According to Heaven Hill’s New Zealand website, John E. Fitzgerald’s original “private label” Bourbon was introduced in 1870 and soon became the exclusive Bourbon of railroad and steamship barons and was deeply integrated in the culture of the Old South. Around 1900, "Old Fitz" was released to the American and European public. It was one of the few whiskeys distilled using the pot still method. During Prohibition, Old Fitzgerald was distilled under government supervision for the national medicinal trade. Pappy Van Winkle soon bought the brand for $10,000 and introduced the “Whisper of Wheat” to the original recipe. Diageo eventually owned the brand and sold it to Heaven Hill in 1992, which currently produces and markets it.
This is a Bottled in Bond (BiB) bourbon. To be labelled BiB, the whiskey must be the product of one distillation season and one distiller at a single distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years, and it must be bottled at exactly 100 proof. Additionally, the BiB label must clearly identify the distillery where it was distilled and where it was bottled, if different.
An enjoyable swirl of honey, vanilla, and oak notes. Easy on the nose thanks to additional hints of candy corn and sugar cookies. Overall on the lighter side with a shallow depth of scents. Absent of any harshness.
The bourbon’s slight buttery mouthfeel acts as a enjoyable welcoming agent. It’s immediately evident that oak is the most dominant flavor. It overshadows lighter notes of vanilla and caramel that the bourbon desperately needs more of. Surprisingly, the oak doesn’t come across as overbearing despite this, just one-dimensional. This is due to the overall thinness of the bourbon and its lightweight palate. Much like the nose, there are no bad elements here, only a few OK ones.
What can best be described as a “dry heat” envelopes your mouth in the finish. The oak notes and notable burn combine to leave a rather flat and dry aftertaste. Thankfully this combination doesn’t produce a bitter aftertaste. Instead, the burn slowly mellows as it goes down. Once again the oak is the attention grabber on the finish.
At one time, having wheat as a bourbon’s secondary grain instead of rye made a whiskey unique. Old Fitzgerald was the go-to wheated bourbon for many whiskey drinkers. Maker’s Mark might have been more well-known and mainstream in the later part of the 20th Century, but it was the “Old Fitz” brand where many went for inexpensive, higher aged, higher proof wheated bourbon.
Thanks to the rise in popularity of Pappy Van Winkle there are more than a dozen wheated whiskeys in the marketplace. What was once a unique selling point for the brand, is now more common. Old Fitzgerald BiB has maintained steady availability around Kentucky over the years, but has disappeared from many other parts of the country. Some believe its phasing out is the result of the Heaven Hill rebranding it as “Larceny” as they share the same mashbill. With Larceny arguably a better product and readily available in most parts of the country, there's little need in seeking out Old Fitzgerald anymore.
Coming in at half the cost of many comparable wheated bourbons, Old Fitzgerald’s bargain price does a lot to make up for its shortcomings. This is another budget BiB bourbon on the market that is made for a everyday drinking. It’s inexpensive and easy to drink. It shares many common traits with other sub-$20 whiskeys; it’s thin, lacks flavor depth, is heavily oaked, yet still very drinkable.
Comparing it to Larceny and Maker’s Mark, Old Fitzgerald is notably hotter and its palate a bit more meager. The brands do share many similarities, most damningly their lack of depth, but Larceny and Maker’s Mark’s fuller tasting and rounder palates are ultimately more enjoyable. Old Fitzgerald is priced exactly what it should be. Any more would be asking too much.
A one-dimensional palate makes this forgettable, but its limited availability is the real reason you’ll give this a look.
There isn’t a lot to love with Old Fitzgerald BiB. It’s very drinkable and some might enjoy its mild burn, but its lack of depth extinguishes any excitement I might have had for it. On a tight budget it marginally gets a pass, but I’d readily suggest Heaven Hill BiB or Evan Williams BiB over it. Larceny, for a few bucks more and a higher average age (6 to 12 years according to Heaven Hill’s press release), is a more than adequate substitution for this. If you come across Old Fitzgerald BiB purchase it with tempered expectations. Due to its limited availability, it’s nothing more than a passing curiosity at this point.