If you’re a fan of craft beer, you’re probably fairly acquainted with barrel-aged brews. For the uninitiated, barrel-aged beer is aged in wooden barrels for months (or years) to impart various flavors. Due to the residual flavors in the barrel and the sugars in the wood, the flavors that might emerge include vanilla, caramel, and charred oak notes from a whiskey barrel; tannins from a wine barrel; or even funky-yeasty, tart flavors from the addition of yeast like Brettanomyces in the aging process (while the beer is in the barrel).
The most well-known American version of the barrel-aged bunch is Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (and all of its offshoots). But barrel aging has a long history in Belgium, England, and Germany before even hitting the U.S. Also, we’re not just talking bourbon barrel-aged (like Goose Island). Aging in wine, various other whiskey styles, port barrels, or even sherry casks are all increasing in popularity.
Bourbon is the most common choice in the U.S. and it’s mostly used to mature port and stout beers. For this blind test, I decided to pick six popular bourbon barrel-aged stouts, one wine barrel-aged brown ale, and one barrel-aged stout that has Champagne yeast added to it. I blindly tasted and then ranked each according to its flavor.
Our lineup today is:
- Russian River Supplication
- Firestone Walker Parabola
- Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
- Great Divide Barrel-Aged Yeti
- Brooklyn Black Ops
- New Holland Dragon’s Milk
- Founders KBS
- Guinness Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout
Let’s barrel on!
Part 1: The Taste
The nose is filled with scents of raisins, dark chocolate, toasted malts, and sweet, rich bourbon. On the palate, I found dried cherries, figs, wood char, buttery caramel, and warming, bold, whiskey that tempers everything together well.
From my notes: “A truly remarkable brew.”
This is a very chocolate-centric beer. This is completely evident in the nose. There are also hints of vanilla and espresso. The palate swirl with more coffee beans, vanilla cream, dark chocolate, wood char, and sweet bourbon. Slight dried cherry tannins at the finish add to a unique, exciting flavor.
This beer’s nose is extremely potent in the best possible way. I noticed chocolate fudge, bold oak, and sweet vanilla beans. Once I drank it, I found hints of warming whiskey, rich butterscotch, dried cherries, cocoa, and a gentle nutty flavor.
It’s all held together with a nice oaky, vanilla backbone.
Taking a moment to breathe in the aromas, I found scents of freshly brewed coffee and chocolate. I didn’t find anything else, but there are worse smells to be met with. One sip revealed flavors of toasted vanilla beans, bold oak, more vanilla, butterscotch, and slight salinity.
From my notes: “This is definitely a memorable beer but could use more sweet bourbon flavor.”
On the nose, I find notable dark chocolate, sweet bourbon, and oak wood aromas. They’re followed by flavors of milk chocolate, roasted malts, vanilla beans, toffee, and warming, sweet whiskey throughout. This beer has more bourbon warmth than many of the other options on the market and I’m a big fan.
A lot is going on with this beer’s nose. There are notes of bitter chocolate, coffee, rich oak, vanilla, and slight bourbon sweetness. Taking a sip only emphasizes the aromas. On top of chocolate, oak, toasted vanilla, and more bourbon, there’s a nice jolt of freshly brewed coffee to tie everything together.
The nose is roasted malts and coffee with a slight hint of whiskey, but that’s about it. Sipping it, revealed a bit of woody oak, some dark chocolate, slight vanilla, and sweet corny bourbon. The finish was a mix of bourbon and vanilla.
Overall, not the most exciting barrel-aged beer, but not bad either.
One of these things is not like the other. This beer is visibly different from the others in appearance and the nose shows it even more. There are notes of ripe berries, sour cherries, and slight yeast and malts. The flavor is tart and loaded with hints of sour cherries, slight citrus, and wine-like tannins that make this a truly unique flavor experience.
Part 2: The Ranking
Well, the winding road of beer sampling has finally reached its pinnacle. Keep scrolling to reveal the final rankings.
