North Coast Old Rasputin XIV Anniversary

Beer: Old Rasputin XIV Anniversary
Brewery: North Coast Brewing Co.
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 11.5 percent

About 95 years ago, Grigori Yefomovitch Rasputin was killed. Though he was purportedly a mystical healer and held some influence over the tsar of Russia, Rasputin's remembered mostly for his murder, for which it took enough cyanide to kill five men, four gunshots in the back, a brutal beating, AND being tied up tossed into an icy river before the man finally went down.

About 14 years ago, Rasputin was reborn when his name and never-say-die attitude were lent to a beer, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout -- a rich, roasty, flavorful brew that's as solid a stout as you'll ever find. Since 2007, North Coast has celebrated the celebrated the anniversary of Rasputin's first bottling by releasing a version of the brew aged in bourbon barrels. Old Rasputin XIV Anniversary marks the fourteenth year of Rasputin's continued existence.

A snifter's the only glassware fit for Old Raspy. Pour it in and ask yourself this question: How much more black could this be? The answer is none. None more black. Atop the inky liquid sits an expansive head of sand-colored foam that, as it recedes, decorates the glass in sticky webs of lace.

As Rasputin held influence over Russian royalty, so does the base brew impact the aroma. Bitter, charred flavors hold court -- burnt bread, medium-roast coffee, dark chocolate, touches of tobacco and pencil shavings. The barrels do play their part, however. Vanilla extract, caramel and bourbon are apparent, and Rasputin's impressive payload of piney hops is amplified by absolutely tons of vinous, new oak.

The flavor steps up both the sweetness and the influence of bourbon barrels. The heavy, sweet alcohol colors all the other notes within: molasses, dark chocolate syrup, espresso, pine. A surprising amount of sugary fruits are quickly replaced by some toasted coconut and a little butterscotch, resulting in a balance of sweet and bitter that carries into the long finish. The body's a little thin, soft and watery, but the silky, almost-not-there carbonation makes up for it, and the alcohol within is so effectively warming you could go play in the snow topless.

Old Rasputin XIV Anniversary aren't cheap -- a 500ml bottle will run you about $20 -- but if you're looking for an easy-to-find special occasion brew, this is it. Grab a second bottle if you can afford it -- like its namesake, Rasputin will never die, but only improve with age.

Food pairing suggestions:
Since barrel-aged Rasputin is pretty sweet already, you'll want to pair it with something a little less sugar to balance things out. Long-aged parmesan or smoked gouda would provide interesting cheese pairings; go for barbecued beef if pairing it with a meal.

Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.

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