We Tried Goose Island's Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout. Here's How It Went

Beer is not immune from the shopping insanity that is Black Friday. Per American Craft Beer, famed Chicago-based brewery Goose Island traditionally unveils its ever-growing roster of Bourbon County Stout brews on the shopping day of all shopping days, and this year was no exception. Beyond the standard flagship barrel-aged stout, seven additional variants were released in 2021, including the latest entry in the Proprietor's series.

Goose Island brewer Emily Kosmal exclusively told Mashed that Proprietor's is "our thank you to everybody that lives in Chicago and supports Goose Island all year, not just Black Friday." Kosmal has a particular affinity for the Proprietor's blend, as she has come up with the recipe for the limited release in three separate years, this year's trio of flavors. While the initial Proprietor's release earned raves from reviewers on RateBeer with a just simple hit of toasted coconut, the adjuncts have become more complex over the years, and the 2021 version is no exception.

If you have a thirst for a decadent, fruit-forward, highly exclusive barrel-aged beer, keep reading, because we've compiled everything you need to know about the 2021 Goose Island Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout.

The inspiration behind the 2021 Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout

According to Kosmal, each year around 15 to 30 recipe ideas for the Proprietor's blend are submitted by members of the Goose Island team right after Christmas. "We have plain Bourbon County which all the brewers — or really anyone in operations — can take home and play around with," she said. "We'll have several tasting sessions throughout that month to narrow it down. You don't put your name on it, you just put the ingredients. It gets internally voted by our Bourbon County experts, if you will. Based on what everyone rates highly and what seems to taste the best, that's what's moving forward."

Kosmal previously had success with her 2016 pitch, as well as 2020's spumoni-inspired combo of cacao nibs, pistachios, Amarena cherries, and vanilla. This time around, she had ice cream on her mind again, mainly because she was pregnant at the time of the tasting trials and had constant cravings for strawberry shortcake bars. "Even being nine months sober won't stop me from creating a Bourbon County variant," she laughed.

While strawberry and vanilla were obvious flavor additions, Kosmal had some difficulty figuring out how to represent the ice cream bar's crumble exterior. She ended up adding a hint of coconut. "The coconut definitely is grounding it all out," she said. "It's the flavor that's least there, but it's meant to be that way. Strawberry is the shining star here. Then, everything else is there to back it up."

How much does it cost?

Having a stout rest in used bourbon barrels takes up expensive warehouse space for several months. Loading it with tons of fruit and vanilla flavor is a pricey process too, so it's no surprise that a bottle of Goose Island Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout doesn't come cheap. Goose Island told us that they sell this particular brew for $30. For comparison, that's over twice as much as you'd pay for a bottle of the standard version on Drizly. Keep in mind that, just like every Bourbon County Stout release nowadays, a bottle of the Proprietor's is 16.9 ounces (aka 500 milliliters), while many of its barrel-aged competitors are available in "bombers," which run 22 ounces (via Craftshack). Proprietor's does, however, come in a fancy box, so go ahead and factor that into the equation.

Now, is it worth the hefty price tag? Well, we haven't even covered how it tastes yet, so we'll have to get back to you on that a little later. But even if you decide it's worth the splurge, tracking down a bottle may not be so easy.

Where can I find it?

What's inside the bottle isn't what makes Proprietor's special to the residents of Chicago (Portillo's hot dogs and the tears of anguished Bears fans have yet to be tapped as adjuncts). Its Windy City connection has to do with where it is sold. While the rest of Bourbon County Stout line is available across the country, Proprietor's is sold exclusively in and around Chicago. While a few of this year's releases are especially hard to come by, it's no surprise that Prop is the most limited bottle of them all.

Our advice: If you're in the area or planning to visit Chicago sometime soon, call up Binny's or other local retailers of fine beer to ask if they have Proprietor's in stock, though prepare yourself for a surly "no," which will often be preceded by a sigh of exasperation (sorry, you're not the only one hunting it down). If you do happen to get an affirmative response, before you get your hopes up, make sure to ask how much it costs. Oftentimes stores will jack the price up to two or three times what Goose Island charges, which, as a reminder, is already quite high.

But don't despair, there is another option. As of publication, the Goose Island Clybourn Brewhouse is still pouring the 2021 Proprietor's on tap along with a slew of other Bourbon County offerings, including some vintage variants you likely won't find anywhere else.

The taste test

How does the 2021 Proprietor's Bourbon County Stout actually taste? First, a word from our brewer. Kosmal recommends using a snifter as a drinking vessel to capture the aromas. Also, it's best not to enjoy it straight from the fridge. She recommends bringing the stout to "'holding it in your hand' temperature. A lot more flavors will come out of it as it warms up." 

Let's start with the obvious: Strawberry haters need not apply. Take a sniff and the fruit is readily apparent on the nostrils. On the palate, it's a full-on jam session, the beer equivalent of a 23-minute version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" that Peter Jackson will surely unearth somewhere down the road. We've tried a cornucopia of fruited stouts in our day, but the strawberries in this one are particularly prominent. Eventually, that classic Bourbon County Stout rush of rich fudge and barrel spice emerges, followed by a faint hint of vanilla and maybe, possibly, a feather-light touch of coconut. All the while, that juicy strawberry keeps on flowing.

While we were excited for a taste of some strawberry shortcake nostalgia, this year's Proprietor's falls more into the chocolate-covered strawberry camp, and that's just fine with us, at least in moderation. It's not the booze — the 12.8% ABV is actually at the lower end of the Bourbon County Stout spectrum — but rather the rush of strawberry sweetness that makes this beer highly recommended for sharing or saving for a second day of sipping.

The final verdict

Let's review: Hard to find beer. A price tag of $30 (minimum). Goes down like liquid chocolate-covered strawberries. If any or all of that is hard to swallow, we understand. For those unfamiliar with barrel-aged stouts or the Goose Island Bourbon County line, dipping your toe in the pool with Proprietor's might feel like jumping into "Westworld" in the middle of Season 3.

But for the card-carrying beer geek and Bourbon County Stout enthusiast, it's worth tracking down. It's not "immediately book a flight to O'Hare" mind-blowing (few, if any beers would be), but if you can score a bottle by cashing in a favor from a friend or family member in Chicago, you should. Try reminding them that the holidays are coming up and they should check your list!

Another thing to keep in mind is that while Proprietor's doesn't have an official "drink by" date, the package notes that the stout "develops in the bottle for up to two years," so if you manage to snag it, consider saving it for Valentine's Day or another special occasion (here's another reminder to share this with someone else). Or, perhaps, if at all possible, buy two, pop one now, and save the other for further down the road to taste whether or not it improves with age.