Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon needs no introduction. It’s one of the most sought-after allocated bottles that doesn’t come from Buffalo Trace. It hasn’t always been that way but enthusiasts and novices alike go through extraordinary lengths to obtain a bottle.
Take 2021’s release day at the Old Forester Distillery in downtown Louisville. The line to get a bottle formed 48 hours BEFORE the actual release. It wrapped around the block and underneath the US-31 bridge that goes over the Ohio River.
It was so long that it was starting to impede downtown foot and vehicle traffic. Old Forester was forced to hand out claim tickets so that the crowd would disband and come back on release day.
Old Forester cracks down on the taters
In 2022, Old Forester announced they would not have bottles waiting for enthusiasts at the distillery on September 2nd (which is release day for Birthday Bourbon). Instead, they’d have to enter an online lottery.
The system crashed (like they always do) and the sound of teeth gnashing was heard from coast to coast. It was Bourbon bedlam at its finest.
The 2022 release of Birthday Bourbon was still sought after, but the specs of the release were not as impressive as the previous years.
Enthusiasts who normally devote themselves to cask-strength, highly aged products yearn for Birthday Bourbon to be released with more age and proof. 2019 and 2021 saw two such releases coming in at 11 years old and 105 proof and 12 years old and 104 proof respectively. 2022’s kept the high age statement (11 years old) but dropped the proof to just 96.
What goes into a batch of Birthday Bourbon?
If you have never heard about why the proof of Birthday Bourbon changes, here’s the gist. Each year, the barrels are dumped, batched together and then a large sample is pulled for the tasting panel.
From there, the bourbon is submitted in front of everyone at the panel from around 80 proof all the way up to cask strength. Then they sip through them and debate which proof tastes the best. Birthday Bourbon has never been bottled at cask strength.
Birthday Bourbon is typically the oldest product bottled under the Old Forester name. Virtually all other barrels that come from Old Forester’s warehouses are pulled anywhere from 4 to 6 years old. This is because of the rapid maturation style of their heat-cycled warehouses.
When a particular group of barrels is found to meet the requirements of a great Birthday Bourbon release, they are tagged as such and (presumably) moved to a cooler location in the warehouse so they won’t lose too much liquid to evaporation.
By the way, it has been said that the barrels that are selected are all the product of 1 day of distilling. Previous estimates say that could be around 150 barrels.
Birthday Bourbon Competitors
This may sound weird, but there are two bottles that I compare closely with Birthday Bourbon – Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel and Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon. All three come in around $180, have low proofs and carry high age statements.
Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon is the most closely related because it was technically made by Old Forester (it’s rumored to be closer to their Early Times mash bill) and will continue to be at least until 2026. Both are also easier to find and buy than OFBB.
So will this years be better than them? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Tropical notes of papaya, banana and coconut flesh are a great way to start the dram. There’s plenty of old notes like seasoned oak and wood varnish.
Spice notes show off the rye-forward character of the bourbon with notes of ground pepper and cinnamon. There are darker, sweeter notes like Tootsie Rolls and dark chocolate while additional fruit notes like cherries, baked apples and toasted grapefruit peel add extra dimension.
There are few modern bourbons out there with a nose as good as Birthday Bourbon and this release is no different.
Palate: The first thing I noticed when taking a sip was just how much baking spices can be found. Cinnamon, clove, mild peppercorn and anise/licorice. The taste of very old oak (it tastes like it’s over 18 years old) mixed with leather and cigar wrapper really tells you its age.
Fruit notes like flat grape soda and orange rind gives it a slightly brighter dimension. Sweetness comes across like Caramello candies. But all in all, it’s the high rye flavors that are most obvious.
Finish: Just like the palate, there is more spice to be found once the sip is complete. Lingering notes of clove and cinnamon oil combine with blood orange, overripe banana and tart cherry.
There’s lots of tannins that turn your tongue slightly dry like barrel char and wood varnish. But they’re kept in check with the perfect amount of sweetness. There’s even a nice amount of what I perceive as menthol when I open my mouth, probably from the rye in the mash bill.
The 2022 release is a fantastic example of what a bourbon should be. Complex, nuanced and approachable. It’s a symphony of high-rye flavors combined with tannins that tell a love story of the wonders of new oak maturation.
So does it beat Elijah Craig 18 and Michter’s 10 Year Bourbon? Yes. Does it beat them if we compare their secondary market valuations? No.
2022’s Birthday Bourbon is richer and has more fruit than the Elijah Craig 18 Year. It’s also much more nuanced than Michter’s 10 Year. It’s greatest trait is its complexity.
But if you’re used to bourbons with big proof, you’re going to complain that this needs more oomph. If you’re an impatient drinker who struggles to really sip and savor, you could miss the beauty within.
Throughout my time with this, the theme I kept thinking about is just how much its high-rye character was sticking out. Then it dawned on me – this release is essentially an underproof Old Forester 150th Anniversary Batch 3. I loved Batch 3 because it was different from the other 2. I’m sure if you proofed down that bottle. you’d arrive at something very similar to the 2022 OFBB.
The 2022 release is only hampered by a lack of proof. As I drank this, the biggest ding I could give it was that all of the flavors played a little bit too nicely with each other. That meant that none of them could really stand out over another.
It’s a nit-picky thing, I know, but that’s just how I see it. In the end, this is still one of the best yearly allocated bourbons and there’s no reason not to buy a bottle if you have the chance. The only problem is, you can’t wait in line outside of the distillery for your chance to buy one anymore. Bummer!
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