I can’t help but find Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald strategy perennially interesting. This whiskey, a wheated bourbon, is among the distillery’s most sought-after limited releases—a very successful reclamation of a bonded bourbon brand that was once a bottom shelf staple years ago, and today something that package stores will sadly gouge you for. But the most fascinating thing about the Old Fitzgerald brand is how totally transient it is from one release to the next, in terms of the makeup of what “Old Fitzgerald” is supposed to be. Sure, it’s always a 100 proof, bonded, wheated bourbon, but what other limited release series varies in age from 8 years old in one batch, to 16 years old in another? Can you really call both of those products “Old Fitzgerald,” when one is fully twice as old as the other? This isn’t a “slight variation,” it’s a fundamental one. That’s what makes Heaven Hill’s choice so interesting—they’ve avoided the desire or mandate to make Old Fitzgerald into a static concept, bound by consumer expectations of consistency. Instead, each batch of Old Fitzgerald simply ages until the distillery deems something good has emerged. And in good news for those who can manage to get this stuff at MSRP, the price scales up and down with its age.
Naturally, this large degree of variation makes for endless whiskey geek debate about the merits of each Old Fitzgerald batch, which is probably what the folks at Heaven Hill intended all along. But if there’s one thing this Spring 2021 batch illustrates, it’s that the age statements on any given bottle of Old Fitzgerald are just a number, and don’t correlate which each other particularly strongly. Having tasted 14 and 15-year-old versions, I emerged liking one batch significantly more than the other. And having now tasted 9 and 8-year-old versions, the same thing has happened again.
In fact, I’ll just make it clear right here: This new, 8-year-old version of Old Fitzgerald—the youngest yet in the decanter bottle era at Heaven Hill—is one of the best pure Old Fitzgerald releases to date. Despite the lower age statement, this stuff is undeniably delicious, and it has a pretty attractive price point to boot. It’s my favorite Old Fitzgerald since the 15-year-old of Fall 2019, and I definitely mean that as a compliment.
So let’s get right to the tasting, and see what makes this iteration of Old Fitzgerald stand out so nicely.
On the nose, this one is a true caramel bomb—absolutely awash in a combination of dulce de leche, toffee, caramel candies and nuts. The mild nuttiness evokes peanut brittle, in a way that is very “Heaven Hill” indeed, and it’s joined by little flourishes that deepen the nose—a bit of chocolate, maybe a hint of strawberry. But first and foremost, this one is just a lovely showcase for caramelized sugars, and the nose smacks of sweetness and richness. The only downside here is that it reads a bit hot to me, even for the 100 proof, on first inspection. As the bourbon sat in my glass, that hotter ethanol character eventually seemed to blow off, leaving nothing but caramelized decadence, but it was a little stinging on first inspection.
On the palate, I have no complaint about the ethanol—it seems dialed in nicely to the 100 proof mark, not that this is the first thing one is really likely to notice. As on the nose, you’re more likely to appreciate the sheer decadence here, with lots of liquid toffee and vanilla, into the baking spices that often typify Heaven Hill’s particular wheated bourbon mashbill. This time around, I find myself thinking of gingerbread/cake confections, enhanced by a texture that is particularly silky smooth and slightly syrupy. Hints of fresh red berries and nutmeg close things out.
All in all, I can’t help but feel like this is without a doubt the best bang-for-your-buck that has existed in the Old Fitzgerald series since it transitioned into a premiumized bourbon. The MSRP of $85 is still nothing to sneeze at, but as I said earlier, this compares nicely to some of the other Old Fitz entries that have MSRPs of $150 or more, and that’s before even taking the secondary market and price gouging package stores into consideration. Perhaps most telling overall is the fact that I’ve previously sampled the Spring 2020 iteration of Old Fitz, which was 9 years old, and this one strikes me as superior in pretty much every way. If there had ever been a bottle in this series that was easy for me to rationalize buying, this is it.
It likely goes without saying, but keep an eye out for Old Fitzgerald Spring 2021.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Wheated straight bourbon
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $85 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.