Happy birthday to me!
I usually don’t pay much mind to what I’m drinking on my birthday, so much as who I’m drinking it with. After all, what is great bourbon without great friendships? As it so happens, this most recent trip around the sun has brought me the best of both, in the form of a desirable bottle gifted to me by some very generous friends (thanks, Jim and Heidi!).
This bourbon couldn’t be more suited to the occasion, at least in name. If you guessed that I’m talking about Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, you guessed correctly. What, exactly, makes this a “birthday bourbon?” I could paraphrase, but I’ll let the press release for the most recent incarnation do the talking:
“George Garvin Brown was the first to seal his whisky, Old Forester, in a glass bottle in 1870. To commemorate his birthday, the First Bottled Bourbon annually releases a limited edition, vintage-dated expression: Birthday Bourbon. Hand selected by Master Distiller Chris Morris, this small batch bourbon offers a unique character and flavor profile that will never be replicated.”
The annual release of Birthday Bourbon used to be an event of sorts at the distillery, with fans lining up well in advance to secure a bottle. This apparently reached a zenith – or nadir, depending on your perspective – in 2021, when Brown-Forman appears to have decided that the hype wasn’t worth the hassle of crowd control, disappointed customers, and so forth. The 2022 release was doled out via nationwide sweepstakes this past August.
So that’s the backstory, but what of the bourbon itself? Uncharacteristically for limited edition releases – in which specifics are often eschewed in favor of vagaries – we get a fair deal of clarifying information on this expression straight from the horse’s mouth. Old Forester’s own site for the vintage I’ll be reviewing today (2015, the 14th release in the series) provides some interesting context:
“This vintage had experienced an unusually long, 6-day fermentation; the resulting spirit when barreled was matured in the same warehouse location, near a window and close to a heat cycling duct, exposing the barrels to very high temperatures. This maturation resulted in extremely robust and intense wood-derived characteristics.”
Now, Malt’s bourbon-inclined readers might not be as familiar with the fermentation phase of the production process as the Scotch aficionados in the crowd. It’s a topic explored by John in this space before. To simplify greatly: a lot of flavor can be created during fermentation, but some distilleries have cut corners by using more efficient yeast strains and shorter fermentation periods. What they gain economically is lost in the gustatory department; a comparison of classic versus contemporary Laphroaig illustrates the stark differences that can result.
The other noteworthy detail in the above paragraph is the reference to the warehouse location. The proximity to a window and the hot air moving around would be expected to produce high-proof “hazmat” barrels of the type I last enjoyed from Kings County. This is consistent with the description of the bourbon as robust and woody.
Of course, creating excellent whiskey isn’t as simple as just extending the fermentation and ratcheting up the heat in the rickhouse. However, I am able to connect both to specific experiences that I have had in which the difference in flavor was notable. Finally, as selling points for a limited edition, these beat the pants off of some of the more spurious sales pitches I’ve seen. All told, I’m going into this with a sense of happy optimism befitting the occasion.
Before I raise a glass to my own health, a few last details: This was distilled in 203 and barreled in 2015, coming to us at an age of 12 years. Bottling proof is 100 (50% ABV). The suggested retail price range was $69.99 to $79.99 back in 2015; the 2022 release carried an SRP of $149.99, which pretty much tells you the story of the last seven years in bourbon whiskey history.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015 – Review
Color: Dark brownish-orange.
On the nose: Jumps out of the glass with a rich and rounded woodiness. There’s the caramelized sugar note of crème brûlée and also a sticky brown scent of molasses. Some brandied cherry notes lead an undercurrent of intense fruitiness, joined by clementines and very ripe plum notes. With some time in the glass, I start to pick up more herbal notes of thyme and eucalyptus. Aromatically, this has a similar profile to some pot distilled rums I have tried in that there’s a type of funk to this, though it’s well-integrated and intriguing rather than distracting or off-putting. In any case, it harkens back to bourbons of yore in the best of ways.
In the mouth: There’s a tart and mineralic kiss of fruit and stone that makes an immediate impression at the front of the mouth. That funk returns in the middle of the mouth, where it joins with some woodiness that is extracted and tannic, but stops short of being bitter or astringent. This takes a turn toward nuttiness before a resurgence of those tart cherries, this time mixed with the airy, sugary flavor of freshly whipped cream. A lingering flavor of black coffee persists for a long while after the whiskey has disappeared down the gullet.
On both the nose and the palate this bourbon is very forward, which I love. It is self-assured and expressive. It’s also very different in profile than anything I have previously tasted from Old Forester or Brown-Forman. While King of Kentucky is a full proof bruiser, profile-wise it doesn’t diverge that much from what you might get in a Barrel Strength Single Barrel of Old Forester, but for a longer maturation and some associated additional complexity. This expression, on the other hand, suggests strongly that the aforementioned combination of fermentation time and rickhouse position were identified by Chris Morris as having produced whiskey noteworthy for its individuality. I’m glad it has been presented and bottled in such a way that its many charming quirks are on full display.
Like birthdays, limited edition whiskies should be special. Birthday Bourbon – at least this vintage – is definitely special. Though I’m loath to advocate paying secondary market prices for this whiskey (or most others), I do feel that it’s worth every dollar of $150, and probably a bit more. In total, I’m awarding this a score commensurate with how much I enjoyed this bourbon, which is very much indeed.
I have so many things to be grateful for on this birthday. Most germane to this review are the generosity of special friends, as well as the ongoing thrill of discovering great new whiskey. So long as both persist, you’ll find me here again next year with a full glass and a smile on my face. Cheers.