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Every year that I try to do a review for Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, I struggle just a little bit with coming up with some introductory information about the label before diving into my tasting notes. This year, after I did a lot of homework studying the warehouses at the Brown Forman Distillery, I feel as if I have a little bit more information to work with. So if you’re a person who likes to analyze and compare, read on.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
First the basics – Old Forester Birthday Bourbon’s release is timed with George Garvin Brown’s birthday – September 2nd. There’s no funny story to attach to the 2023 release (unlike the 2021 release). But some of the basics about this annual bottling include:
- The majority of Birthday Bourbon releases use 90 to 120 barrels of bourbon.
- The large majority of releases have been aged for 12 years and the average proof has been around 97.
- These aren’t just random barrels either – typically they’re the product of one day of distilling and have been identified early on in their life for the qualities that OF is looking for in a Birthday Bourbon release. They’re marked so that they aren’t mistakenly pulled and dumped into another product.
- Most of the Birthday Bourbon releases come from a single warehouse. Occasionally there are releases that are a blend of 2 warehouses. The last time that was done (or at least, publicized that it was done) was 2018 when the batch consisted of barrels from Warehouses I and J.
By the way, if you are familiar with how bourbon is normally aged from the other heritage Kentucky distilleries, but have never read about Old Forester’s way of aging or their warehouses, check out my article here. It’s got a lot of information that I don’t think anyone else has ever reported on.
What makes the 2023 release different?
I know many people will point to Old Forester’s use of heat-cycled warehouses and say that there can’t be that much variation among the barrels. After all, if everything is temperature controlled, then everything must be the same, right? Not so fast.
For starters, 2 out of the 7 warehouses are not heat-cycled anymore (G and H). One of those warehouses is not connected to another (B). The remaining 4 have their own quirks such as the lack of a mezzanine floor between the concrete floors (L and B) or are the hottest when the heat is on (I). Today we’re going to focus on the warehouse that the barrels for the 2023 Birthday Bourbon came from: Warehouse I.
Warehouse I is connected to warehouse J. During my calculations for average barrel proofs according to the single barrels that have been released, Warehouse I has some of the highest. And I’m not talking about the top floors either. Warehouse I outperforms every other warehouse (with the exception of a few floors on B) in terms of the average barrel proof when the barrels are done aging. See my statistical analysis of every warehouse here.
I can only assume this means that Warehouse I is the hottest warehouse on average because if humidity levels are equal between all of them, then the higher temperatures could be the only cause of increased alcohol content. And just to prove my theory a little bit more, Warehouses G and H – the ones that are no longer heat cycled – register the lowest average proofs of barrel strength single barrels across all floors.
The allure of Warehouse I
I’m not saying that all barrels that come from Warehouse I are going to taste the same. However, I do believe that there are some differences between their designs and the way they operate contribute to slightly different characteristics. I sampled through over 10 single barrel bottles from each warehouse and compiled a list of the most commonly-found profile notes for each. Here is what I said about Warehouse I:
Profile: Expect to find lots of honey and toffee for sweetness from barrels coming from this warehouse. The overall profile is that of a classic bourbon through-and-through. Bourbon coming from Warehouse I, which produces some of the highest-proofed barrels on average, has noticeably more chocolate. Other standout notes include creamy vanilla – like that of a cheesecake – with cherries and baked apples being the most dominant fruit notes.
