Every winter, as the weather takes its icy grip on us, craft beer drinkers seek out bigger and more warming beer styles.
Normally they are the darker beers compared to the Pale Ales, IPAs, Blonde Biers, and Pilsners of summer. If you are looking for the darkest of them all, the Dark Lord of beers (as 3 Floyds famously called their first release of this beer style), then they don’t come much darker (and warming) than a Russian Imperial Stout.
As the regal name of an Imperial Russian Stout implies, it may not just be the lord of the dark beers, but many would also call it the King of beers (sorry, Budweiser, it’s time to move over, there’s a real contender to that throne!).
Rich, roasty, and bold in flavors, a Russian Imperial Stout fills both your mouth and heart with the comforting warmth of a soft woolen blanket – ideal for those winter nights.
Do Russian Imperial Stouts Come from Russia?
No – just like an IPA (India Pale Ale) doesn’t come from India, the Russian Imperial Stouts you will see in the coolers of your local craft beer bar or beer retailer have not been brewed in Russia.
They weren’t even born as a style in Russia.
Russian Imperial Stouts were originally brewed in England in the late 18th Century for export to the Russian imperial court.
At that time, the beer was known for its strong and robust flavor, high alcohol content, and rich, dark color. This bold beer was also brewed to withstand the long voyage to Russia, as well as to provide sustenance to the troops stationed in the country.
For a more detailed history and beer style guide check out my Russian Imperial Stout Style Page.
In the years that followed, Russian Imperial Stouts became popular in other countries as well, including the United States. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that this beer style experienced a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the growing craft beer movement.
Today, Russian Imperial Stouts are widely considered to be one of the richest and most delicious beer styles in the world, with many breweries creating their own unique takes on this classic beer style.
What Makes Russian Imperial Stouts So Special?
One of the things that make Russian Imperial Stouts so special is their rich, full-bodied flavor profile.
This is achieved through the use of high-quality ingredients, such as malted barley, roasted malt, and hops. The roasted malt contributes to the beer’s deep, dark color and provides flavors of coffee, chocolate, and caramel.
Hops add bitterness to the beer and help to balance out the sweetness from the malt.
Another factor that contributes to the unique flavor profile of Russian Imperial Stouts is the high alcohol content.
Most Russian Imperial Stouts have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 8-12%, which is much higher than most other beer styles. This higher alcohol content helps to create a warm and satisfying finish to the beer, making it perfect for sipping on cold nights.
The Top 10 Russian Imperial Stouts Available Now
Although we call them Russian Imperial Stouts, as most are now brewed in the US today many brewers will drop the Russian from the name, referring to them just as an Imperial Stout.
Even the BJCP style guidelines no longer have a category for a Russian Imperial Stout and don’t differentiate from American-style Imperial Stouts, British-style Imperial Stouts, or even Russian-style Imperial Stouts.
North Coast Old Rasputin by North Coast Brewing Company, Fort Bragg, California
No list of the best Russian Imperial Stouts would be complete with Old Rasputin from the North Coast Brewing Co in California.
Named after the infamous “mad” monk of Russia, Grigori Rasputin, this award-winning stout is brewed in the style of those classic English stouts that were imperialized and exported to the court of Catherine the Great, and it comes in at a respectable 9% ABV.
Old Rasputin Imperial Stout is a big, bold, intense, inky, rich, and velvety beer. On the nose, you will experience notes of toast, cocoa, coffee, toffee, and just a hint of smokiness.
On the palate, you will notice the thick, lush almost viscous texture as you sip this beer. The intensely rich flavors match the nose of the beer with an assertive bitter finish to balance with that malty richness.
Ask for an Imperial Russian Stout in any bar on the West Coast and Old Rasputin will be top of the list.
North Coast Brewing even makes a series of barrel-aged Old Rasputin Imperial Stouts aged in bourbon barrels, which gives this already tasty classic 18th-Century style stout a sweet combination of bourbon and bittersweet chocolate, and ensures that it’s even more delicious than its younger brother.
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout by Founders Brewing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
With KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout), Founders Brewing Company has taken their award-winning beer Breakfast Stout and aged it for 12 months in bourbon barrels.
Their Breakfast Stout is already described as the perfect Imperial Stout for coffee lovers. It’s brewed with two types of coffee in addition to an abundance of flaked oats and bitter chocolates for an intense roasted java nose to the beer.
The grown-up, barrel-aged version of the Breakfast Stout not only ups the ABV to 12% but also adds charred oak and hints of bourbon to the wonderfully silky and full-bodied stout with notes of vanilla, cocoa, and roasted coffee.
Founders describe it as ‘chocolate coffee stout’, and it’s regarded by many to be one of the finest examples of this genre.
Available all year round, you will even find this Imperial Stout and many of Founders’ other fine beers on draft in their tap rooms in Grand Rapids and Detroit.
