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Old Forester Barrel Strength Single Barrel Bourbon Comparison

Old Forester Barrel Strength Single Barrel Bourbon Comparison

Old Forester’s success over the past few years has been attributed to their efforts in making the brand more upscale while still remaining affordable and accessible.  This is why you can find their Whiskey Row products on the shelf of almost any liquor store for a reasonable price.  Sure, Old Forester has a super-premium line of products like Birthday Bourbon, President’s Choice and King of Kentucky, but those are annual releases and very allocated. 

Old Forester Barrel Proof

The folks at Brown Forman saw a gap in the middle ground where there was a lack of higher priced, non-allocated bourbons.  Early this year, it was announced that they were finally revamping their single barrel line to move away from the 90 proof standard offering to a choice between letting stores decide if they wanted their single barrel bottled at barrel proof or 100 proof.  The world of enthusiasts was instantly abuzz with this news.

But even before the first bottle was released, there were some critics of Brown Forman’s decision to simply allow barrels to be bottled at higher proofs.  There were no further suggestions of additional aging from the previous single barrels, which were often assumed to be between 4 to 6 years old.  Old Forester looks at its distillate as different from the rest because they use heated warehouses.  The concept of a heated warehouse is that in the dead of winter, they will button up the entire building and turn on giant boilers that give all of the barrels inside a nice steam bath upwards of 75 degrees or more for many weeks.  This, in effect, produces another cycle of heat to the barrel that helps push the liquid inside of the wood while other non-heated warehouses in Kentucky would normally be in a dormant state. 

Opinions seem to center around this process imparting “age” to the heated barrels by a factor of .5 to 1 year extra to every year aged compared to a traditionally stored barrel.  For context, they would claim that a 4 year old barrel now tastes like how a 6 to 8 year old barrel would taste from another Kentucky distillery.  Coming full circle, many critics complained that while the barrels didn’t taste young anymore, they seemed to lack the sweetness and complexity that Father Time would’ve normally given them.  In other words: there was something off-putting about barrel proof Old Forester that had prevented Brown Forman from ever doing a mass bottling like this before.  But Brown Forman, hungry to regain lost profits from the tariff wars, charged ahead by giving the majority of consumers what they had been asking for.

Big Red Liquors gets the title as the first store in Indiana (and one of the first dozen stores in the US) to receive the new single barrels in early August of this year.  They got to pick two barrels and named them “Honey Hole” and “Spice Jam.”  Both names are obviously callbacks to the dominate flavors found in each barrel, but a certain part of me can’t help but wonder if Matt at Big Red picked the name “Honey Hole” as a shot across the bow to local competitor Rural Inn, who proclaims they are “Indy’s Bourbon Honey Hole.”  It almost feels like there’s a little animosity going on here!

But how do these barrels stack up against each other?  Time to dive in and check them out!  Since this was not a competition, I sampled them both knowing which one I was drinking and wrote down my notes.  

“Honey Hole” Warehouse H, Floor 3, 124.5 proof

Nose: A dry woody scent hits the nose first, eventually transitioning to wildflowers and gingerbread cookies.  There’s honey cakes (Medovik) and finely grated nutmeg aromas.  For being so dry, the light vanilla scents and dried cherries provides a welcome change of pace.

Palate: Reading about these Old Forester SiB’s months in advance told me that I could expect heat, and they were right.  The opening salvo in my mouth is hot, hot, hot.  Sharp cinnamon spices, cracked peppercorns and fireball candies all light up my tongue while licorice, dried cherries and cranberries and even virgin walnut oil give me pause for the unique flavors in this one.  But the one defining trait of this bourbon is the dryness it exudes.  Most bourbon notes start off with honeys, syrups or sugars being the primary sweet notes, but this one does not seem to have much of those.

Finish: Wood Varnish, harsh tannins and dry leather all imprint a memory of age, but they don’t come along with much sweetness making the finish just something you want to get through rather than savor.  There’s plenty of spices here as well, with clove, allspice and ground cinnamon too. Finally, there’s some crystallized ginger that is the telltale sign that this is a ryed mashbill.