And just for good measure, here is a list of notable Brown-Forman bottles that have came out of Warehouse I:
- Half of the barrels selected for the 2011 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the 6th Floor
- Barrels selected for the 2013 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the 7th Floor
- Half of the barrels selected for the 2014 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the middle floors
- 27 barrels selected for the 2018 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the 3rd Floor
- Barrels selected for the 2019 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the 2nd Floor
- Barrels selected for the 2023 Birthday Bourbon release were sourced from the 5th Floor
- All King of Kentucky Single Barrels bottled in 2021 were sourced from Warehouse I (possibly all from the 3rd Floor)
- The highest-proofed Barrel Strength Bottle came from this warehouse clocking in at 136.5 proof
Even before the details of the 2023 Birthday Bourbon came out, I determined that Warehouse I was one of my favorite warehouses in the Brown-Forman arsenal. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve had from it and think the extra heat really helps create something special. So now it’s time to turn my attention to this year’s bottle and see if the hype I have for it stands up to the test. As usual, I’ve sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Sweet oak scents accompany antique oak scents upon first sniff. There is plenty of cinnamon spice that accompany cardamom, anise and potpourri too. Oddly, most of the spice notes come off as “dry” which is a strange thing to say about smells. Sweet aromas come from brown sugar, but aren’t as much as previous years’. But in my opinion, Birthday Bourbons are never known by their sweetness and are judged more by their fruit instead. In that case, we have a decent amount like banana, figs, raisins and strawberry. Most come off like they’ve been made into a Fruit Rollup.
Palate: A very complex palate that has a lot of flavors coming at you all at once. On the fruit side of things, the first flavor I get is cherry. Then it’s a domino effect of lemon peel, raspberries and slightly unripe strawberries. On the lighter side I get rose petals, eucalyptus and breakfast tea. The high rye content of the Old Forester recipe shows itself through cinnamon and candy cane flavors.
But the notes that really tell you that you’re drinking a bourbon with age can be found through flavors like melted chocolate, oak, toffee, nuts and Pledge Wood Cleaner. All of these come off as more drying than in years past, which kind of dings its overall rating.
Finish: The finish continues with the drying sensation and not even an uptick in molasses sweetness can help it out. Tobacco leaf combines with cedar wood and a sort of “dusty fig” that create the essence of well-aged bourbon, but to some it might come off as heavy-handed. The high-rye nature of the mash bill is at play again on the finish with spice notes of anise that get very close to the flavor of black licorice.
If you’ve read any of my previous Old Forester Birthday Bourbon reviews, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate for trying this by itself and without drinking anything else (especially something high proofed) before it. That’s because this bourbon is not designed to carpet bomb your tastebuds into submission. It’s more delicate and nuanced and rewards you with layers of complexity if you just take the time to savor and study it. There aren’t many other sub-100 proof bottles out there that can replicate what Old Forester does with their Birthday Bourbon release.
With that being said, I have rated 2023’s Birthday Bourbon slightly lower than previous year’s releases. The main reason being that there is a slight disparity in terms of dry flavors to sweet flavors. Old Forester products have never really been known for their overly “sweet” profiles anyway (at least to me) but that has never stopped me from liking them. That’s usually because they’ve had a good balance of all flavors. But this year’s bottle seems to lean towards the drier end of the spectrum. Thank god it still packs a variety of fruits, spice and high-rye traits.
When it comes to what people think of a new bourbon release, I typically find a lot of “hive-minded” opinions from reviews and general word-of-mouth. The physical manifestation of these opinions show up on the secondary price of the bottles. This would explain why this year’s OFBB value has plummeted this year. It’s down to $700 compared to the previous year when it was going for $800. Granted, the secondary market is dropping as a whole, but not by that much. Therefore the only explanation I can give is that this year’s release is not as well-regarded as previous ones.
Why am I commenting about all of that? Because I think enthusiasts tend to get carried away when they hear and see those opinions. Then, the next thing you know they’re calling a top-tier bourbon like this “trash.” Let me set the record straight; this year’s Birthday Bourbon is not trash. It’s just as tasty as ever and it will reward the mindful drinker. But it is a bit different in profile from previous years. Some of that came from the higher proofs and (occasionally) younger ages which made them sweeter and allowed more fruit notes to poke through. Old Forester hasn’t fallen off with this release, instead, I think that the barrels they picked this year show off just how wide-ranging the character of their bourbon can be. And while some many not find the profile of this year’s Birthday Bourbon to be to their liking, I still found plenty of things to love.
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