How the South’s Bourbon Culture Changed Craft Beer

Love a bourbon barrel–aged stout? You can thank a wild and crazy idea cooked up by Jim Beam and Goose Island.

Todd Ahsmann slides the six-ounce tasting glass closer to him, gently swirls the dark brown liquid therein, and then lifts the glass to his nose, breathing in deeply. 

“I’m getting a bit of chocolate on the nose,” he says.

Then Ahsmann takes a sip, observing the fluid with his tongue, opening his mouth to let fresh oxygen unlock layer upon layer of flavor, even after he has swallowed.

“There’s vanilla, some molasses,” he says. “Some cherry, almond…oak on the back end.”

Ahsmann’s voice echoes against vaulted ceilings and brick walls lined with charred white-oak barrels, stacked four high, each filled with aging alcohol. But this isn’t a typical Kentucky rickhouse, nor is it some cellar in the heart of Napa wine country. It’s the Goose Island Barrel House, where the Chicago-based craft-beer pioneers age their imperial stout for up to sixteen months in used bourbon barrels. 

Tonight, Ahsmann, president of Goose Island, is leading an advance tasting of 2022’s Bourbon County Brand Stout(BCS), released annually nationwide on Black Friday and hunted by beer lovers for weeks thereafter. This year, the brewery is commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the night Goose Island brewmaster Gregory Hall met Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe II at a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in Indiana, and on a whim, the two came up with the wild idea of aging Hall’s then-unremarkable imperial stout in some of Noe’s freshly emptied Jim Beam barrels. The result has become one of the best-known and highest-rated beers in the world.

It’s also, arguably, one of the most influential. When Goose Island began to develop the Bourbon County Stout in the early 1990s, American beer could be summed up in three words: Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch. For decades, the triumvirate of mega-brewers had flooded the country with slightly different versions of the same yellow lager that was, to put it mildly, easy on the palate. Meanwhile, the coming craft beer revolution was only just starting to bubble over from the basements of hobbyist homebrewers. Even the most novel homespun IPA or porter was still largely looked at—and guzzled—as the same working-class libation European immigrants had brought over three centuries before.

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