders KBS. It’s a master class in barrel-aging stouts. The only caveat is that if you prefer not to have the addition of coffee and chocolate, you’ll want to try something else.
3) Firestone Walker Parabola
Average Price: $9.99 for a 12-ounce bottle
One of the most sought-after barrel-aged beers on the market, Firestone Walker Parabola spends more than a year aging in premium bourbon barrels. The result is a highly complex, warming, bold imperial stout with notes of chocolate, coffee, charred wood, and vanilla.
Complex aromas of freshly brewed coffee, toasted vanilla beans, dried cherries, and oak are prevalent on the nose. The palate is loaded with notes of raisins, oak, bourbon, pipe tobacco, vanilla beans, toffee, and light cinnamon. It’s bold, warming, bittersweet, and highly memorable.
There’s a reason Firestone Walker Parabola is such a popular beer. This barrel-aged imperial stout ticks all the bold, warming beer boxes.
2) Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
Average Price: $13.99 for a 16.9-ounce bottle
This is the OG barrel-aged stout that started it all. It’s easier to find and just as popular today as it was years ago. And for good reason. While every year there are various versions of this beer, the classic Bourbon County Stout is aged and blended from ex-bourbon barrels from the likes of Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, and Buffalo Trace.
Bourbon, bitter chocolate, dried fruits, roasted coffee, caramel, and oak are big-time aromas in this beer. That bold flavor profile continues to the palate with toffee, rich oak, more bourbon sweetness, vanilla beans, coffee, and fudgy chocolate. It’s indulgently creamy, rich, and warming.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout is the pinnacle of barrel-aged stouts for myriad reasons. It’s always highly complex, balanced, and flavorful. It never has an off year.
1) Great Divide Barrel Aged Yeti Imperial Stout
Average Price: $12.50 for a 16-ounce can
While we enjoy Great Divide Barrel Aged Yeti every year, the most recent release was matured for a full 12 months in whiskey barrels from nearby Laws Whiskey House. This results in an oaky, vanilla, and caramel-filed banger of a beer.
A nose of caramel malts, chocolate fudge, sticky toffee, vanilla beans, toasted marshmallows, and rich, bold oak greet you before your first sip. The palate doesn’t disappoint with notes of buttery caramel, pipe tobacco, cocoa powder, sweet bourbon, vanilla beans, maple candy, and more woody oak. It’s warming, rich, and definitely leaves you craving more.
When we got down to the bottom of this list, it was a bit of a toss-up. All of these last few beers are almost perfect. The thing that put Great Divide’s version over the top was the massive amount of flavors found throughout.