To think that Old Forester was once a brand that was pretty much set in stone, without many special releases to its name besides the annual Birthday Bourbon … well, those days are long gone. The modern Old Forester has seen quite a bit of line expansion, such as the popular Whiskey Row series, along with film tie-ins, cocktail provisions, bottled mint juleps and more. Last year, the brand released special, limited edition 150th Anniversary bourbons, and now it’s time to unveil the newest, in the form of the Old Forester 117 Series.
This is essentially an experimental series of Old Forester releases, notable for being the first Old Forester bottle in 150 years to bear the signature of a woman—Master Taster Jackie Zykan. The idea is to “showcase the many facets of the Old Forester flavors,” by bottling unusual selections of barrels. The first is titled The 117 Series: High Angels’ Share, and unlike most limited releases this one is also notable for being quite fairly priced, at just $50. It’s likely safe to assume that it’s younger whiskey as a result, but it’s impossible to say—almost all Old Forester products already don’t bear age statements. This first release is bottled at 110 proof, just a scooch below the popular Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style.
What you’re getting here is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the name: Bourbon from barrels that lost an unusually high volume to the “angels’ share,” the portion of liquid that evaporates during the aging process. It’s natural for a whiskey newbie to assume that this process would be more or less the same in every barrel, but it an actually vary drastically, depending on factors such as warehouse location, temperature and tiny details in barrel construction. Nor do water and alcohol automatically evaporate at the same rate—in some conditions, water evaporates faster, resulting in a stronger spirit. Other times, the opposite happens, and this is why cask strength can vary so much at a single distillery, even if all the barrels are filled at the same proof.
Future releases in The 117 Series (named for the distiller’s Whiskey Row address on Main Street in Louisville) “may explore selections from specific warehouses, barrel manipulations, deconstructed blends and more,” according to the press release. Says the Master Taster of the series:
“Creating The 117 Series has been a labor of love and seeing my signature on the label is one of the highlights of my career. My mind is exploding with the endless possibilities of this smaller scale of experimentation and innovation,” said Jackie Zykan. “This series presents an opportunity to pull the curtain back and share the isolates of the blending process to help deepen the understanding of how variants in maturation affect flavor profile. We’re playing in uncharted territory here and those who love Old Forester like we do will have the chance to explore with us.”
So with all that said, let’s see what 117 Series: High Angels’ Share tastes like.
On the nose, this expression leads off strong with a potent combination of chocolate, bright red fruit, baking spice and an underlying, slightly more musty graininess. There’s a fair amount going on here to unpack—the ethanol is fairly potent, but to my mind it never gets in the way of enjoying the bright fruit notes of raspberry preserves, along with more of a dark, dried fruit (raisin)/vinous character. These notes pair well with anise-like spice, and a brownie-like fudginess.
On the palate, the first word that comes to mind is indeed “concentrated.” I can’t say that I’m able to 100% define that adjective when it comes to describing a whiskey with it, as it isn’t a descriptor I’m typically reaching for, but here I would say it means an intensity of fruitiness, in the same mode that one might describe a wine as “concentrated.” This is indeed a fruit-forward dram, and surprisingly bright in nature, with fresh (almost “juicy”) red raspberry or cranberry in conjunction with more vinous dried fruit, milk chocolate, malted milk balls, treacle and ginger. Sweetness is moderate to high, giving this one a festive, semi-desserty profile. On the back end, it has a spicier dimension of gingerbread and cloves.
All in all, I quite like this. You certainly can’t accuse it of being boring, that’s for sure, and although the red fruity notes are ones I often find in some Old Forester releases, these ones feel brighter and more vivacious in character than I’ve tasted in the past. All in all, I think the profile simply works well, and I commend Brown-Forman for putting out a “limited release” that carries a merely $50 MSRP. I think just about every whiskey geek would love to see some more of that.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 55% (110 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.