The latest Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release is blowing out the candles with a 100-proof version that completes a trifecta of Forester whiskies at that strength. It joins the 100-proof Signature and the Whiskey Row Series 1897 Bottled in Bond, which was released over the summer.
The Birthday Bourbon, now notching its 14th limited edition, commemorates George Garvin Brown, founder of Brown-Forman and Old Forester Bourbon. The premise is to demonstrate how Bourbon made on different days can end up tasting very different. Master distiller Chris Morris picks whiskey made on one specific date (in this case June 13, 2003) and aged 12 years before its release. Typically, some sort of idiosyncrasy places the spirit apart from the standard Old Forester, which is a marriage of different spirits aged throughout the company's rickhouses and made on different dates and sometimes different years.
Aside from being the highest-proof release of a Birthday Bourbon, this year's vintage distinguishes itself by having been matured in only one warehouse location, as opposed to several sites over many rickhouses. Morris describes the microclimate for this particular Bourbon as near a window and close to a heat cycling duct, thus exposing the entire lot to high temperatures.
The whiskey's pedigree slots it as a bottled-in-bond Bourbon: at least 100-proof, made in a single year (well, a single day if you want to get technical) and the product of one distillery. The in-bond category was created in 1897 as a way to combat whiskies that had been flavored or altered in some way—a big problem at the time. It fell from importance in later years when Bourbon standards were better upheld. Recently, the category has gained traction based on modern mixologists researching old school recipes and finding that they often called for bonded-Bourbon. The whiskeys' guarantee of purity as well as their high-alcohol content—which stood up well to a mixed drink—were probably the reasons.
George Garvin Brown, as well as having founded the company that now owns Old Forester, Jack Daniel's and a slew of other spirits, is credited as the first person to bottle and brand Bourbon in an era when it was typically sold by the barrelful and distributed to bar patrons or people who brought their jugs to be filled.
2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $69.99 to $79.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Bright, rich amber—almost orange—color. Quick, fat legs.
NOSE: Complex nose of sweet honey and tea notes as well as contrasting mulled spice and tobacco notes. And just to make it more interesting, there is caramel, Cognac and nutty toast.
PALATE: Scads of spice—licorice, tarragon, fennel seed—jump out at first sip. Then come honey, tea, wine flavors, cocoa and caramel.
FINISH: The above flavors repeat themselves on the encore, but the notes that creep up and surprise you are nuts, hard candy and orange peel. Quite a complex joy ride.
CIGAR PAIRING: Las Calaveras Edición Limitada 2015 LC46 (Nicaragua, 5 5/8 inches by 46 ring gauge, $8.95, 91 points, Cigar Aficionado December 2015) Rolled with a richly hued wrapper and three-seam cap. The even draw delivers a sweet and spicy smoke with a balance of gingersnap, cocoa nibs and red wine. We aligned these two to see if the spice component of each would heighten that of the other—and it worked. The cigar took on a larger bit of licorice and the Bourbon was handed peppers and mace in return. We weren't expecting the cocoa to be joined by the considerable barrel flavors—caramel, toffee, vanilla and orange peel—that appear alongside what was already evident. They meld together well enough that it's difficult to tell which partner is contributing which element. A great give-and-take.