Birthday Bourbon Makes Do With Perfection

"It was an on-the-spot, letter-perfect day." And that's what made it so weird.

Chris Morris, master distiller of Brown-Forman, is talking about June 7, 2002, the born-on-date of this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, the annual, one-off whiskey bottled to highlight how varying conditions can affect spirit-making from one day to the next. You might think such ideal circumstances were something that he insists in selecting each year's batch. But they're not.

Morris stresses what an anomaly perfect conditions are in his 13 choices for the limited-edition release. Success for Birthday Bourbon has typically been born from "something out of the ordinary, a day when something happened. That's where we always seem to turn."

The whiskey's first release (2002) was auspicious. It came from March 23, 1989, a hazy day marked by thunderstorms. And over the years unusual climatic conditions during distillation—precipitation and temperatures variations—have defined many of the selections. Not only that, but there's a human factor to take into account. The 2012 version reflected a day in February of 2000 on which a mash-floor operator made a mistake by putting 2 percent too much barley malt in the day's batch. It ended up a serendipitous error.

We should, however, forgive this year's expression for its lack of a dysfunctional background. The 2014 version of the Bourbon meant to honor company founder George Garvin Brown is a showstopper. It is complex with an emotional range of sweet, spicy and savory flavors, despite its seemingly textbook beginning.

What could explain the standout nature of this expression?

For the bulk of its production, Old Forester strives to maintain uniformity from bottle to bottle by marrying unlike batches. "We bring inconsistencies together for consistency," is the way Morris puts it. For that reason they keep detailed records on all the whiskey.

While a distillery log that keeps records of day-to-day fluctuations fails to shed light on why the 2014 was an overachiever, Morris says there's another variable that might explain it: wood. The cooperage didn't keep records of what barrels were sent that day and many variables exist in the oak that gives whiskey the majority of its flavor. Even as casks are dried, toasted and charred to exacting specifications, the wood comes from different trees in different regions.

"Today we're very conscious of that. Ten years ago we weren't," says Morris about an art form that seems to be examining every aspect of production in furthering. It's all about managing variables-even the occasional perfect day.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 (97 proof, or 48.5 percent alcohol by volume; 12-year-old; $59.99 per 750-milliliter bottle)

APPEARANCE: Rich honey color with thick, slow legs.

NOSE: Fascinating combination of honey, fruit (particularly orange) and graham-cracker notes, with a steady back beat of vanilla, caramel and walnuts.

PALATE: Full of red berries at the opening, then they're so much maple candy you think you've wandered into Vermont. Past the sweetness comes a more savory side, with toast, nuts, vanilla, toffee and caramel. Then it transitions through a citrus-and-mint as an entrée to the finish.

FINISH: The ending is big, but not clearly delineated. Is the citrus/mint side part of the finish or just the introduction to a hearty farewell that offers a return to the toast and nuts, as well as a bread dough quality? Ultimately, who cares? It's a treat to just let it roll on and on.

CIGAR PAIRING: Padrón 3000 (Nicaragua, 5 1/2 inches by 52 ring gauge, $6.00, 89 points, June 5, 2007 Cigar Insider) This cigar draws and burns evenly, delivering predominantly rich cocoa flavors with some wheaty, grainy notes and a woody finish. The foregoing tasting note is from the 2007 rating (when the cigar cost $4.05), but the cigar's a favorite that we smoke regularly and immediately thought of for this pairing. It's fair to say that today's production includes a candied-and-nut component, which we hoped would match well here. It did. Both sides of the partnership responded well as a nougat flavor arose. The Bourbon pulled candy-bar qualities from the cigar through its chocolate quotient. The Padrón paid back expanding the maple notes on the Old Forester, which also developed rounder and fuller barrel flavors (the caramel and toffee).

Montecristo Petit Tubo (Cuba, 5 1/8 inches by 42 ring gauge, £13.00UK, 90 points, December 2014 Cigar Aficionado) A consistent and exemplary draw delivers plenty of coffee notes to the palate, along with sweet cedar and fresh tobacco. The theory to this pairing was that the cigar's java flavor would complement the sweetness of the whiskey. While not a failure, the match was not as successful as the above. The Bourbon did fill out the flavors of the Montecristo, adding some depth and sweetness. However, the full-bodied reaches of the cigar seemed to clash a bit with the Forester's fruit. Just goes to show: nothing's perfect.