Bourbon County Stout is a legend, but probably not as old as we think


When I began working on a book about Goose Island Beer Co., its sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev and the many ways Goose Island has influenced and reflected the broader craft beer industry, one tale was always sure to play prominently.

The birth of Bourbon County Stout.

Legend says that the industry’s first stout aged in a bourbon barrel was initially tapped in 1992, at Goose Island’s Clybourn Avenue brewpub. Many articles about Bourbon County have cited that date during recent years. Bourbon County promotional materials do the same. Even the bottles say it, right there in the brown glass, between the words BOURBON and COUNTY — “Since 1992.”

But on the eve of this year’s release, I’ve concluded that there’s almost no chance that Bourbon County Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of interviews and hours of research point to the first keg of Bourbon County Stout being tapped in 1995.

Goose Island did not comment specifically about my conclusion, but former brewmaster Greg Hall said in a statement through the brewery that 1992 has been a guess based on simple math.

“My best estimate whenever I’m asked of when Bourbon County Stout started is 1992, so that’s what the brewery has based the Bourbon County Stout origin date on for years,” Hall said in the statement. “That’s based on our average of 200 brews a year beginning in 1988 at the Clybourn Brewpub, and we brewed the first batch of Bourbon County Stout to celebrate our 1,000th brew.”

While those numbers make sense, I’ve found no evidence to corroborate them, and plenty that points to 1995.

Percy Young, who worked as Greg Hall’s assistant brewmaster from April 1995 to April 1996, said he’s “100 percent sure” that the beer was first tapped at the brewpub in late 1995. As he recalled, the barrels arrived late that summer during an intense heat wave, and were filled with a Russian imperial stout that he and Greg made.

Young said Hall had started talking earlier that summer about his plans for the project.

“I was stoked,” said Young, who left the brewing industry in 2000 after a stint at Summit Brewing Co. and now lives in San Francisco. “I thought it would be phenomenal flavors working together. I firmly credit Greg with coming up with that first in American craft brewing.”

If 1995 is in fact true, what to make of this discovery? On one hand, it’s just trivia. OK, so Bourbon County Stout bottles might say “Since 1995” instead of “Since 1992” going forward. But what’s more interesting is how the origins of BCS fit into the fascinating rise of the American craft beer industry.

According to the Brewers Association trade group, the nation was home to 359 breweries in 1992 — a wisp of a number compared with the 4,269 operating by the end of 2015. In 1992, the craft beer industry was still in its toddler phase, figuring out how to move beyond mostly mimicking European styles and how to create something that was unique and wholly its own. (Sierra Nevada had done something truly extraordinary by making a pale ale its flagship more than 10 years earlier, but that’s another story.)

Bourbon County Stout has been as influential as any single beer in the history and growth of the $106 billion craft beer industry; as most breweries will tell you, the easiest path to wowing drinkers in 2016 is with a bourbon barrel-aged stout. Done right, it is a beautiful tangle of chocolate, vanilla, booze, oak, coffee and char all mingling in one silky body. And Goose Island is largely credited with doing it first.

Coming out in 1992 would have made Bourbon County Stout remarkably ahead of its time. Instead, it was simply ahead of its time — three years later (most likely), when the nation was up to nearly 1,000 breweries, growing like mad and finding its footing as a source of vision and innovation.

Here’s why I suspect that Bourbon County Stout was first released in 1995:

The earliest mentions of Bourbon County Stout in the LexisNexis database of newspaper and magazine articles is 1995. The first was about a beer dinner in London that October. The next was in the Chicago Tribune a couple of weeks later, in an article about that year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The lack of earlier mentions is hardly a smoking gun, but it’s difficult to imagine that such a landscape-altering beer would have escaped the notice of two major Chicago daily newspapers and other media for three years. While craft beer was not covered at that time with the same intensity that it is now, the Tribune and Sun-Times reliably mentioned Goose Island in local beer coverage at least once or twice a year. Odds are that BCS would have been noticed.

Greg Hall, whose father, John, started the brewery in 1988, told me that Goose Island brought the beer to the first Great American Beer Festival that took place after it was made. The first GABF where Bourbon County Stout was poured? It was 1995. The beer also won its first GABF medal that year, an honorable mention in the Strong Ale category. There is no evidence that Bourbon County Stout was brought to GABF any sooner. (Young said that the beer sent to GABF hadn’t aged the full 100 days, but still tasted outstanding.)

The first time that the 1992 date was publicly mentioned, according to a LexisNexis search, was a 2006 article in the Tribune. With no previous mention of 1992 as the origin date, it’s not hard to believe that the actual date of the first brew had faded from memory during 11 busy years. If 1992 had first been claimed in, say, 1994, I’d assign a lot more merit to the claim.

Though years of old brewing logs have turned up at the Clybourn brewpub, the log that includes the date of the first BCS brew was never found, Hall has told me — which leaves us with a guessing game.

Hall told me that one of the inspirations for Bourbon County was Sam Adams Triple Bock, an 18 percent alcohol strong ale aged in whiskey barrels. That beer had people marveling at its huge boozy nature reminiscent of port or brandy. In response, Hall said, he wanted to age a beer in a bourbon barrel that was unmistakably beer. The problem? Triple Bock was released three times: in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Hall was certain that Triple Bock had been released when BCS was first tapped. Which makes 1992 an impossibility.

Most compelling are the details behind how Bourbon County Stout came to be. Hall has said repeatedly — and told me during interviews for the book — that Bourbon County’s roots stretch to a beer, bourbon and cigar dinner at a South Bend, Ind., restaurant called LaSalle Grill. Hall represented the beer portion of the evening and Booker Noe, of Jim Beam, spoke on behalf of bourbon. At that dinner, Hall has said, he asked Noe for the Jim Beam bourbon barrels that ultimately housed the first batches of Bourbon County Stout. I tracked down the owner of LaSalle Grill, Mark McDonnell, who did some digging and said that the dinner in question was on Oct. 5, 1994. If the first batch of Bourbon County Stout was aged 100 days in bourbon barrels as the brewery has said, it would have had to be released in 1995.

It’s important to remember that craft beer has only recently taken on its professional, billion-dollar sheen. Until 2011 or so — coincidentally, the year Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev — it was very much a scruffy, shoot-from-the-hip industry. The year 1992 probably seemed right as the genesis of Bourbon County, and so it became part of the story. Hall was named brewmaster of the Clybourn brewpub in 1991, so it was entirely plausible. Just probably not correct.

So when you crack open bottles of this year’s Bourbon County releases, don’t forget to raise a toast: Happy 21st birthday to you, Bourbon County Stout. You’re finally old enough to drink yourself.


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