Even in the pandemic, the passage of time has a way of sneaking up on us—can it really be time for another birthday? For another birthday bourbon already? Thankfully, Old Forester is here to remind us of this yearly gift to whiskey geeks.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is perhaps Brown-Forman’s best-known yearly limited release, and a hotly desired and hunted one in recent years. We’ve written about the problems inherent in bourbon price gouging in recent years, especially in the form of gouging from retailers, and Birthday Bourbon is one of those top-tier limited releases that is capable of driving the same kind of hype and gouging as even the most sought-after stuff from Buffalo Trace. We won’t sugarcoat it—your chances of finding this stuff in the wild are always going to be low, and you may be horrified by the price tag you see next to it. But Birthday Bourbon is at the very least a very interesting release from year to year, one that can be good to seek out a few ounces at a time from quality whiskey bars, in order to see where Master Taster Jackie Zykan is taking the series on a yearly basis. In particular, this 2021 release is one that stands out as unique among other Birthday Bourbon releases.
First, though, here’s the specs. Like all yearly Birthday Bourbon releases, this one is composed of barrels laid down during a single day of distillation: April 16, 2009. That makes this year’s entry 12 years old, a bit of an uptick from last year’s 10-year-old batch (they’ve ranged from 9-14 years). It weighs in at 104 proof, on the higher side for the series, just barely under the high-water mark of 105 proof in 2019. Official MSRP is $130, although it will probably be quite difficult to find at that price except at state-run liquor stores, which of course provide their own challenges. Nobody said this was going to be easy, folks.
Zykan, who has become the face of the Old Forester brand in recent years, has the following to say about this year’s 2021 Birthday Bourbon: “This year, we’ve composed a bold and compelling offering which showcases the unique fruit-forward side of Old Forester. Playful berry undertones with summery dessert notes balance out to our flagship spice finish while taking sippers on a textural journey from velvety to dry mouthfeel.”
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting!
On the nose, my initial thought when approaching this bourbon was that it wasn’t quite as fruit-forward as I was expecting from Zykan’s description—certainly not as fruity as either the #1 or #2 releases of Old Forester’s 150th Anniversary Bourbon from last year. Instead, what jumped out at me was dark, caramelized sugar notes, and significant oaky roast/char. However, as this whiskey sat in my glass for a few minutes, my senses seemed to realign on the nose—the very dark caramel and vanillas were still there, giving it a definite crème brulee vibe on the nose, but they were joined by dark fruit syrup that became more and more pronounced. Lots of black cherry comes out over time, along with some brighter red berries. These are met by glazed pecans/butter pecan and roasted hazelnuts to complete an interesting, enticing nose. Everything about it reads as very “dark”—the dark fruits, the dark caramelized sugars, the charred oak.
On the palate, this one is even more interesting and unexpected than it was on the nose. It’s quite easy to drink for its proof point, with flavors that first burst with plenty of spice—spicy oak, anise, licorice and something in the realm of Dr. Pepper spice. There’s vanilla as well, which contributes its own floral qualities, but the fruit again works its way in slowly—dark and seductive rather than bright or “jammy.” The most interesting thing about this palate is the relative dryness of it, though—it delivers many of the notes that Old Forester bourbons often do, but in a less decadent and desserty way than many releases, including many other generations of Birthday Bourbon. There’s really only flashes of sweetness, and a finish that is dry and moderately oaky, without ever being unpleasantly astringent. This is something I find really interesting—a less decadent spin on some classic Old Forester flavors.
Do I “like” it more than I like those sweeter variations? I’m honestly not sure, but I am struck by how individualistic this one is. And in a landscape that is choked full of limited releases, preserving some degree of uniqueness is a victory in and of itself.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 52% (104 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $130 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.