Score: 6.5/10

Final Thoughts

The lack of sweetness in this dram doesn’t make for a very inviting sip.  The powerful tannins will please a drinker that appreciates full bodied, dry red wines, cigar smoke and high age statements on their bourbons like the Orphan Barrel line, but for me the only saving grace of this one was the nose that always seemed pleasant, albeit misleading.

“Spice Jam” Warehouse K, Floor 5, 127.7 proof

Nose: Seasoned oak seems softer and more perfume-y than “Honey Hole.”  There’s soft cinnamon, cocoa powder and ground ginger on the nose.  Generally, the whole nose is a pleasing punch of Fall baking spices.  There’s even some dried fruit reminiscent of a Christmastime Fruit Cake.

Palate: Fruit leathers, seasoned oak, cherry pipe tobacco and fresh leather.  These all seem to give this dram the allure of being well-aged.  There’s ground cinnamon, toasted orange zest and lots of red pepper flakes which warm up the tongue considerably.  The one off-putting flavor is the tiny sensation that is like getting a little bit of Pledge furniture polish on your tongue.  It’s not totally distracting, but it’s there.

Finish: My tongue still detects a long, lingering spice, much like chili powder and white peppercorns long after the sip is done.  The heat is so persistent that I can feel with every breath that passes over my tongue.  Dry tobacco leaf and dried fruits are present too, but the heat covers it up quickly.

Score: 7.8/10

Final Thoughts

The most important thing that Spice Jam is missing is balance.  While the big news could be the lack of sweetness, the main headline was that the biggest and boldest flavors really just centered on the powerful punch of tannins.  So while Spice Jam is clearly better than Honey Hole, this one is still lacking in cohesiveness that whiskies that rank an 8 or above always seem to contain.

I talk with a lot of people about tasting and reviews.  Many share the attitude that you should only rate whiskey when done totally blind (meaning you have no idea what’s in your glass).  They have a point when they say when you go into a tasting armed with the knowledge of those that came before you, you could end up detecting things that aren’t really there.  I don’t always see it that way though.  When I read initial reviews for barrel proof Old Forester single barrels and how they ranged from bad to average, I resented them.  Surely they were just a couple of bad barrels that got caught in the mix or even that the reviewers palate just didn’t jive with Brown Forman products? 

But as I tasted each of these it became apparent that what I read was right.  And the thing is that I have had experience with another extremely underwhelming Old Forester product: 1897 Bottled in Bond.  Many of the same dry and unsweet notes that I found in that bottle were amplified here.  This is all so strange to me as I’ve generally liked 1910, 1920 and Statesmen bourbons.  

Whatever Old Forester is doing to these barrels or this mashbill is a real mystery.  Or is it?  My opinion is that it has something to do with the way these barrels are heat-cycled in their warehouses that directly influences the amount of sweetness the juice contains or the amount of tannins it carries.  Certainly products like King of Kentucky and President’s Choice (products that have been aged 15 and 9 years respectively) are outliers, which is why they’re probably so limited.  But products like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon has been guilty of being less-than-stellar juice for the price and has many of the same “wood cleaner” and bitterness qualities found in these Barrel Proof single barrels.  I think it’s high time that Old Forester starts re-thinking its heated warehouse approach and just let the barrels age like everyone else.  They might find out that you can’t outsmart mother nature and that there’s no such thing as shortcuts in bourbon.

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Ratings Breakdown

1 | Disgusting | Drain pour (Example: Jeffers Creek)

2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it

3 | Bad | Flawed (AD Laws 4 Grain BiB, Clyde Mays anything)

4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have (Tincup 10 year)

5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary (Larceny, Sazerac Rye)

6 | Very Good | Better than average (Buffalo Trace, OGD BiB)

7 | Great | Well above average (Old Ezra Barrel Proof, Old Weller Antique)

8 | Excellent | Exceptional (Michter’s Barrel Proof Rye, Four Roses Barrel Strength)

9 | Incredible | Extraordinary (GTS, 13 Year MGP or Canadian Rye)

10 | Insurpassable | Nothing Else Comes Close (William Larue Weller)

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