There’s no denying the sheer breadth of history in the brand, when it comes to Old Forester. The Brown-Forman-owned company can lay claim to the title of longest-running bourbon in the U.S. market, and was the first bourbon whiskey to be sold exclusively in sealed bottles, effectively launching the mode of whiskey retail in 1870 that has persisted for a century and a half at this point. It’s one of only a handful of brands that can likewise claim an interrupted operation during the 13 years of American Prohibition, 1920-1933, when the company persisted under the auspices of legally producing whiskey for “medicinal” purposes. As Old Forester turns 150 years old in 2020, they doubtlessly have a whole lot of history to celebrate.
And of course, there’s one obvious way to mark such an occasion, especially in the modern bourbon market: The release of some limited edition whiskeys. Thus, we have the following trifecta: Three separate batches of the newly unveiled Old Forester 150th Anniversary Bourbon, presented at batch proof and without filtration, each focused on highlighting a different corner of Old Forester’s complex flavor profile. In all, 150 barrels were chosen by Master Distiller Chris Morris, and then separated and blended by Master Taster Jackie Zykan to create the three different, high-octane batches of relatively similar size, which she referred to as “deconstructed Old Forester.”
Typical of the Old Forester line, none have age statements. They come in commemorative tubes, ‘ala single malt scotch, and have fairly hefty MSRPs of $150—a bit more than the $90 of Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Proof, or $130 of 2020’s Birthday Bourbon, but when you’ve got limited releases like Kentucky Owl Dry State out there with $1,000 MSRPs, it’s hard to get worked up about it. That price point is also $100 less than this year’s King of Kentucky, also from Brown-Forman, which can boast the 14-year age statement and a similar proof.
We graciously received samples of all three bourbons from Old Forester, so let’s dive into all three batches, which proved to be fascinatingly different from one another.
ABV: 62.8% (125.6 proof)
Each batch of Old Forester 150th Anniversary was summed up by Zykan in just a few words to set the tone for what drinkers can expect. Batch 1’s description is “fruit bomb,” and it is composed of 46 barrels. In a virtual tasting with media, Zykan described this batch as her personal favorite, citing its huge mouthfeel and depth of richness.
This definitely proves to be the most purely rich of the three batches, which will undoubtedly win it some fans among the whiskey geeks. The nose is very dark in nature, which becomes an operative word in this batch in general—it is all about dark flavors. There’s a lot of chocolate here, and dark fruit like black cherry, along with coffee and significant roastiness.
On the palate, this is deep caramel and very rich and syrupy in texture, seguing into char and smoke. The distillery describes it as the fruitiest of the three expressions, but it’s very dark fruit compote/jam, and reads as perhaps less purely fruity to me than the second batch. There’s slight mint/rye grain impressions on the back end, but this batch very much is a showcase for caramelized sugars, unctuous mouthfeel and dark, roasty flavors.
ABV: 63.2% (126.4 proof)
Zykan’s stinger of a description on this batch: “Sweet and spry.” It weighs in ever-so-slightly stronger, and with a few more barrels to the batch at 48.
On the nose, Batch 2 has the interesting property of reflecting some of the same notes as Batch 1, but in a different way. I’m getting red fruitiness again here, but it’s a much brighter cherry/raspberry note than the more syrupy dark fruit preserves of Batch 1. It’s also complemented by a bit of the banana for which Brown-Forman bourbon is famous, but none of these three batches strike me as having the banana note as prominently as 2020’s batch of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. In fact, I get a brighter citrus note here as well, along with spicy oak, although the ethanol here does sting a bit as well.
On the palate, “spry” was a good choice of words by Zykan—this just feels lighter and more mobile than the comparatively staid quality of Batch 1, if you’re asking me. Both banana and cherry fruitiness are considerably more bright this time around, contrasting nicely with a darker maltiness that then gives way to spice of all kinds. There’s pepper, there’s rye spice and something like root beer, but the label that keeps coming to mind for me is “cherry cola.” Zykan is likewise correct that this one has a bit more accessible sweetness, which gives it a well-rounded approach. Of the three, it’s the most assertive in terms of the baking spices, with a “festive” vibe that makes it a favorite for me.
ABV: 63.4% (126.8 proof)
The third of the batches is the strongest (slightly), the largest batch at 53 barrels, and it’s also by far the most individualistic and unique of the group. Whereas Batch 1 and Batch 2 were sort of like different ways of presenting some of the same themes, Batch 3 strikes off in a different direction entirely. Zykan’s three-word stinger: “Green and spice.”
Batch 3 is much less fruit driven on the nose, and curiously it also seems significantly less boozy despite having the highest proof of the three. That gentler ethanol allows you to access some softer, more floral and fresher notes, along with gentle brown sugar cookie sweetness. This comes off as herbaceous and spicy in a fascinating way—rye driven, but delicate.
On the palate, this also doesn’t read as all that hot, offering perhaps the most nuanced of the three batches. There’s a delicate sweetness running throughout, and a resinous pine or rosemary quality unique to this batch, along with butterscotch and a final note of spice that leans a bit toward anise. I find myself admiring how different this one is from the others—although the profile of Batch 2 is perhaps closest to my own personal sweet spot, Batch 3 feels like one that is likely to grow on me most as I revisit it.
Now, are any of these quite as transcendent as say, King of Kentucky? Probably not, but you could argue that they’re really not designed to compete directly against that, or surpass it—the MSRPs are, after all, $100 less. They do compare favorably against Birthday Bourbon releases of the last few years, and you can’t deny that making this release three separate batches in commemorative tubes is likely to turn out the whiskey collectors in force. Thankfully, the tubes do in fact display the batch number on their exterior, so there’s no need to tear open tubes in your package store looking for a specific batch.
It will be interesting to see which of the batches emerges as the “favorite” of the whiskey geek literati. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Batch #1 receive the most praise, especially with Zykan’s blessing and because it’s (by a tiny amount) the “most limited,” but if I came across all three in a store my heart would be pulling me in the direction of Batch 2, or possibly Batch 3.
With all that said, I shudder to think of what price-gouging package stores will attempt to charge for these bottles, when they already are regularly charging 400% MSRP on Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. Here’s hoping that you possess the means to come across these bottles at (or at least near) MSRP.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.