Cigar Aficionado

Serendipity for Old Forester's Birthday Bourbon

On February 15, 2000, a mash-floor operator at the Brown-Forman distillery made a mistake. He put 2 percent barley malt too much in the day’s batch. Today, we are reaping the rewards of that error as Old Forester releases the 11th version of its annual Birthday Bourbon.

The result is a 12-year-old, 97-proof whiskey that is extremely fruity with a nutty component. The limited-edition Bourbon was made from a batch of 82 barrels and will be sold nationally until the supply runs out.

First introduced in 2002, the yearly debuts of the Birthday Bourbon are meant as testaments to the company’s founder, George Garvin Brown, who was born September 2, 1846, and as a sort of snapshot of one day’s whiskey production at the distillery. Each year, B-F master distiller Chris Morris chooses a group of barrels born on a single date, which are then combined in a small batch and bottled with vintage dating. For this release Morris picked casks from the above date and from the fourth floors of Warehouses H and I.

Typically, casks of Bourbon are gathered from different dates and locations throughout the warehouse system in order to maintain a taste consistency from bottle to bottle. The past editions of the Birthday Bourbon have come from specific days (not the same each year) and locales as well as being vatted in varying numbers of casks.

As well as the odd proportions of grain in its mashbill (Old Forester is typically 72 percent corn, 18 percent rye and 10 barley), the warehouse location had a marked effect, according Morris. The angel’s share, an industry term that describes the amount of whiskey lost to evaporation during maturation, was much greater than normal. While a large angel’s share cuts into barrel yields, it also typically leaves more intense whiskey behind.

This Bourbon is also of markedly higher proof than the standard Old Forester (86 proof) and, at 12 years, much older. (The entry-level Old Forester Classic does not state an age. There is also an Old Forester Signature version at 100 proof).

Old Forester was created in 1870 by the J.T.S. Brown and Brother Co., a partnership of George Garvin Brown and his half brother. It was the nation's first Bourbon to be sold in a sealed bottle. J.T.S. Brown later left and created his own label under his own name. (J.T.S. Brown Bourbon, which you may remember as Fast Eddy Felson’s drink in the movie The Hustler, is now a product of Heaven Hill Distillery.) Old Forester was originally labeled Old Forrester (probably for Dr. William Forrester, a physician acquaintance of Brown).

Because Old Forester was approved to be sold for medicinal purposes during Prohibition, it also is the oldest Bourbon in America continuously produced by the same distiller.

The distillery is no stranger to specially select bottlings. When B-F reopened the storied Labrot & Graham distillery to make Woodford Reserve, instead of awaiting maturation from that distillery it tapped into the so-called “honey barrels” from Old Forester, as both whiskies share the same mashbill, in order to bottle Woodford’s first expressions.

(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)

Old Forester 2012 Birthday Bourbon (97 proof or 48.5 percent alcohol by volume, $49.99)

APPEARANCE: Rich brown to amber color with slight patina of greenish copper. Tiny beads, very slow to turn to legs.

NOSE: Huge caramel blast at start turns to vanilla, herbs and honey, then becomes incredibly fruity.

PALATE: Full flush of tropical fruit jumps right out to the tip of the tongue. Then the whiskey reveals toffee, toast, nuts, honey, wheat and a big hard-candy note.

FINISH: The fruit is there throughout, even as the finish floats through a parade of nuts, toast, caramel, maple and honey. The finale is long, but suddenly shuts off as opposed to fading out.

CIGAR PAIRING: Ortega Serie D Maduro No. 10 ($7.50, not yet rated) Dark, dry flavors, with lots of charcoal and some dried nuts and licorice, mark this cigar. The Birthday boy does an ample job of softening the party, adding sweetness and a chewy, nougat character. In turn, the Bourbon gets a bit tarter, which shows off its own nuttiness.

My Father #1 Robusto ($10, 93 points, April 2009 of Cigar Aficionado) This cigar has rich woods and meat, with leather, coffee bean and some sweetness, which the Bourbon amps up and makes less dry. The Old Forester gets rounder in the bargain, with accentuated cereal notes (wheat and barley), and not-so-full-frontal fruitiness.