Old Forester is widely known for producing inexpensive and well-regarded bourbon, a favorite of bartenders and whiskey drinkers who recognize the brand’s quality and value. Old Forester is also known for its coveted white whale whiskey, the annual Birthday Bourbon expression. Since 2002, it has been released every September 2nd (or thereabouts) to mark founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday. And, of course, as is the case with all limited release, hyped-up whiskey, Birthday Bourbon is a bitch to get your hands on. It can be damn near impossible. So don’t get your hopes up, but if you do find it, don’t be surprised if you wind up paying a hell of a lot more than the $79.99 MSRP.
So is it all worth it? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself, and the whiskey world in general, a lot as of late. I recently had a chance to sample the 2016 Birthday Bourbon at an Old Forester tasting lunch. This wasn’t exactly the whiskey that will hit shelves this fall, as the supplied sample was a barrel-proof version. But goddamn it was good. According to Old Forester Master Bourbon Specialist Jacquelyn Zykan, this year’s batch was taken from the western side of the top floor of Warehouse K. “There are some gorgeous sun-kissed barrels in this mix,” she said, “and really, really rich flavors, considering the storage location, heat cycling, and age. [Master distiller] Chris [Morris] and I proofed this release together, and it’s going to be a very special vintage.”
So how did it taste? Again, taking into consideration the considerably higher proof of the sample (156.4!!), this year’s Birthday Bourbon seems to be something special. An intense old ship oak pervades the palate, with hints of toffee, tobacco, and leather overlaying a nice sweetness and silky mouthfeel.
Tasting notes are all well and good, but will you or I actually be able to get our whiskey-stained fingers on a bottle? The outlook is, frankly, not so good. First of all, they aren’t dumping the liquid until June. And who knows how much of the whiskey in these 93 barrels that have been sitting in this heat-cycled warehouse soaking up beautiful color and flavor for over a decade will actually be left? Or, as Brown-Forman PR manager Wendy Treinen puts it, “With 12 years of aging, we lose a significant amount to the angel’s share.” When it comes to whiskey, no one’s greedier than the angels.
Zykan recommends an unartful but common sense strategy to increase your chances of getting a bottle of Birthday Bourbon: “Befriend your local liquor store and buy a lot of Old Forester from there regularly.” Her point is that accounts that sell the bourbon, and therefore keep it in stock consistently, are the ones that usually get Birthday Bourbon from the distributor. Still, it’s going to require a little bit of luck and a lot of determination. “They can tell you what day the distributor will be delivering the Birthday Bourbon. And on that day, get there early. Once the news leaks that there is a store selling it, a line tends to form. Most places only get a few six-packs, if that, so double-check with the store about how much they usually get.”
And then hope they aren’t assholes who are going to jack up the price astronomically. I love bourbon, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to love the final release of the 2016 Birthday Bourbon, but that just sounds like a lot of work to me. Instead, come September 2nd, I’ll raise a glass of the easily obtainable, inexpensive Old Forester Signature 100 Proof, and send my warmest thoughts to everyone with the gumption to camp out in line for a bottle of bourbon.