In the grand pantheon of American distilleries, one of the things that always makes Old Forester distinct is the purity and simplicity of its lineup, when it comes to bourbon. Whereas many distilleries experiment with a wide array of mash bills, or blend their recipes together, or blend their stock with that of other distilleries, Old Forester has a grand total of one bourbon recipe. Which is to say: Every single bottle of bourbon with “Old Forester” on the label—excepting the recent addition of their straight rye whiskey—comes from the same juice, simply collected, diluted and bottled after different lengths and styles of maturation. From the flagship bourbon, which can often be found for less than $20, to the popular Whiskey Row series (1870, 1897, 1910, 1920), to special releases like Single Barrel and Birthday Bourbon, they’re all bound by common DNA, but express themselves quite differently.
The same is true of each year’s coveted Birthday Bourbon release, which has fluctuated in age and strength over time. These barrels, regardless, are selected by Master Taster Jackie Zykan as what is intended to be the distillery’s “cream of the crop,” so to speak, showcasing different facets of the brand’s house style. This year, that selection is an 11-year-old bourbon, bottled at 105 proof, which is the highest to date for Birthday Bourbon. That data point alone will be enough to get the whiskey geeks clamoring for a taste, but we’ll also include a little bit of Zykan’s assessment, which describes the whiskey as featuring “a taste consisting of rich oak spice and blackcurrant coupled with light maple, caramel cake and white floral notes.” MSRP, meanwhile, is a fairly high, but not unobtainable, $99.99.
“Birthday Bourbon selections have ranged from nine- to 14-years-old since the expression was first launched in 2002,” said Jackie Zykan, Old Forester Master Taster. “When selecting the barrels for this year, we found something truly exceptional in this lot and we’re proud to call it our 2019 Birthday Bourbon.”
So, with that said, let’s get into our own tasting.
On the nose, Birthday Bourbon certainly announces its overproof nature, but also dazzles with complex notes of fruit and oak. There’s a lot of fruit going on here at once: Banana, cherry, old oak, sweet smoke, cinnamon sticks, pepper, caramel and more. The ethanol, likewise, is on the punchy side—perhaps a bit more assertive than I’d like, but an accurate indicator of how everything on this batch of Birthday Bourbon is dialed up to 11.
On the palate, this bourbon simultaneously embraces fruitiness and intense richness. The banana is back, and a variety of dark fruit flavors—cherry pie, cherry lozenge and plum, into creme brulee richness and intense caramel. There’s also quite a bit of old oak here—it seems oakier to me than previous OFBB releases, although I might be misremembering—which couples nicely with wisps of smoky char, sweet cinnamon, brown sugar and black pepper. The total profile? A bit like hot buttered rum, in a good way, although the alcohol is a tad bracing. If it could have been a tad less harsh, this bourbon would be even more delicious than it is.
All in all, this is an extremely flavorful bourbon, with no shortage of complexity at the same time. Its sheer volume of flavor is even bigger than you’d likely expect for the 105 proof—I’ve certainly had bourbons with bigger age statements that packed less of a flavor punch than this one, although that punch also includes some degree of ethanol harshness.
Still, all in all, this is a flavor bomb of pretty epic proportions, and it will definitely have no shortage of fans.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
ABV: 52.5% (105 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $99.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.