Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is an annual limited release that celebrates the birthday of company founder George Gavin Brown, which was September 2, 1846. He founded the company in 1870 at only 24 years old. The 2023 release of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon marks the 23rd release of the series.This year’s release is composed of 103 barrels that were filled on May, 5, 2011, and aged in Warehouse I, on the 5th floor. It is the first release that was blended by Melissa Rift, Master Taster for Brown-Forman who replaced Jackie Zykan after her departure in 2022.
Like some of the best Old Forester bourbons, this year’s Birthday Bourbon opens with a very rich tapestry of scents. Spearheaded with a strong array of summer fruits, layers of buttercream, sugar cookie, and apricot run rampant. This vibrancy is dynamic and full of richness translating to an aroma that is immediately impactful and memorable. Not yet done, a layer of warm caramel and an underbelly of thick roasted oak encapsulate the entire experience. The aroma works in just about every way and continues to be every bit as infectious as Birthday Bourbons have proven to be in the past.
The bourbon does a quick 180 as the palate sheds the summer fruit sweetness from its nose. Instead, it’s replaced with dried fig and a noticeably unsweet dark red raspberry note. This dry and more roasted layer of flavor quickly transitions to leather and stout oak, which drags down the brightness of this bourbon. Furthermore, a touch of semi-sweet molasses develops giving a moment of reprieve before additional notes of barrel char and toasted oak commandeer the sip. As such, the palate struggles to soar as the weight of its dark rich flavors hold it down.
Oak continues its reign as the whiskey further develops a dry, heavily charred, and mild tannic bite. Its astringency isn’t overly forceful, though it is hard to ignore. An interesting yet unusual mix of toasted almond and toasted walnut is introduced, which adds more confusion than intrigue. As the finish begins to trail off, a light clove and black tea note becomes more pronounced. Though the finish’s flavors keep in line with the theme that the palate introduced, it’s not impactful in any meaningful way. Overall, the finish is on the shorter side, leaving a somewhat flat and largely average drinking experience.
Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon brand has always been a peak release from the company. For many years, the Birthday Bourbon releases showcased the best of what Old Forester had to offer. That has slowly changed as the company has expanded their portfolio of releases. Now, King of Kentucky is the cream of the crop, commanding top dollar and deservedly so. Even the company’s 117 Series of distillery-only releases have had a few gems over the years, with the recent Bottled in Bond release surprising everyone. Who expected an out of nowhere bottled in bond release that received no prior fanfare to outshine typically rock solid Birthday Bourbon. It's surprising, since just 2 years ago the brand completely blew us out of the water with one of their best releases ever.
Tastewise, the 2023 edition of Birthday Bourbon does have some out-of-the-ordinary flavors not typically featured in releases by the company. Dried fig and dark red raspberry notes are noteworthy for their lack of sweetness. They even contribute to the sip’s overall dry and roasted flavor profile this year. This also leads into a stout oak note adding a more pronounced charred and tannic bite upping the bourbon’s astringency level. It still tastes like an Old Forester bourbon at heart, but jettisons some of the brand’s classic fruit forward and sweet traits for some that are completely opposite of that. This is unexpected and unique for a Birthday Bourbon flavor profile, but also questionable if the tradeoff is worth it in the end.
It has always felt like Old Forester let other major Kentucky distilleries lead with their pricing increases and then played catch-up. The price of Birthday Bourbon has steadily risen over the years. Some years it would stay flat, while other years it would see a $20-$30 jump. The excellent 2021 edition was priced at $130 as was the edition before it. The 2022 edition saw a $20 increase, as did this year’s edition. A $40 increase in 2 years is steep no matter what the brand is, but once again Old Forester is simply playing catch-up.
Typically Wild Turkey and Knob Creek have been the ones to drive price increases among the Kentucky majors. Wild Turkey’s Master's Keep releases continually sees price increases year over year with Unforgotten notably hitting the $200 in 2022, and this year’s Voyage increasing to a whopping $275. Beam has been in a similar boat reaching $170 last year for their Knob Creek 18 Year release. Even Four Roses, who is often slower at increasing their limited release pricing, jumped to $200 for their 135th Anniversary 2023 Limited Edition Bourbon. So within the realm of major Kentucky distillery pricing, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon seeing a $20 increase to $170 is still lower than their peers despite seeming like a big jump.
Of course, it comes down to what is in the bottle and whether it justifies the price. That was easy to justify with the excellent 2021 edition, but as you’ve probably gathered from this review, that isn’t the case for the 2023 edition. It’s still a good bourbon that brings some uniqueness to the Birthday Bourbon brand, but this is a case where the price and bourbon don’t meet on equal terms. There’s no doubt that the bottle will still command heavy markups from stores, and maintain a healthy secondary and trade value, but given the choice of where to spend your money, this year’s edition is a hard sell. It will always be hard to pass up a chance to purchase a Birthday Bourbon at or near MSRP, but if you decide to, temper expectations accordingly.
Deviating from the brand’s typical flavor profile results in an Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release that is more unique tasting than most years, but that also brings its own set of problems.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon has always been one of the more fun limited releases from a major Kentucky distillery. A lot of that has to do with the unique bottle design it still sports since its inception, but also because it's typically a no-frills, gimmickless type of release. Birthday Bourbon is often a really good pour and sometimes even exceptional. This year much like the 2013 release, deviates from the brand’s standard flavor profile. Some will enjoy this detour, others may wonder what the fuss is all about. This year’s release isn’t going to stop you in your tracks and WOW you at first sip. It still features the same DNA as the previous releases, but there’s something that feels a little bit off with this year’s release. Far from bad, but also far from exceptional, it falls somewhere in the middle. For many that will be fine, but in this price range and the escalating expectations that come with it, it's not enough. I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. Just as birthdays go, sometimes they can be memorable, and other times, they aren’t as special as you’d hoped they would be.