Review: Is Sierra Nevada's E.H. Taylor Collaboration Beer Worth Buying?

Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine was never as shy as its inspiration, thanks to its 9.6% ABV, even if it was just as difficult to get ahold of. But with the supercharged expression aged for seven years in barrels that formerly housed Col. E.H. Taylor bourbon, it's gone on the rampage at 15%, yet is appreciably complex, given how powerful it is.

As for the players behind its creation: Sierra Nevada was at the forefront of the craft brewing revolution and remains there as the revolution becomes an institution. Col. Taylor is a highly esteemed signature line from Kentucky's famous Buffalo Trace Distillery and is a noted best American whiskey here at Tasting Table. While other beers used Buffalo Trace barrels — to use a relevant example, the Col. E.H. Taylor edition of one of the annual releases of Marlowe Artisanal Ales' Barrel Aged Blackout Jinx — the Bigfoot barleywine is the first national beer collaboration for Taylor, though not the Buffalo Trace distillery itself.

Forbes covers the intriguing tale of how this batch of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot became barrel-aged, and then, in turn, the perfect answer to Buffalo Trace's inquiry about a jam session to celebrate 125 years of The Bottle and Bond Act. But does the product represent one brand more than the other? Keep reading for our review.

How Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot was made

Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine is appropriately named for its bestial strength and Pacific Northwest hops. With the debut of Colonel E.H. Taylor Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot, the northern California brewer might have been well within reason to brand this one Yeti: It's a particularly robust offering that's an even more elusive presence at 15% ABV and 15,000 bottles.

That ABV is past the normal parameters for most barleywines, and it's the strongest beer Sierra Nevada has ever released. It's worth noting that many of the ales prowling this terrain (along with the Russian imperial stouts playing Godzilla to barleywine's King Kong) are also barrel-aged in whiskey barrels.

Yet Bigfoot's talent is playing like a lighter ale than it is. Ultimately, it's an endurance beer where so many of its brethren are small sprints. There are many beers a couple of ABV points lower that are hard going after the first few ounces; and few that can pass off this strength as fair play. 

Sierra Nevada really nailed the delineator between strong beers and novelty experiments in strength here, making the stamina of a pour especially impressive.

What does Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot look like?

Sierra Nevada's E.H. Taylor-barrel Bigfoot pours with just more than minimal head, leaving no lace, but enough bubbles to satisfy. This is not a clingy beer.

Unsurprisingly, the Taylor Bigfoot release has a lot of common ground in appearance and taste to match its pedigree. It's a 7/10 from light to dark, with a red tone to its richer brown. It looks more like the coffee table than the coffee, and boy does it taste like what it looks like. If you've ever tried to eat a particularly boozy fruit cake, you have some idea of what to expect. Still, it stops short of the novelty intensity dominated by the world's strongest beers, because this was brewed for enjoyment, not gimmicks or bragging rights.

You can spot Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot easily enough (assuming you find a store that stocks it) because it looks like someone misplaced a bourbon canister on the beer shelf. Designed to filter the Sierra Nevada label through the sepia tone and old-timey signature style of a Col. E.H. Taylor bottle of bourbon, this barleywine is a gorgeous promise of the wonders within. You may see it in its very Tayloresque canister or standing independently in a bottle that matches the case.

How Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot tastes

The main question in this premium bottle is whether you can taste the Taylor. Well, it's most prevalent in thinner sips or on the end of a bigger one. Wrapping up this burly beer is the astringent whiskey flavor, but it ping-pongs with a swish around the tongue, from sweetness to earthiness, both due to the malty strength of such ales.

That malt's medium roast judiciously steps aside just enough to let the bourbon influence shimmer through, but make no mistake: The barleywine is the headlining act here.

The aroma comes across like gingerbread and molasses. There's no doubt from the first whiff of what kind of beer you're drinking. But after the foreboding weight of the nose, this is a refreshingly manageable barleywine that drinks lighter than its 15% ABV. Its sweet taste stops short of cloying but does demand a refreshed palate after a couple of rounds. Sharp cheddar would do it, though as the glass goes on, you'll want something more substantial than that nibble.

In tasting notes, the usual suspects in the barleywine gang are here: chocolate, toffee, cherry, date, and fig, so don't expect too many surprises. Again, the most impressive aspect is how the malt doesn't throw any haymakers. This is an old-school, bare-knuckle brawl that demands longevity over fortitude.

How much Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot costs

Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot retails for $25 out of the gate, though its very limited release will likely send it up among collectors and enthusiasts.

As it already sold out online even after orders are limited to three per customer, you can expect the Sierra Nevada/E.H. Taylor collaboration to rise in price at your local beer store. It's a safe bet that any shop canny enough to order this knows exactly what it has in hand. And while you can expect a sold-out beer to generate another go, it took seven years of aging to bring us this batch, so there's no promise we'll get a second edition anytime soon.

Therefore, snap it up if you see it. You'd do well in sharing it as a dessert beer at Thanksgiving in lieu of mincemeat pie or pouring it as a midway warmer at a holiday party that's more snack bowls than big meals.

Is Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot easy to drink?

While the Taylor Barrel-Aged Bigfoot goes for longevity, there's no doubt that even a small pour of Bigfoot is an evening's work. Like most barleywines, it's savored best in sips over a small pour, so you'd better have some friends in attendance once you pop the cork on this pour. Trying to tackle this all by yourself will leave you feeling like you wrestled a real Bigfoot; win or lose, it's exhausting, even to inveterate malt lovers who can handle a strong pour of whiskey.

That said, with a good stopper, this beer hangs onto its head even after opening, so you don't have to pour a pint now while worrying that the next night's beverage is a flat one. One might even say that as this approaches a casked-pour body, it's possible to appreciate this malt in a whole new manner. Its sweetness seems like it would really match up with a gourmet pizza or pretzels with beer cheese (if you can take that much grain-strain in your dinner spread). We can testify it partners beautifully with a rich charcuterie spread. It's cheese, people. Everything this goes with is cheese.

The main takeaway: Take the drink slowly while going for the gusto in food. If your paired meal (and you will want one) can't cause gout, it probably won't tussle toe-to-toe with this Sasquatchian sipper.

Where is Sierra Nevada Bourbon Barrel-Aged Bigfoot available?

The 750-ml bottle was listed for $29 on the Sierra Nevada website, excluding costs of shipping, which was only to California, Kentucky, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. While Sierra Nevada often sends orders to North Carolina as well, that state was excluded from this offering. It's also seeing store distribution in Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and a few other states. You're most likely to find it in these places (and at its actual MSRP) while readers located elsewhere should ready yourselves for a hunt followed by a markup. For example, Wine-Searcher has a bottle in North Carolina for $29, so don't fret if you're feeling left out, Tarheels. You've still got options.

Anything under $45 will be a decent price in our estimation, as you can wring a lot of snifter pours from it, which is really the best way to enjoy it, even if you're not sharing it in the celebratory company of good friends.

But why wouldn't you celebrate? You just snagged a Bigfoot. Don't let it die in captivity. Release this beverage into its natural habitat: a raised beer glass. You'll be glad you did.