At their core, many "pumpkin beers" are no different from pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice cookies and pumpkin spice ice cream sandwiches, which use nutmeg and cinnamon and allspice to cover up the fact they're made with little to no pumpkin. Besides, the taste of pumpkin is so subtle that it doesn't conjure images of falling leaves and flannel shirts the way "pumpkin spice" does.
You won't find any of that infernal spice mixture in Spooky, an "imperial pumpkin ale" from Blue Mountain, a brewery nestled in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Blue Mountain uses 200 pounds of pumpkin puree in each batch of beer, which is then aged with cacao nibs in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels for three months. (Brewer-owner Taylor Smack says Blue Mountain originally used only Virginia-grown pumpkins, and still does for a draft-only version served in its Afton taproom in October. But for logistical reasons, the version in bottles is made with Washington state pumpkins from the previous year's harvest.)
Spooky is a very good, well-rounded barrel-aged ale. Bourbon, dark cocoa and vanilla dominate both the nose and the palate, while the flavors include a vegetal funk that I'm assuming comes from the gourds. It all finishes with a lingering hop bitterness and bourbon warmth.
This is the kind of beer I want in a snifter on a fall evening - especially because it doesn't taste at all like pumpkin pie.
Blue Mountain Spooky. bluemountainbrewery.com. $12 to $13 per 750-milliliter bottle.