Good Beer Hunting

Grit & Grain — The Final Chapter — The Biggest Whale of All

The funny thing about Goose Island Rare — it seems like the last chapter of Grit & Grain, but really, the moment those 35 year-old Heaven Hill barrels showed up at Goose’s front door, the question of “what can we do?” never stopped being asked. It’s the chapter that started everything.

When the casks showed up, they weren’t quite as sloshy as the crew is used to. The warehouse team usually gets first dibs on the puddles of bourbon the sweat out and collect in the bottom of the barrels on the long road north from Kentucky. Whatever the angels and distillers don’t take become the property of the brewers. But these 35 year barrels were almost bone dry, save for some boozy humidity still trapped in the wood. And that means this Rare redux would be less about the bourbon, and more about the oak itself.

I’ll never forget my first Rare. That chocolate marshmallow of a bourbon beer, smooth as velvet in the winter of 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few more in the years to follow, counting them against the unknown stockpile of Chicago’s beer hoarders. Thankfully, I won’t have to give up on that memory either, because this year’s Rare occupies a completely different place — woody, drier, even a bit vinuous with a dark fruit and berry character underneath that pillowy chocolate cloud. And also because this year, I got to help tell its story through Grit & Grain.

It’s not the bottle count, but the barrel character that makes Rare what it is. This year’s is a generous 60,000 bottles or so, the majority of which are going in to general distribution across the US, pulled from about 200 of the casks that no one knew existed. “If someone finds 35 year-old barrels again, I’ll probably be looking for a job” says Heaven Hill’s master distiller, Denny Potter. These particular barrels were lost in the rick houses of Bardstown, Kentucky, commissioned long before they started tagging every one of them with RFID and registering their movements like some endangered animal over the years. Old habits die hard though, and scrap pieces of chipboard covered in hand-written notes still lines the racks. Fingers crossed for another, perhaps less fireable mistake.

“The bourbon in those barrels probably wasn’t suitable for drinking,” explains Potter. Despite the geriatric age usually indicating something special about a whiskey, past twenty-some years and you start losing the character you want. Few casks can make it that far, and even if they do, most of it’s evaporated anyhow. The last time Goose Island made a Rare, they used 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle barrels, a bourbon prized for its unique qualities and relative rarity itself.

Such an unusual find brought the folks from Heaven Hill and Goose Island closer together than ever before. These days bourbon makers are used to the idea of beers being aged in their used barrels. It’s a novel-enough thing, but it otherwise doesn’t gain much attention in the distilling world. Plenty of these bourbon barrel-aged beers carry the character of the blended liquids, but few carry the pedigree of such a specific barrel and a story that so closely connects the two. Come Rare day, Denny was there along with everyone else to get a taste of the once-in-a-lifetime mystery.

In all their years, Goose Island has never held a bottle release at their own brewery. Rather, they released BCS into the wild, only to watch vicious lines form around places like Binny's and newer specialty retailers like the Beer Temple – lines so long they practically eat their own tails. They did what they could to make those lines civil. And as flattering as that kind of demand is for Goose Island, it's certainly not Walmart BCS represents to so many at the brewery. So with the taproom at Fulton St newly finished, and the barrel warehouse filled, the Goose Team saw an opportunity to balance all that Black Friday hoopla with a more intimate, calm, reflective moment for about 1,500 people who were lucky enough to win a lottery. It was a chance for the Goose team to spend some time with a BCS community that, like myself, mark my winter beer calendar by the release of BCS and sharing it with friends. Ironically enough, despite having two year’s worth of BCS variants on draft with zero wait, fans still found something worth lining up for at the mystery pour station. Slide a glass into the cut-out barrel, and walk away with a BCS variant you can only guess at — crowd consensus was 2010 vanilla when I got mine. Rare Day was a real gem.

Over the years, Black Friday has become an iconic celebration for the release of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. The lines keep getting longer, and in recent years, started spreading around the country as Goose expanded nationally. But nowhere is it crazier than in Chicago proper. Everyone has their own reasons for lining up 24 hours or more ahead of time to get their hands on BCS and its variants, and plenty of others have their reasons for staying home. Myself - I’m not much for lines. I choose to take my chances later in the year, sharing and trading at parties over the holidays.

This year was a little different. I schlepped a copy of Grit & Grain, the full-length version a little under an hour long, out to Plank Road Tap Room in Elgin, Illinois. I’ve known the owner, Alan Moreno, for a couple years now after working on his brand, and helping him and his wife Breanne launch their family’s next major phase of life with a tiny little craft beer joint in the middle of the Midwest prairie. It’s still one of my favorite places to drink in the country, and on Black Friday, we screened the film and cracked open some BCS and variants with his “Not So Secret Club.” It was a bit like spending time with an extended family, sans turkey.

For all the obsession over Rare’s bottle count, packaging, it’s price, inaccessibility, indeed, it’s relative rarity for most beer fans, the hardest-to-find quality in a beer that I found in Rare was the camaraderie among this small team of 5 behind Grit & Grain. We knew this day was coming for a long time, and the Grit & Grain project started not long after. It took us from Chicago to the rickhouses of Heaven Hill, to the cooperages of McGinnis in Cuba, Missouri, into the white oak forests of the Ozarks and back again. And along the way, I gained a ton of respect for a group of guys who had never taken on a project like this before (myself included), but dove in with the passion you would expect from any craft brewer. I got to see what it was like to paint a big picture, and seek out every corner of its canvas. Mike Erickson learned how to do sound. Mike Smith learned how to produce a film and run a crew. Sergio Selgado hula-hooped with some hillbillies. And Ken Hunnemeder, Goose’s resident videographer got a chance to direct and edit a massive narrative close to his heart. We could have made a dozen different documentaries with all the footage and interviews this team captured, but Ken gave us the one that mattered.

Cheers everyone. What the hell are we going to do next year?

Collab by Michael Kiser
+ Goose Island