8) Guinness Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout (Taste 7)
Average Price: $20 for a four-pack
In the last few decades, Guinness has branched out with new craft breweries in Dublin, Ireland, and Baltimore, Maryland. And, with the help of the latter brewery, Guinness joined the world of barrel-aged beers. This stout was created specifically to be matured in bourbon barrels. One version was aged in Bulleit barrels, but the more recent offering doesn’t tell which distillery the barrels come from.
As barrel-aged beers go, this one had a fairly generic, mass-produced flavor. It’s not bad. It’s just not particularly great.
7) New Holland Dragon’s Milk (Taste #4)
Average Price: $17 for a four-pack
This aptly named, increasingly popular eleven percent ABV stout was aged for three months in specifically selected bourbon barrels. This highly regarded beer is one of the best-selling barrel-aged beers in the country for good reason. It’s known for its mix of oak, toasted malts, and chocolate.
I enjoyed this beer. I would have enjoyed a little more whiskey sweetness and warmth though. Overall, a decent take on the style that I’d drink again.
6) Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (Taste #6)
Average Price: $17 for a four-pack
For year’s, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (and its Canadian iteration) was one of the most eagerly-awaited beers when it was released in limited quantities. It’s much easier to get now, but that hasn’t taken away from its quality. This 12 percent ABV barrel-aged imperial stout gets added flavor from the addition of coffee and chocolate.
This is a fairly intense barrel-aged beer. It has more chocolate and coffee flavors than some of the other beers on this list and that might be a little too bold for some palates.
5) Brooklyn Black Ops (Taste #2)
Average Price: $24 for a 750ml bottle
Brooklyn is a big name in the brewing world. Brewmaster Garret Oliver is known for his exciting, pioneering beers. Brooklyn Black Ops carries on that tradition. This 12.4 percent ABV imperial stout is barrel-aged in barrels that formerly held Four Roses bourbon and refermented with Champagne yeast. The result is a bold, rich, memorable beer.
This is a very complicated beer. While it’s obviously whiskey aged, this stout has some subtle wine-like flavors to leave me deeply intrigued.
4) Great Divide Barrel-Aged Yeti (Taste #5)
Average Price: $11.99 for a 16-ounce can
This 12.5 percent ABV, seasonal imperial stout is aged for a full year (or more) in barrels that formerly held whiskey. This results in a vanilla-forward, warming, rich, winter beer that Great Divide drinkers eagerly await each winter.
While all barrel-aged stouts are designed for fans of both stouts and whiskey, this one goes above and beyond with bold, rich whiskey flavor. It’s not to be missed if you want to understand this style.
3) Firestone Walker Parabola (Taste #1)
Average Price: $11 for a 12-ounce bottle
Firestone Walker is well-known for its IPAs and its iconic Pivo Pils. But the California brand also makes a handful of notable barrel-aged beers. One of its best is Parabola. This 13.6 percent ABV imperial stout is aged for at least a year in bourbon barrels. This results in a flavorful, bold beer that has countless fans.
This is a highly complex, well-balanced, flavorful barrel-aged beer that has so many various flavors and I’ll definitely need multiple samples to unlock them all.
2) Russian River Supplication (Taste #8)
Average Price: $15.99 for a 12-ounce bottle
The only non-stout on this list, Russian River Supplication is a sour brown ale that’s aged in pinot noir barrels for 12 months along with sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. It’s known for its funky, oaky, tart flavor.
This beer is funky, tart, and highly complex. It’s obviously not a stout like many of the other beers on this list but it’s a great example of how breweries are crafting and aging different styles.
1) Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (Taste #3)
Average Price: $14 for a 16.- ounce bottle
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout is the OG bourbon barrel-aged stout and still one of the most awarded and eagerly awaited. This year’s main expression is a barrel-aged (between eight and 14 months) imperial stout brewed with Millennium hops as well as 2-row, Black Caramel, Chocolate, and Munich malts as well as roasted barley.
You’ll have a hard time finding a better example of the style than this offering. I know that’s semi-predictable but… it’s also true. It’s bold, robust, sweet, and warming — ticks all of the barrel-aged boxes.