“What’s your go-to for quality sipping at a reasonable price?”
I recently posed this question on Twitter. A not-insignificant number of respondents to my question suggested the whiskey that I’ll be reviewing today. Repeat readers of this site will know that I have recently repented of my limited edition-chasing ways and have rekindled an interest in everyday pours. In an attempt to add another quotidian quaffable to my queue, I purchased a bottle of Old Forester 100 Proof.
I previously enjoyed the 1910 expression from this same brand. Read that review if you’re curious about the history of Brown-Forman and Old Forester. I won’t recapitulate it here, bar to say that Old Forester is unique in being the only American whiskey brand continually produced by the same company (owned by the same family) since before Prohibition.
Despite its singular longevity, Old Forester doesn’t seem to have fixated fans in the manner of, well… nearly every other bourbon out there. In the current environment of frenzied whiskey fanaticism, it’s hard to imagine describing any bourbon as “overlooked.” However, if there’s a mainstay brand which would still be called a “sleeper” in any meaningful sense, it might be Old Forester.
Oh, sure, there’s a limited edition (dubbed “Birthday Bourbon”) that appears annually to commemorate the company’s founder, George Garvin Brown. These bottles disappear quickly, or are marked up beyond SRP by retailers looking to profit from their allocation. Brown-Forman also generated some mild (in whiskey terms) excitement last year with the announcement that a “Barrel Strength” offering would be added to the distillery’s pick program, in addition to a 100-proof single barrel that mirrors the (batched) retail version that will be the subject of my focus here.
Old Forester’s own page for this expression notes that it is “[h]andpicked from select barrels,” but does not provide any other distinguishing information other than the fact that this is bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). This is not – it should be noted – a “bottled-in-bond” whiskey, despite coming to us at the legally-mandated strength for that format. However, our guarantee of minimum age is the “straight” designation which, combined with the fact this carries no age statement, means that it is aged at least four years, exactly what we’d expect from a BiB whiskey.
Returning to the original premise: value and accessibility are a large part of the selling proposition here. I paid $25 for this bottle at the grocery store. In a world where mainstay expressions rapidly disappear or become formally allocated, consumers have been trained to become eagle-eyed hunters. Being able to procure a bourbon whiskey with ease seems an almost implausible convenience. Setting that intangible benefit aside: a brief browse around indicates that $25 seems to be the going rate for this whiskey; I’ll be scoring this accordingly.
On the topic of price: it’s interesting to note that the suggested retail price of the 100 proof barrel picks is $50. Whether the allure of the single barrel is enough to justify nearly double the retail equivalent will be the topic of a later discussion. In the meantime, I’m going to relax and take in this repeatedly recommended and plainly priced bottle of bourbon, thank you very much.
Old Forester 100 Proof – Review
Color: Pale brownish-orange.
On the nose: Starts with a marriage of a polished, rounded woodiness with a youthful note of grain. There’s the sticky, gooey sweetness of banana taffy as well as an ephemeral spiciness that hints at cayenne pepper. Some time in the glass reveals an exotic note of kola nut and a subtle nod toward a smoked matiness, in the manner of barbecued beef brisket. As I linger over this more, I come back time and again to a richly sweet fruitiness reminiscent of brandied cherries.
In the mouth: An initial kiss echoes that brandied cherry note, though this quickly dissipates on the tongue into a floral flavor of rosewater. In the middle of the mouth, this inflects towards a sedate nuttiness, with the texture turning somewhat hot. There’s a tannic astringency as this moves toward the back of the mouth, where the wood notes move to the fore. More dried floral notes of potpourri combine with a delicate stoniness through the finish, which takes on a slightly bitter aspect.
This is not perfect bourbon, by a long shot. Would I even describe it as “excellent?” No, I would not. However, it fits into the category of “very good value for the money” which is all I was after. I’ll happily sip this neat, quaff it on the rocks, or use it as the base for a Manhattan or a highball cocktail, without feeling that I’m casting pearls before swine.
It would be folly to pluck a sub-$30 bottle off the shelf and believe that it should change my life. With correctly calibrated expectations, on the other hand, the world of whiskey is full of treasures hidden in plain sight. I’d encourage everyone to remember this when the siren song of unicorn bottles or the latest annual outturn of allocated expressions next hits the market. Drinking whiskey is so much more enjoyable than chasing it, wouldn’t you agree?