As the weather grows colder, it’s only a matter of time before your attention begins to turn toward the bold, brash, potent barrel-aged stout. These pitch black, indulgent, rich, robust craft beers begin with the stout you know and love and mature the brews in barrels (usually refill bourbon). The result is something completely unique — perfect to warm you up on the crispest of fall days.
Just like aging whiskey imparts various flavors, maturing a stout in a second fill bourbon barrels adds complex flavors of its own. Some of those are derived from the tannins in the wood, others come from the remnants of the bourbon itself. Typically you can expect notes of vanilla beans, dark chocolate, fudge, caramel, and charred oak. Depending on the barrel type, the beer may take on other flavors as well — sweeter, fruitier spirits like brandy might add a stonefruit nature.
Over the past decade, this style has rapidly gained momentum, with more breweries releasing their own versions every year. And since fall is fully here, we figured the time was right to do a blind taste test of some of the most well-known, beloved barrel-aged stouts on the market. From the OG Goose Island Bourbon County Stout to more contemporary offerings, I tried them all. Keep reading to see the other brews I selected, nosed, and tasted.
Part 1: The Taste
This could get a little tricky as, even though these are all stouts, the addition of various ingredients and aging vessels guarantees that all are nuanced, unique, and at least a little bit different. Still, in order to truly rank them, the blind taste test is the way to go. This way, there’s nothing to sway me in any direction besides my senses of taste and smell.
Here’s our lineup:
- Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
- Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
- Perennial Barrel-Aged Abraxas
- Deschutes Abyss
- Firestone Walker Parabola
- New Holland Dragon’s Milk
- Oskar Blues Barrel Aged Ten Fidy
- Great Divide Barrel Aged Yeti
Let’s get our stout on!
The nose is all bourbon, vanilla beans, and wood char, and not much else. Sipping it revealed more flavors like caramel, espresso beans, dark chocolate, and more sweet bourbon. But it still didn’t wow me.
It’s not a bad beer by any degree, it’s just a touch drier and more bitter than I’d prefer.
There’s a ton of oak, caramel malts, roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and dried fruits on the nose. The palate is a complex mix of dried cherries, toasted vanilla beans, butterscotch, dark chocolate, more coffee, and dry, oaky wood at the end.
A lot is going on with this beer’s nose. There are pronounced aromas of oaky wood, sweet caramel, vanilla beans, and freshly brewed coffee. The palate swirls with dark chocolate, more vanilla sweetness, dried berries, sweet bourbon, and a gentle nutty flavor throughout.
All in all, a fairly perfect aged stout.
Nosing this beer revealed brown sugar, caramel, and vanilla. The palate is filled with toffee, chocolate fudge, oak, and freshly brewed coffee. It’s rich, smooth, and sweet, but could be a little more nuanced than it is.
The bourbon flavor and alcohol are a bit strong.
I began by breathing in the aromas of coffee beans, dark chocolate, oak, and vanilla beans. Sipping it brought forth hints of sticky toffee, bitter chocolate, espresso, vanilla, and oak. The finish was warming, slightly sweet, and ended with a nice extra kick of caramel-like bourbon.
I was greeted with a complex nose of dried fruits, milk chocolate, roasted coffee beans, and wood char. The palate was loaded with caramel malts, sweet vanilla beans, dark chocolate, slight coconut, and a slightly bitter finish that left me wanting more.
This is a very aromatic beer. There are notes of dried fruits, dark chocolate, vanilla beans, and freshly brewed coffee. When I took a sip, I noted flavors of toffee, sweet bourbon, more coffee, dried cherries, and a gentle bitterness that rounded everything together nicely.
The aroma is highlighted by spicy, peppery notes that are tempered with sweet vanilla beans, light cinnamon, and dried fruits. The palate is more of the same, with a spicy heat upfront followed by dark chocolate, sweet caramel, vanilla, and a nice fruity sweetness that brings everything together.
Part 2: The Ranking
We’ve spent many articles blindly ranking various spirits, beer styles, and even cocktails, but a beer as refined, bold, and exciting as a barrel-aged stout brings that blind taste test to a whole new level. To rank these notable beers, I simply nosed and tasted each, writing down my initial perceptions of each beer’s aroma and flavor. That’s it. Simple, succinct, and easy.
But also… lots of surprises.