One beer I’m particularly looking forward to trying is the seasonal KBS Chocolate Chery released just in time for Valentine’s Day in February.
Created to show off the more romantic side of their flagship bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, the rich sweetness of the chocolate malt flavors and a slight coffee bitterness is said to blend perfectly with the brightness of fresh cherry juice.
Perfect for curling up with your other half on those bracing nights in winter and early spring.
Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout by Stone Brewing, Escondido, California
ABV 10.6% (Can Vary)
Stone Brewing Company’s cult classic Russian Imperial Stout is a classic example of this beer style.
But, interestingly enough, they had to argue that the Russian part of an Imperial Stout was the style and not the place of origin with the sticklers at the TTB (Alcohol and Tax Trade Bureau).
Unfortunately, back in the year 2000 when Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout debuted on the market, most Imperial Stouts were being produced by microbreweries and brew pubs that didn’t have to conform to the strict labeling laws of the TTB.
When Stone tried distributing their “Russian” Imperial Stout nationwide, the TTB argued that, as it wasn’t from Russia, it couldn’t be labeled as such.
It took 5 years of fighting with the TTB to acknowledge the Russian Imperial Stout as a style in much the same way as the India Pale Ale, and now all brewers can label their Imperial Stouts as “Russian”.
Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout is still one of the easiest to find with a distribution network that covers the entire USA and even ships abroad. Released every winter, the ABV can vary but the bold flavors of coffee, chocolate, and caramel as well as its smooth, creamy mouthfeel remain the same.
Ten FIDY by Oskar Blues Brewery, Brevard, North Carolina, and Longmont, Colorado
Beer from a can still might seem like sacrilege to many beer snobs or beer geeks, but anyone who has ever tasted the current no-1 ranked beer by BeerAdvocate, Heady Topper, will know things of beauty can come in an aluminum can.
Oskar Blues was one of the first craft breweries to can their beer when they started in 1997, and now over 150 craft brewers across the US ship their beers in cans.
Ten Fidy was originally released in 2007, and each year sees a limited release of this tiny 12 oz can (why no 16 oz, please?) of Imperial Stout, with barrel-aged versions also given an occasional release.
A titanic, immensely viscous stout, it is loaded with flavors of chocolate-coated caramel and coffee with a hefty 65 IBUs of bitterness balanced by a smooth blanket of malt.
Immense amounts of those bigger, darker malts, including a rich caramel malt and a flavorful Munich malt, combine with fluffy oats for a stout that packs a punch at 10.5% ABV.
Originally released in 2016, the barrel-aged Ten Fidy is stuffed into bourbon barrels for a minimum of eight months. This allows vanilla, oak, and bourbon flavors to penetrate the pitch-black depths of the malt base.
During maturation, the Fidy’s bourbon flavors mellow out for a drinkable but deeply complete brew at 12.5%
Expedition Stout by Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Bell’s Brewery is known for producing some of the first stouts of the craft beer scene way back in the heady days of the late 80s, just as the craft beer revolution was kicking off.
Expedition Stout was one of the earliest examples of a Russian Imperial Stout offering an immensely complex flavor profile crafted with aging in mind.
A huge malt body of specialty malts, including chocolate and caramel malts, is matched with a heady blend of aromas of chocolate, dark fruit, and others as it ages. Although it has a heavy body, this Imperial Stout is well known for its smooth, creamy mouthfeel.
The light mouthfeel and hint of fruit make it a refreshing Stout with just enough elevated alcohol level of an Imperial at 10.5% for an alcoholic warmth ideal for those cold, nearly winter’s nights.
Only available for a limited time, Bell’s recommend you leave the beer to age in the cellar for a longer period to allow those bold flavors to slowly meld and grow in depth.
Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout by Sierra Nevada, Chico, California
More famous for its hop-centric beers and its genre-defining Pale Ale, it may surprise you to know that Sierra Nevada’s very first brew way back on the cusp of the craft beer revolution was a stout.
Fortunately, Ken Grossman, the head honcho at Sierra, still produces some of the finest dark beers on the market today.
Inspired by a sea creature that dwells in the deepest fathoms of the frigid Artic ocean, Narwhal is destined to become an Imperial Stout of legend too. Narwhal is rich with notes of espresso, bakers cocoa, roasted grains, and just a light hint of smokiness.
Brimming with a malt complexity, Sierra Nevada uses an interesting blend of caramelized malts, chocolate, Carafa III, Estate Pale, Honey, Roasted Barley, Smoked and 2-row pale malts along with their signatory Cascade hops and Euaknot hops.
It wouldn’t be a Sierra Nevada beer without that statutory West Coast bitterness of Cascade, and at 60 IBUs it’s definitely one of the more bitter Imperial Stouts out there. Aggressive but refined, Narwhal is ideal for aging in the bottle for years to come.
