Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Brown-Forman Shively Distillery
Released: September 2017
Proof: 96 (also released in a 95.4 proof expression)
Age: 12 Years
Mashbill: 72% Corn, 18% Rye, and 10% Malted Barley
Color: Dark Amber
MSRP: $80 (2017)
September 2nd marks the birthday of George Garvin Brown, one of the founders of Brown-Forman. To honor him, Brown-Forman released an Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This bourbon is a special annual release that started in September 2002 and varies year to year based on age, warehouse location, number of barrels used, and other various factors. The bourbon comes in a special old fashioned glass bottle and is an anticipated release every year in the bourbon community. This year marks the 16th year (17th release, as there were spring and fall releases in 2003) that Brown-Forman has offered this bourbon.
According to the company press release, “The 2017 Birthday Bourbon barrel selection was drawn from a total of 120 12-year old barrels from different warehouses and floors all distilled on May 27, 2005. 93 barrels matured together on the 4th floor of G warehouse, while the remaining 27 barrels matured together on the 5th floor of K warehouse. Several barrels from both lots basked in the sun, highlighting the effects of maturation along an external wall in Old Forester’s heat cycled warehouses. The bottles hold the standard Old Forester mashbill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% barley.”
The press release goes on to say, “For this year’s Birthday Bourbon, science plays an integral role in the product story. During the transfer of Bourbon from the holding tank to the bottling line, alcohol vapors were lost during bottling, causing the proof to drop. As a result, this year’s Birthday Bourbon will be presented at both 96 proof and 95.4 proof.” As far as where the different proofs will be distributed, the press release goes on to say, “Florida and Georgia will receive the 95.4 proof expression and remaining states will receive the 96 proof expression. Kentucky is the only state which will receive both expressions, with the 96 proof expression shipping first.”
While a total bottle count was not provided, using last year’s yield of approximately 155 bottles per barrel results in an estimated total bottle count of 18,600 for 2017’s release. The bourbon in review is from the 96 proof batch.
Burnt caramel, sweet vanilla, and a hint of spice come forward against a backdrop of seasoned oak. I also sense a bit of charred oak, layering in some depth on the nose. It’s a notably delightful aroma, creating a welcoming introduction that entices deeper exploration.
Charred oak and a healthy dose of spice hit first. They’re followed by chocolate, as the bourbon coats the insides of my mouth. As it lingers, there’s a trace of dark fruit, but it’s hidden well behind the initial flavors. It’s very good overall, and at 96 proof the intensity of the flavors is just about right, though there’s a part of me that wants a bit more.
It’s here that I notice how mouth-coating this bourbon is, as the texture lingers intensely after I swallow. It ends with a nice long finish as chocolate, spice, and charred oak taper off. Considering the 96 proof left me wanting a little more on the palate, the finish almost makes up for it with its long lasting presence and lingering mouthfeel.
We’ve reviewed a number of Birthday Bourbons and for me they seem to share deep, rich, chocolate and barrel char flavor characteristics. Typically at 12 years old, this series has enough time to have developed a complex flavor profile, but not necessarily so long that it enters the territory of being over-oaked. This year’s vintage maintains the characteristics that I’m familiar with, and manages to round out some of the rough edges that I’ve noticed in past releases.
Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style was released last year around the same time as 2016 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, and has been out long enough to have reached most bourbon enthusiasts. Met with critical acclaim in many cases, the burning question on my mind was how this premium release within the same brand compared with this year’s Birthday Bourbon. To put it bluntly, I like 1920 a bit better. But I think 1920 really pulls ahead as a result of its nearly 20 additional proof points, not necessarily because its flavor profile is just that much better. Considering Birthday Bourbon’s characteristically rich, chocolatey, barrel char flavor profile, which is really good at 96 proof, it seems like it would be fantastic at a higher proof. Knowing just how good 1920 is at its 115 proof, I’d really like to see a limited run of specially selected barrels with Birthday Bourbon’s flavor characteristics released at barrel proof.
This year’s edition comes in at the same price as last year’s, $80. It’s a good price for an established limited release from a major distillery in today’s market, and as a result nearly impossible to find without a retailer connection, a bit of luck, or some extra money to throw at it in the secondary market (or at retailer markup). Last year’s bottles of Birthday Bourbon commanded the mid $100’s to as much as mid $200’s in the secondary, which isn’t nearly as outrageous as other limited release bottlings but still in excess of what the bourbon inside the bottle warrants.
Considering you can find 1920 Prohibition Style, which is a better bourbon produced by the same company for less money and significantly less stress, the only real reason to get your hands on Birthday Bourbon is because you just feel you have to have a bottle. I would buy it at MSRP or a bit more just because it’d be too hard to resist and the price is reasonable, but much more than that I would have doubts. Fortunately, we estimate a larger bottle count than last year - 18,600 up from 14,400 (a 29% increase), so finding a bottle should be a little easier.
2017 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is an exemplary release for the brand, showcasing flavors and rounding out rough edges, all the while leaving me wanting a higher proof.
Established limited releases from major brands bring with them an expectation of greatness. For fans of Birthday Bourbon, the 2017 bottling will not disappoint. It exemplifies the characteristics of the brand and rounds out what have been some rough edges I’ve noticed with past releases, all the while not sacrificing flavor. For others, it’s one of the better vintages I can remember and I think makes it worthy of your attention. Old Forester is one of those brands that bourbon drinkers seem to love or hate, and with the successful Whiskey Row series it seems more have been pulled over to appreciate the flavor characteristics of the brand when they’re delivered in a quality way. With that in mind, 2017 Birthday Bourbon will be rather difficult to find anywhere near MSRP, so if you can’t get your hands on it, find solace in the fact that you can find an even better bourbon from the same distillery and for less money with 1920 Prohibition Style.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Brown-Forman. We thank them for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.