I’m praying for a trip to heaven.
Having just pulled the trigger on two comparatively dear bottles of limited-edition bourbon, I’m hoping that the liquid contents can justify the cost. As you’ll know from prior reviews, it’s not easy for a bourbon with a mass-market reputation to step up its game in a way that warrants a three-figure price tag. There’s simply too much competition from high proof, intensely flavorful bourbons in the $50-$100 range.
That’s not to say it can’t be done; I’ve had some delicious bourbon at the $100-and-up level. However, earning an above-average score on Malt’s scoring framework requires these whiskeys to bring something special to the table.
Looking at the vital statistics on paper, I am optimistic. We have here a pair of bottled-in-bond bourbons with stated ages in the mid-teens, from a distillery of which I am already a fan. This expression’s reputation is positive, and as a consequence these bourbons are scarcely found “in the wild” without a markup of 2-4x MSRP. Say what you like about these, but they’re not shelf turds. Thus, when I located a pair at a “slight premium” of “only” 50% (shoot me in the head), curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take the plunge.
In full honesty, these will have to be pretty great to earn a respectable score. I’ll be looking for breadth and depth of aromatic and gustatory intensity, with balanced elements coexisting harmoniously and progressing in orderly – yet engaging – fashion across the nose and tongue. The finish should persist interminably but not domineeringly. In other words: perfect bourbon.
Before I get tasting, though, a short history of the Old Fitzgerald brand is in order, as it is a newcomer to the Malt corpus. Like others in the Heaven Hill stable, Old Fitzgerald is grounded partly in history and mostly in mythology, having an at best tenuous relationship to the modern Heaven Hill distillery and commercial enterprise.
The eponymous Fitzgerald is John E. Fitzgerald, who in 1870 is said to have constructed a distillery in Frankfort, KY. Taking a slightly more sinister tack, the website for Old Fitzgerald’s sister expression Larceny alleges that Fitzgerald was a crooked bonded treasury agent who used to avail himself of primo barrels free of charge, given he (and only he) held the keys to federally-bonded warehouses.
Whatever the truth (and I typically don’t go looking for it in Bernheim), the Old Fitzgerald brand name was registered as a trademark in 1884 by the Old Judge Distillery Company (est. 1867 by Solomon C. Herbst). I’ve seen it alleged that Fitzgerald’s name was borrowed by Herbst who, desiring a more catchy moniker than his own Prussian surname, served as a model for the later appropriative practices of Heaven Hill.
Herbst’s business continued running until Prohibition, at which point the “Old Fitzgerald” brand was sold to Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle’s Stitzel-Weller. He began producing the bourbon at the Stitzel-Weller distillery using a wheated mash bill, later to become the hallmark of the coveted Van Winkle family of bourbons and their siblings in the Weller line.
Stitzel-Weller was sold to Norton-Simon in 1972; the latter sold the brand to Distillers Limited Co. (DLC) in 1984. DLC merged with Guinness in 1986, becoming United Distillers, known since 1997 as Diageo. United Distillers constructed the Bernheim Distillery in 1992, closing the Stitzel-Weller distillery two years later. Following the 1996 destruction of Heaven Hill’s own Bardstown distillery, the Shapira family bought Bernheim from Diageo in 1999, at which point Heaven Hill acquired the Old Fitzgerald brand. We have now arrived at the current state of affairs.
The average bourbon drinker will be most familiar with the bottom-shelf incarnation of Old Fitzgerald Prime Bourbon, which fetches $14 for a fifth in my neck of the woods. Seeking to spice things up a bit and address a more premium customer, Heaven Hill introduced the Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond series in 2018.
Echoing the seasonal cadence of distilling seasons (and the associated correspondence of bottled-in-bond batches), these bourbons are released twice annually. Starting with an 11-year-old expression in Spring 2018, the company followed with the Fall 2018 release of a 9-year-old bottling. The two bottles being considered today represent 2019’s Spring and Fall releases, with ascending ages of 13 and 15 years, respectively. Spring 2020 brought the oldest release yet, at 16 years of age. Each edition is said to be made up of “about 100 barrels,” around half the size of what Heaven Hill typically considers a “small batch.”