Although the standard version of Narwhal comes as a bottle release, deep in the barrel room of Sierra Nevada they have aged the legendary stout in fresh bourbon barrels for nearly a year and released this barrel-aged Imperial Stout as a canned beer.
What emerges is a stout with vanilla flavors and notes of oak and coconut along with the bourbon flavor layered on top of the malt flavors of dark chocolate and espresso.
Try and hunt down a can of this delicious Imperial Stout next time you’re at your beer shop, it may age well but stocks won’t last long.
Hunhapu’s Imperial Stout by Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, Florida
Cigar City is quickly becoming known for its innovation regarding Imperial Stouts, with a different series of limited releases each year. They even have a members-only club, the El Catador club, for exclusive members-only barrel-aged beers like the aged stouts.
The most recent release in the series, Hunhapu’s Imperial Stout, features dark chocolate, mocha, cinnamon, and molasses aromas all competing for attention on the nose, with a soft alcohol spiciness and dark fruit notes.
Imposing and assertive on the palate, this Imperial Stout immediately presents espresso, baker’s chocolate, and plum flavors that give way to cinnamon, toffee, and an earthy hop quality.
Scoville heat slowly builds with each sip, while a soft bitterness and moderate carbonation provide a counterpoint to this viscous, complex creation
The El Catador club version of an Imperial Stout, the Clu Haywood, amps Imperial Stout up even more with a staggering ABV of 15.3% and is brewed with peanuts and caramel before being aged in bourbon barrels.
Unfortunately, you’re probably going to have to be local to Tampa to enjoy the club and the fourteen bottles of unique barrel-aged beers each member gets to sample every year (that’s a club I would definitely like to belong to!).
A pick-up point has just been nominated in the Oskar Blues Taproom in Colorado, however.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout by Goose Island Brewery, Chicago, Illinois
Although the name may not contain the phrase Russian Imperial Stout, with this 14.3% ABV master of a beer you certainly know you’re in the Imperial Stout territory from the moment you flip off the lid.
First brewed in 1992 to commemorate the brewery’s 1000th batch of beer, the annual release of Bourbon County Stout every fall is one of the most eagerly awaited beer events of the year in Chicago.
The 2022 rendering of this legendary Imperial Stout was a blend of stouts aged for up to 14 months in a mixture of freshly emptied bourbon barrels from acclaimed distilleries such as Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Buffalo Trace.
This Imperial Stout is especially known for its pronounced flavors of chocolate fudge, vanilla, and bourbon sweetness. Goose Island also warns you to expect big flavors of toffee, molasses, almond, and dried fruit in the latest iteration.
Parabola Vintage by Firestone Walker Brewing Co, Pasa Robles, California
Firestone Walker may be more famous for their hop-forward IPAs and their Pivo Pils, but don’t overlook their Vintage series of barrel-aged beers, which now includes this fine Russian Imperial Stout known as Parabola.
Described by Firestone Walker themselves as a “beast of a beer”, this 14% Imperial Stout features intense flavors of black cherry, dark chocolate, vanilla, and roast coffee.
For the latest version of this popular iconic stout, they have aged the beer in older-stock 12-year-old bourbon barrels which accentuate the Parabola’s signature richness with the vintage-specific notes of stone fruit, fudge, and tobacco.
With an SRM of 153, this bold beer is probably one of the darkest beers you will ever encounter too.
Darkness by Surly Brewing Company, Minnesota
One of the most eagerly awaited Russian Imperial Stout releases every year is the acclaimed barrel-aged Imperial Stout from Surly Brewing in Minnesota.
Surly Darkness is brewed with a symphony of malts, including @-row, Golden Promise, Aromatic, Chocolate, Black, Special B, roasted barley, Oats, and Brewers Crystal malts.
This massive Russian Imperial Stout contains wave after wave of chocolate, coffee, cherry, and toffee, all topped off with a non-traditional dose of aromatic hops such as Amarillo, Warrior, and Simcoe.
The result is a potent 12% brew as dark as the name suggests. Every year a new iconic, haunting label is produced for the beer with bottles available on the aptly named “Darkness day” in early October before they go to retail at Halloween.
Surly also has a large beer hall on site where you can sample the Darkness on tap and, if you are lucky, you may find some bottles of previous releases of Surly Darkness Imperial Stout.
Earlier iterations of this acclaimed Imperial Stout include a Mole Darkness, inspired by the complex sauces native to south-central Mexico, an Old fashioned Darkness, aged in rye whiskey barrels with sweet Morrocan orange peel added, a Vietnamese Coffee Darkness, a Blueberry Crumble Darkness and a Ginger Snap darkness to name but a few.
Over the years Surly Brewing has produced over 30 intriguing variants of the Darkness Imperial Stout. It’s always interesting to see what they will do next!