The special release celebrates the meeting between Goose Island’s Greg Hall and Knob Creek’s Booker Noe that inspired the very first Bourbon County Stout.
Goose Island Beer Company
Credit: Courtesy of Goose Island Beer Company

As sometimes happens in history, one of the biggest trends in modern craft brewing actually began as little more than a chance encounter. Back in the early ‘90s, Booker Noe—a big name in the distilling world thanks in no small part to his grandfather, Jim Beam—was attending a beer, bourbon and cigar pairing dinner when he met Greg Hall, the brewmaster of a then up-and-coming Chicago brewpub called Goose Island. At the time, Noe, who had taken up the family legacy as a master distiller for the Jim Beam Distillery, was heavily involved in a new small-batch brand called Knob Creek. Meanwhile, Hall had a special project of his own: Goose Island’s Clybourn Brewpub was about to brew its 1,000th batch, and he wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. In many ways, all of the whiskey barrel-aged, special release beers that have taken the craft brewing world by storm began that night.

“They discussed all sorts of things,” says Fred Noe, Booker’s son and the current master distiller behind Knob Creek, “and what started out as a simple conversation between two men [led to] the tradition of Goose Island’s barrel-aged beer.”

Not long after their talk, Booker sent Hall four bourbon barrels, resulting in the first-ever batch of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. And though some debate has been raised as to whether Goose Island was the first brewery to ever age its beer in whiskey barrels, no one will deny that the success of Bourbon County Stout is what blew the doors open for the trend.

This year, Goose Island is celebrating this meeting that first inspired the Bourbon County brand with one of the line’s most unique expressions in its two decade-plus history: Goose Island Reserve Bourbon County Brand Stout—a collaboration with none other than Knob Creek.

As current Goose Island brewmaster Jared Jankoski explains, unlike Original Bourbon County Brand Stout, which is aged in a variety of “second use, fresh-unrinsed, 5- to 7-year-old bourbon barrels," the Reserve is aged exclusively “in 11-year-old freshly emptied Knob Creek Bourbon barrels." Though the base beer—the stout that goes into the barrels—is identical in both versions, Jankoski says the choice of barrel makes a difference.

“We feel that the nuanced character of Knob Creek, a much longer matured bourbon, comes through subtly in Bourbon County Stout,” he tells us. “We have noticed notes of char and oak as well as coconut and subtle vanilla that seem to reflect Knob Creek come through in Reserve.”

Tried side-by-side, the differences, though indeed subtle, are clear. While both beers have a big nose of chocolate-covered fruit, the Reserve—which is inherently stronger (clocking in at 14.8 percent ABV compared to Original’s 14.1 percent)—has a boozy accent on the edges, almost like a Grand Marnier candy. Once on the tongue, both beers unfold in creamy waves, but the added alcohol of the Reserve seems to reward more time in the mouth and the finish is more complex with a nice lingering black licorice note compared to the Original’s slight alcoholic edge.

“The signature big, full flavor of Knob Creek makes a big impact in the overall flavor of Reserve compared to other stouts,” Noe explains. “You’ll notice familiar notes of charred oak and vanilla with the added depth contributed by the aging process.”

To assure myself these differences weren’t just in my head, I went back for a blind taste test after dissecting each beer’s unique qualities, and I had little trouble identifying which beer was which. Jankoski said the Goose Island brewers took an equally academic approach. “This was such a great project because we were able to compare the beers side by side and we are all fans of Knob Creek, so hunting around for these nuances is fun and a great learning opportunity for us,” he said.

But another great part of the 2017 Reserve project is its ability to honor the bourbon barrel-aged beer legacy, not just for Goose Island, but for barrel-aged beers in general.

“Dad was a natural born innovator and believed that everything was better in bourbon,” Noe tells us. “All these years later, [that initial] conversation between two passionate craftsmen thinking big has finally culminated in this special collaboration between the two brands.” The Reserve has an added significance for Knob Creek as well. “This release coincides with Knob Creek Bourbon’s 25th Anniversary as a brand, and it’s the only bourbon in the series that pays tribute to the start of Goose Island’s barrel-aged beer, which began almost two decades ago from this introduction between my dad and Greg,” he says.

As has become the tradition, all of 2017’s Bourbon County Brand Stouts—including the Original, the Reserve and four other varieties—will be released on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.