What does success look like?
We all define success differently. For some, the word conjures images of large houses, luxurious cars, and bank accounts boasting multiple commas. For others (myself included), there’s a more holistic conceptualization encompassing balance, quality of relationships, and an inner feeling of satisfaction for a job well done.
Expanding this meditation into the world of bourbon: what attributes define a “successful” whiskey? The most cynical among us might reflexively respond that the one which sells – or resells – for the highest price (or widest profit margin) is the biggest hit. Others might point to the types of reliable standbys that, while they may not set pulses racing, are guaranteed to deliver satisfactory bang for the modest quantity of bucks asked for them.
In each of these categories, Old Forester has a contender among its broad range of bourbons. Though the annual release of the Birthday Bourbon expression inevitably results in disappointment for many hopeful sweepstakes entrants (this writer included), there’s plenty of Old Forester around, much of it achieving a level of price-adjusted quality that deserves a classification of “very good” or better.
Despite (perhaps due to?) the ubiquity of bottles bearing the name, we have reviewed precious little Old Forester on this site. I provided a history of the brand when I considered another “Old Fo” (the 1910) in its first and second batches. I branched out to the value-priced 100 proof expression, but otherwise have not made a formal consideration of any of the brand’s releases for some time.
I’ll be remedying that today thanks to a generous friend, who recently brought me a bottle of 1920 “Prohibition Style” as a housewarming gift. As fans of the marque will be aware, this comes from what was known on release as the “Whiskey Row” series, though that terminology seems to have been dropped by Brown-Forman, judging by the Old Forester website. Regardless, it should be familiar to all bourbon enthusiasts.
When I had lunch with Old Forester (and Woodford Reserve) Master Distiller Chris Morris, I commended him on the success of the Whiskey Row series, and of this 1920 expression in particular. Whenever I conduct an online poll about the best value for money among accessible bourbons, 1920 inevitably receives multiple nominations from respondents.
Why the near universal acclaim? Setting aside the organoleptic merits of the whiskey itself (which I will be considering in short order), this expression occupies an interesting place in the spectrum of bourbon. It is widely available; were I asked to procure a bottle, I am certain that I wouldn’t need to stroll much further than my closest grocery or liquor store.
That said, it’s not “ordinary” bourbon in the manner of the baseline expressions from the large distilleries (e.g. Jim Beam White Label, Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig, Buffalo Trace, etc.). 1920 is priced in a way that indicates that it is not an everyday pour, but it’s not expensive enough to raise hackles or to elevate expectations to levels unlikely to be surpassed.
My Malt colleague Matt Kusek once argued that you should never buy whiskey as a present for a whiskey lover. He reasoned that, for a serious enthusiast, all the whiskey that was desirable but unobtainable to them would also be unobtainable for the prospective gift giver. While I’d agree with “Kusek’s Law” in a general sense, I’d add this important exception to the rule: if you are going to buy a bottle of bourbon to gift to a whiskey lover, make it 1920.
My justification for this is that 1920 is (as noted above) sufficiently expensive to be considered a generous gift, but not so pricy as to induce feelings of guilt in the recipient. The ample supply of bottles will assuage concerns that you went to undue effort or enriched a secondary market flipper in order to procure a bottle. Most importantly, though: it’s good bourbon, of the type that is appreciated by the folks who know bourbon.
I was therefore grateful to receive this bottle as a gift, and happy to be reviewing it for you now. Adam previously considered this expression way back in 2017; read that review if you’d care to hear his thoughts on it. This clocks in at 115 proof (57.5% ABV) and retails for $60 near me.
Old Forester 1920 – Review
Color: A pretty, medium-dark chestnut.
On the nose: Brandied cherries, but also something more serious. I need to really concentrate on this one (which I like) to tease out the individual aromatic nuances. There’s a touch of dried firewood that slowly expands to encompass ground cinnamon, tarragon, and thyme. There’s a momentary whiff of latex that makes me feel slightly quizzical, though this recedes soon enough, returning my focus to those ample, concentrated cherry notes. In total, this gives the sense of being very rich.
In the mouth: That richness is again evident immediately, in the form of polished woody notes that express themselves upfront. Toward the middle of the palate, the sticky sweet cherry notes (reminiscent of those expensive Luxardo cherries in a jar) reemerge, married to a drying, stony note in near perfect balance. As it reaches the finish, there’s a floral note concentrated to an almost perfume like intensity which holds firmly for a few seconds before gradually disappearing, leaving behind it some exotically woody flavors of eucalyptus and a tingly, radiant heat.
This smells and tastes like very good whiskey. Stylistically it hews closer to sister distillery Woodford Reserve. Though that label’s hallmark oaky extraction is usually a turn off for me, those notes are here balanced by some luxurious fruitiness that make them altogether more palatable. In total it delivers on the promise of the price tag, in a way that satisfies me on both Apollonian and Dionysian levels. Its reputation is well earned, and I reiterate my encouragement to make this a go-to for anyone looking to pick up a “just right” bottle for gifting.
Lead image courtesy of Binny’s.