The context of my tasting was a party, so I took no notes. Credit the beer with leaving a strong enough mental impression to do a review from memory. Bourbon casks are a little tricky to work with--sometimes they impart too much bourbon flavor, and (more rarely) not enough. The trickiness is enhanced when you introduce barleywines, because they border on being too heavy, too alcoholic, or too sweet (or some combination) in the first place. Age one in a bourbon barrel and you just increase the likelihood of exacerbating the problem.
Old Knucklehead manages to adroitly dodge all these potential pitfalls. It is quite dry for a barleywine, and relatively light on the tongue (no barleywine is light in absolute terms). It doesn't have any of the stickiness of some barleywines. The bourbon contributes some flavor, but little sweetness--the effect is almost like caramelized sugar. Finally, it finishes with a peppery note that helps draw out the dryness, so that it finishes cleanly. The bourbon is present as a flavor note, but it's subtle. I'm not a huge fan of barleywines, but I like this one quite a lot.
Now, having warned of the dangers of over-heavy, sweet, and intense bourbon-aged beers, allow me to contradict it all and tell you about a beer I had yesterday, during the Superbowl-- Full Sail's bourbon-aged Top Sail (again, no notes). This is one seriously intense beer. Topsail begins with a lot of oomph--it's a thick, rich, roasty beer. (Trivia quiz: what's the difference between an imperial porter and a stout? No really, I'd like to know.) I have described the regular Top Sail thus:
It is an absolutely gorgeous beer, pouring out with velvety viscosity, a dense chocolate shake head piling up (and lasting pretty well, despite the high alcohol content). It has a mild, Tootsie Roll aroma; I could detect no hops. The flavor is a wonderful blending of intense, dark-chocolate bitterness, with notes of roasted coffee, and fruit-sweet notes that fall halfway between plum and blackberry. The sweet notes are unusually fruity, but you have to turn your attention to them; otherwise, the creamy, slightly chalky bitterness carries you away.The bourbon both accentuates the chocolate note and contrasts it; the result is like a toddy. I would have liked just a bit less bourbon up-front, but I wonder what this beer might have turned into in a year. It's definitely an after-dinner beer, and it would certainly accompany a desert nicely.
(I created a firestorm the last time I condemned 22-ounce bottles, but at the risk of opening old wounds, this is a crazy lot of beer. It took three people and two days to get through our bottle, so don't open it blithely--plan ahead.)