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Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2021) Review

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2021) Review

Prior to Brown-Forman opening the Old Forester Distillery on Whiskey Row in 2018, the only way for enthusiasts to get their hands on rare or unique bottles from the brand was to hope and pray that their local shops would get them in. Then they had to make sure they were on good enough terms to actually have the chance to buy one of those bottles. But now that there was finally a gift shop serving as the epicenter for allocated bottle releases, all of that changed. Now you just had to be in the right spot on the right day and you could score the same bottles that you’d have to wait so long for before.

Enthusiasts quickly caught on to this fact and began to use it to their advantage. Workers whose jobs were close to the distillery would poke in throughout the day to see if special releases were put out. They collaborated with others to alert them when special releases hit. Specific dates known for allocated bottle drops were circled on calendars like the repeal of Prohibition, Black Friday or even George Garvin Brown’s birthday. What’s so special about that last one? That’s the release date of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.

Each September 2nd from 2019 to 2021, the lines outside of the Whiskey Row distillery grew larger. Enthusiasts lined up earlier, forming annoying queues that spanned around the block. Public urination was frequent. Some people even paid the homeless to stand in line with them to grab extra bottles. All of these things drew more unwanted attention from tourists and passerby’s. It was starting to become a problem.

The Bourbon Culture’s Instagram Post on August 31, 2021

2021 was the breaking point for Brown-Forman. Reports trickled in that people were setting up their chairs on August 31st – a full 48 hours before Birthday Bourbon’s release. Within 12 hours, the line wrapped so far around the block that it began to snake underneath the US-31 bridge that spans the Ohio River. Local businesses and citizens that lived and worked downtown complained about all of the ugly people blocking the entrances to businesses and the internet memes were priceless. It was a PR nightmare for Old Forester.

Eventually, gift shop representatives were told to disperse the crowd before the encampment became a full-blown Hooverville. They went outside and braved the stench to hand out redeemable bottle tickets about 20 hours before the big release. Then they told the ragtag mob to get the hell out of there. Of course, there weren’t enough tickets for everyone (only about 100 were passed out to the roughly 500 people in line) which made the situation even more frustrating for the remaining tagabonds (a combination of tater and vagabond). It was a bad look overall for Brown-Forman. Afterwards, they announced that there would no longer be a Birthday Bourbon drop on September 2nd. You’d just have to try your luck on random days from now on.

2021 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and how it’s different from the rest

For years, Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon had been bottled at 12 years old. It was a tradition that hadn’t budged since the release of an 8 year old batch in 2004. For unknown reasons, the 2019 and 2020 OFBB saw a drop in age to 11 and 10 year old age statements respectively. An explanation was never given, but most Kentucky distilleries had very lean years due to the sudden explosion in popularity. Thankfully for 2021, the 12 year age statement was reprised. In another stroke of luck, it was also bottled with the second-highest recorded alcohol content of all the Birthday Bourbons – 104 proof.

All 119 barrels that made up the 2021 release were matured in Warehouse G. If you’ve yet to read my article on the differences between Old Forester warehouses, then let me spoil the surprise. Warehouse G (and H) has been not heat-cycled since around 2018. The reasons for this are not known, but probably revolve around Brown-Forman seeing if they can create the same style of bourbon as the heat-cycled barrels for a fraction of the cost. The profiles are going to be different and I even noted in that article that average barrel proof is lower in Warehouses G and H than they are in Warehouses B, I, J, K and L. I even note that the high-rye character of the distillate seems to be more noticeable when coming from G and H.

So does the 2021 release of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon have any special traits about it that would indicate that it’s different from the rest? Does the additional proof help or hurt it? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: A pleasant sensation of ripe, red fruits enters my nose followed by baking spice notes of cinnamon, anise, nutmeg. I am finding lots of soft ‘Nilla Wafers scents along with the slightly bitter note of Baking Chocolate. The oak is well aged, but not necessarily “antiqued” like I’ve found in many other OFBBs. Brown-Forman products all seem to have a banana note, even if it’s very small like in this year’s release, so it didn’t surprise me to find some. I even smell some toasted pecans and graham crackers.

Palate: The 2021 OFBB leans more into a sweet profile that normal. Flavors of caramel, vanilla pudding, chocolate and fudge balance out any bitterness the oak may have brought with it (which doesn’t taste like much). I find tropical fruit like toasted coconut and the woody sensation of almond skins. Other fruits include raspberries, blackberries, cherries, cooked pears and rhubarb pie filling. Does that seem like a lot of fruit to you? It’s typically the norm for me to find in Birthday Bourbon releases and is one of its more telltale characteristics. The high-rye recipe gets to shine through a little bit int he form of menthol and mint. But those just add more pop to an already impressive palate.

Finish: The finish stays sweet thanks to the help of caramel, vanilla and honey. The oak and cherry-flavored tobacco notes become a bit more drying on the end, but never get carried away. A handful of the fruit notes carry over to finish like toasted coconut and ripe banana. Menthol cooling creates a refreshing sensation when I open my mouth. This is fantastic.

Score: 9/10

This is a perfect example of what Old Forester Birthday Bourbon should be. First off, it has plenty of tropical fruits – a trait that I usually find in Old Forester and George Dickel products. Secondly, the oak is flavorful and adds good dimension without being too drying. Third, it has chocolate – an almost mandatory flavor I demand from Old Forester products. Lastly, there are plenty of non-traditional fruit notes that keep my attention aside from plain ol’ cherry. There are so many things that this one does right.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to pick any flaws with this bottle. Even I can’t complain about the proof because it’s the second-highest recorded for a Birthday Bourbon release. But for some reason, many enthusiasts didn’t seem to care as much for the 2021 bottle. I don’t know what the chief complaint was, but other friends that have tried this have told me that there was just something missing for them. I think it’s because each year’s version is different from the last mainly because they switch up the warehouses they select from.

This is way up on there on my list of favorite Birthday Bourbons over the past 5 years. I was a sucker for the 2020’s antiqued-oak profile (it was almost like a dusty) but nothing beats the 2019 so far. Still, to say that any of the ones from 2019, 2020 or 2021 are better or worse than the other is doing them a disservice. Old Forester gives us a Birthday Bourbon every year to show off their wide ranging flavor characteristics without showboating with a barrel proof release. I believe they do the best job out of all the other distilleries with it too. It’s just one more reason why Birthday Bourbon is one of my favorite releases each year.

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