Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout began back in 1996, when everybody was watching ER and Celine Dion was assuming global domination. This was essentially the infancy era for craft beer, a time when IPAs were still relatively obscure and a lot of people were throwing back Red Dog or Zima.
The beer is the work of North Coast Brewing Company, a celebrated outfit out of coastal northern California. It’s an imperial stout and one of the best out there, even almost a quarter-century later. While a lot of beers in the category are either too hot (it comes in at 9% ABV, almost a session imperial given many of its peers) or completely out of whack in terms of flavor. Old Rasputin is a showcase of big, balanced flavors, kept in check with a nice hop bill.
It has pulled in a boatload of awards. Most recently, it was issued gold at the 2018 World Beer Championships in Chicago. The beer is jet black with flavors to match, showing dark chocolate, caramel, espresso, and nutty goodness. Old Rasputin opened my eyes to the versatility engrained in a good beer. It’s an imperial stout, sure, but not a cloying one. It can be enjoyed on its own or paired with any number of rich, dessert items. To this day, it remains a faithful sidekick to a good triple-chocolate cheesecake. Not a lot of beers can claim such a role.
The label is about as legendary as the liquid inside. It’s an old mug shot of Rasputin himself, framed by Russian text that translates to “a sincere friend is not born instantly.” For context, Rasputin the man was a Russian mystic from the late 19th century. Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk” as he was known, believed himself to be spiritually gifted and convinced a lot of powerful fellow countryman of just that. Some believed he had healing powers and he ultimately earned the respect of state royalty. As the Russian dynasty became less popular, so too did Rasputin. He was nearly stabbed to death by one citizen and was killed (somewhat mysteriously) by a group of others.
With a renewed interest in all things Russian (willfully, or otherwise), this beer continues to capture the imagination. It’s perfect for winter, sturdy, voluptuous, and lasting. Like the spiritual and somewhat contentious figure it’s named after, the beer presents healing qualities for some and too much heft for others. In the dead of winter with no greenery in sight, it’s tough to imagine a better evening beer. Try it with a scoop of coffee ice cream or a shortbread cookie (or both).
As one of the label’s more popular releases, it’s been subjected to various tasty adaptations over the years. These tend to be barrel-aged riffs that add complexity and smoothness. The latest pair, the 22nd installment of the perennial beer, are sumptuous sippers. One is aged in bourbon barrels while the other is aged in rye barrels.
While other imperial stouts get increasingly complicated with added bells and whistles like too much vanilla, cocoa nibs, coconut, black sesame, and bits of your favorite childhood candy (some of these can be delicious, mind you), Old Rasputin keeps doing its thing. Ever reliable, it’s an example of how to make a good stout, a solid style that goes all the way back to 18th-century England.
Like a good sled dog, this beer has led the pack since the beginning, through the darkest and coldest of winters.
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