I believe most of the people reading would agree when I say that “it’s fun to taste whiskey.” Even when tasting bad whiskey, there’s typically ample opportunity to take away something instructive from the experience. Sure, this may not always hold true—as in the case of my recent sampling of Beam’s 8 Star for the first time, which I can assure you taught me nothing except new words for “disgust”—but it’s a good rule of thumb to live by.
But tasting single whiskeys in a vacuum has its limitations. Whenever possible, we get even more out of the experience by tasting multiple whiskeys together, in comparison with one another. It’s the truest way to get an impression of a product line in particular—rather than relying on your memory, even if the tastings are only a day or two apart, there’s far less chance of your perceptions becoming skewed if you’re able to taste multiple products at once, returning to each multiple times until an overall perception has come into place.
Case in point: Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series, which has now been on the market for a few years. These are bottles that I’ve regularly seen in liquor stores and bar shelves, but never pulled the trigger on, and on some level I think that’s partially because there are three of them in similar bottles—I never wanted to take the plunge of purchasing one, or sampling only one in a bar. They beg for a side-by-side-by-side tasting, and after recently being both impressed and surprised by the Old Forester Statesman Bourbon (a collaboration with Kingsman: The Golden Circle), this seemed like the perfect time to revisit them.
The Whiskey Row series seems like an attempt by Brown-Forman to update the image and appeal of the Old Forester line of whiskeys, while simultaneously introducing a mid-range premium price point of “craft” whiskeys. It’s a little counter-intuitive to the core of the brand, which has long been “bang for your buck.” As I’ve said on previous occasions, the classic 86 proof Old Forester is bottom shelf royalty—not quite in the “ultra cheap jug” tier, but vastly superior as a well bourbon or mixer to the blander likes of Jim Beam White Label. In fact, the only other bourbon at the same price point with as much value is Evan Williams. Meanwhile, the Old Forester “Signature” 100 proof can often be found for only a couple bucks more, and is typically an outstanding value. It fits into much the same mold as Rittenhouse Rye—still a good value, even after the price has risen drastically thanks to the revival of mixology culture. The Whiskey Row releases, on the other hand, are notable for their higher price points—$40 to $60 or more—which makes it difficult not to hold them to a higher standard. Keep that in mind as you’re reading these reviews.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
The shtick of Original Batch is that it symbolically evokes the original batching process of the first Old Forester bourbon, which was batched from barrels from three different distilleries. Here, to keep things in-house, Brown-Forman has instead simply taken barrels “from three warehouses, each barrel originating from a different day of production, with a different entry proof and a different age profile.” The result is a 90 proof bourbon with no age statement, like pretty much every whiskey in the Old Forester line.
This was the least expressive of the three whiskeys in the series, although glancing around the liquorsphere I can see that it does seem to have its fans. Heavy caramel and smooth, rich vanilla come out on a big way on the nose, with tons of brown sugar /molasses sweetness and neutral woodiness. It smells sweet and rich, but not particularly complex.
On the palate, that initial assessment is largely vindicated. Corny, old-school bourbon sweetness comes through here, with hints of brown sugar, leather and toffee, followed by banana pudding. There’s an astringent, slightly smoky or dusty note that drags things down a little bit for me, but the overall impression is of a fairly classic (if old school) bourbon profile. It does indeed feel like something that would have “Old” in the name, so I can’t fault them on that. Regardless, there’s no other specific flaws to point out in this bottling—it’s not my favorite of the three, but I wouldn’t turn it down if offered. I do believe that it would have the most difficulty justifying its price point ($40-45), though.
A small-ish bump in ABV brings us up to the magical “bottled in bond” level of 100 proof, but it also yields a bourbon with significantly more character and complexity. If the mash bill and relative ages of the two are the same, then it’s rather remarkable how different this whiskey is from the Original Batch taking only the proof and difference in batching into account.
On the nose, this bourbon initially seems less sweet than the Original Batch, or at least less narrowly concerned with richness. I get much more fruit character, with hints of dark fruit, apple and rye grain.
On the palate, some of that sweetness returns, but this is a very well-balanced, enjoyable dram. Lots of rye spice is present this time around, with black peppery flavors and deep caramel/toffee notes. As I return repeatedly, I get more herbaceous qualities at well that give it complexity, especially a note of dill, along with plenty of spice and moderate oaky char. Overall, I still feel like it comes off slightly less overtly sweet than the 1870 Original Batch, with alcohol heat that is impressively well hidden for the 100 proof.
This is simply a very well-balanced, impressive, “multipurpose” bourbon that will fare equally well when used neat or in cocktails. After taking some home, I tested it out on a black Manhattan—that’s a standard Manhattan with the addition of orange bitters and Averna amaro—and it came through beautifully, with an assertive wallop of spice and well-balanced sweetness. I think this one has an easier time justifying a $50-55 MSRP.
The fact that Brown-Forman was one of the few distilleries able to continue distilling whiskey for “medicinal purposes” during Prohibition is a powerful combination of history and marketing potential, which this bourbon capitalizes upon. The sturdy 115 proof represents what apparently would have been the barrel proof in 1920, which seems lower than expected to me, but hey, who cares when we’re talking about dynamite bourbon? And this stuff is dynamite.
As one would expect from the proof, this whiskey is big, bold and assertive, but it’s also the most complex and perfectly crafted of the three. On the nose, it’s redolent in fruit and spice: Apple, cherry, maple, fennel and big baking spices. The heat is apparent, but the nose is huge and inviting.
On the palate (still consuming these neat), initial impressions are boozy heat (understandably) and a big, commanding rush of deeply toasted oak and baking spices. As I adjust to the dram, it becomes a wonderfully complex melange of fruit, spice and herbal influences, with notes of cherry, orange, chocolate and a hint of something that honestly reminded me of capers, which I mean as a compliment, albeit an odd one. The finish lasts forever; a long, drawn-out kiss of cocoa, marshmallow and spice that you can taste for a couple of minutes afterward.
Damn. I went into this tasting hoping that we might avoid ascending ratings that correlated neatly with proof and price point, but the 1920 Prohibition Style is easily the most memorable and exciting of the three offerings in the Whiskey Row series. I look forward to seeing how its explosive character may work in classic whiskey cocktails, but I imagine that it would pointless to worry about dilution being a problem. This one has character to spare for such an application. If you’re in the market to drop $60-65 on a bottle, this is an intriguing option to do so.
All in all, the entries in the Whiskey Row series grow increasingly more exciting as they ascend. The 1897 Bottled in Bond is an excellent, well-balanced bottle that has equal utility in cocktails and neat drinking. The 1920 Prohibition Style may need a splash of water for some drinkers, but it’s also one of the more approachable 115 proof liquors I’ve ever consumed. There aren’t many bourbons in the 115 range that I’ll consider drinking without at least a little splash, but this one certainly doesn’t need a splash to be palatable. That in itself is an accomplishment.
The only hurdle to some consumers is likely to be the price points, but considering that this lineup is still being produced, it would appear that the brands have found some fans in the last few years. Keep an eye out for potential deals on them at your local liquor store.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor imbiber. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks coverage.