This is from Heaven Hill’s wheated mash bill (68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% barley), shared by the standard Old Fitzgerald expression as well as Larceny. I’m fairly even-handed on wheaters, having had better and worse examples of the style. Other people go nuts for them, however, further enhancing the perceived desirability of these releases.
The distinctive bottle style harkens back to the magisterial-looking decanters from the 1950’s, in which Stitzel-Weller sold Old Fitzgerald bourbon. Though aesthetics don’t impact the taste of the whiskey, these are perhaps the finest-looking bottles outside of the glorious packaging found in Japan. I have every intention of scrubbing the labels from these and reusing the bottles once I’ve finished these off.
We’ll start with the 13-year-old bottling from the Spring 2019 release (distilled in Fall 2005). Bottled-in-bond at 100 proof (50% ABV), a 750 ml of this ran me $200 (MSRP is $130; I know, I’m a tater).
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond 13 Years Old – Review
Color: Dark auburn
On the nose: Like entering a musty old library with leather-bound books and worn Chesterfield furniture, the nose presents scents reminiscent of antiques, rich polished wood, and a very subtle and salutary funk. It’s hard to pick out individual nuances, so complete and unified is the olfactory experience. Breathing really deeply, I get some conifer, ripe orange, vague meaty scents, cherry cola, and faintly ashy nuances.
In the mouth: After a docile entrance of watery black tea, this turns very sharp at the front of the tongue with a quite pointed mineral note accented by a squeeze of citrus. This carries through to the middle of the mouth, where it is joined by a chalky texture but little in the way of flavorful expansion. There’s a woody and nutty note for a moment before this blooms once again with an alcoholic heat more reminiscent of bourbon in the 60%-and-up club. Finishing with a reprise of the austere stoniness, I am struggling to pull much flavor out of this.
I would have expected much more after thirteen years in the barrel. At the same time, this doesn’t have much of the softness expected of wheated bourbon; it’s very stern and tightly-wound. While I respect the intensity of flavors, this never really comes together into a cogent whole, nor broadens out to engage the imagination. In light of the cost, I’m forced to score this below average.
Now we have the 15-year-old expression, this time from the Fall 2019 release (distilled in 2004). As before, it is bottled-in-bond at the at the stipulated 100 proof (50% ABV). I paid $230 for 750 ml; MSRP was $150 but there aren’t many bottles hanging around at that price.
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond 15 Years Old – Review
Color: Dark chestnut with ruby tones
On the nose: More sweet and pleasing straightaway, this has a generous note of maple syrup to lead off. The fatty and meaty sweetness of pan-fried pork belly meets a smoky note of charcoal embers. Faintly stony in a remote way for a split second, this then comes back with another seasoned meaty note of smoked kielbasa. All throughout, there’s an abundant sweet note of molasses that envelops this. With some air, I’m starting to sense a citric, fruity note of ripe clementine.
In the mouth: Another sweet and sticky kiss of maple syrup as this meets the tongue. This has thinned out considerably at midpalate, where there’s an astringent woodiness, the dilute sweetness of brown sugar simple syrup, and little else in the way of flavorful expression. Toward the back of the mouth, this improves with an all-over woody and nutty flavor that inflects sweetly, begging for another sip. However, it ends by once again trending in an austere direction, resonating persistently with a drying stony note and the sharp, nearly bitter flavor of rose petals.
This has a little more generous appeal than the 13-year-old but tacks similarly lean in the mouth. The whiskey teases some delicious flavors before withdrawing them abruptly. It’s hard to tell if this was over-aged (with the bourbon drying out as the barrel exerts too much influence) or under-aged, with the full metamorphosis of maturation having been curtailed by bottling. Given this is a wheated mash bill, I am inclined to guess the latter. In any case, it also underperforms my expectations significantly given the price. I’m giving a below-average score to this as well.
Well, that was a disappointment. I’ve written before about how expectations can be key to our satisfaction, and mine were certainly sky-high going into this tasting. Keep in mind, these weren’t bad bourbons in the sense of being conspicuously unpleasant in any way. Am I judging these too harshly? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Let me frame it practically: if I saw bottles of these sitting on the store shelf at MSRP (never going to happen), would I purchase them? The answer, sadly, is no… hence the below-average scores and the conclusion of this review.
Photograph courtesy of Heaven Hill Distillery.