Keep reading to see just how everything turned out.
8) Oskar Blues Barrel Aged Ten Fidy (Taste 4)
Average Price: $20 for a four-pack
If you’re a stout fan, you’ve probably had the rich, chocolatey Ten Fidy. Named because this imperial stout carries an ABV of 10.5%, it’s only slightly confusing that the barrel-aged version is 12.5% (the liquid reduces with water evaporating to a larger degree).
It’s aged in former bourbon barrels for at least eight months. This imparts sweet vanilla, chocolate, and caramel flavors.
This beer packs a punch. And while this is expected with barrel-aged beers, the bourbon sweetness and overall alcohol flavor are a bit in your face.
7) New Holland Dragon’s Milk (Taste 1)
Average Price: $16.99 for a four-pack
While some brewery’s only release barrel-aged stouts once per year, New Holland Dragon’s Milk is available year-round. This bold 11% ABV imperial stout was matured for three months in ex-bourbon barrels. It’s known for its rich, coffee, and chocolate notes.
Rating and ranking high-quality barrel-aged stouts is very difficult. This is a great beer with a good mix of bourbon sweetness, nutty flavors, and a nice fruity sweetness. It also has a kick of bitter coffee and dark chocolate that might be too intense for some — apparently me, for instance.
Still, lots of folks swear by this one.
6) Great Divide Barrel Aged Yeti (Taste 6)
Average Price: $10 for a 12-ounce bottle
Great Divide’s Yeti is already a bold, rich, chocolate-filled imperial stout. Its barrel-aged version only ramps up the flavor by aging it for a full year in former whiskey barrels. This results in a smooth, oaky, sweet sipper guaranteed to warm you up on a cool night.
While a bitter finish can turn off some drinkers (depending on the beer), when complemented by other sweet fruity, nutty flavors, it’s extremely pleasing and welcome. This being ranked low is more of a testament to the quality of the field than anything else.
5) Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (Taste 5)
Average Price: $21 for a four-pack
In the pantheon of barrel-aged stouts, there are few more accomplished and beloved than Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Previously an eagerly awaited annual release, this bourbon barrel-aged coffee and chocolate stout is now available all year long.
This beer is extremely complex. There are bold coffee, chocolate, and caramel flavors that are only complimented by the sweet, warming flavor of bourbon.
4) Deschutes Abyss (Taste 2)
Average Price: $19 for a 22-ounce bottle
This 11% barrel-aged imperial stout is available year-round. Brewed with 2-Row Pale malts, roasted barley, black barley, black malt, chocolate, wheat, as well as Nugget, Cascade, and Delta hops, it’s aged in a different barrel type each year.
I tried the expression aged in former port wine barrels.
This is one of the most complex barrel-aged stouts I’ve ever tried. It’s obvious from the flavor that this one was aged in something besides bourbon. It’s fruitier and nuttier than the others.
3) Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (Taste 3)
Average Price: $24 for a four-pack
There is no barrel-aged beer as sought-after or well-known as Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Only released once per year, this iconic brew is aged in ex-bourbon barrels from the likes of Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace between eight and fourteen months.
This beer is a perfect example of the style with complementary flavors of bourbon, chocolate, oak, and dried fruits all working together in unison.
2) Perennial Barrel-Aged Abraxas (Taste 8)
Average Price: $24.99 for a 750ml bottle
Perennial Abraxis is an imperial stout that’s brewed with cinnamon, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and ancho chili peppers. It’s spicy, bold, and memorable. The brewery ramps up the flavor with its barrel-aged version that sits in former rye whiskey barrels for 15-17 months.
This is definitely a unique beer and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a warming, spicy heat that pairs well with the smoother, silkier barrel-aged flavors.
1) Firestone Walker Parabola (Taste 7)
Average Price: $10.99 for a 12-ounce bottle
Firestone Walker is one of those breweries where you’d have to try really hard to find a beer that wasn’t a banger. Its take on the barrel-aged beer is the much sought-after Parabola. It’s an imperial stout that’s aged for a full year in former bourbon barrels. This results in a well-balanced, sweet, chocolate, and vanilla-filled sipper.
This beer is bold, rich, and filled with bourbon sweetness, dried fruits, and dark chocolate. It’s utterly indulgent and completely memorable. Tastes like a decadent chocolate dessert in a pint glass.
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