As we wrap up our month dedicated to bottom shelf spirits (the scariest thing we could imagine this spooky season), it felt especially fitting that when I found this bottle of Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon in the store, there was light layer of dust covering the bottle — just like any good haunted house prop. But will this final budget bottle close out our October reviews with a trick… or a treat?
In the world of American whiskey, few names hold as much historical significance as Old Fitzgerald bourbon. This storied brand traces its origins back to 1870 when John E. Fitzgerald built a distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. As history goes, the initial whiskey was sold only to steamship lines and private clubs. Old Fitzgerald did not become a registered trademark until 1884, and officially hit the public market in 1889.
Over the years, Old Fitzgerald experienced a number of changes in ownership. The brand passed through the hands of various companies beginning with Stitzel-Weller in 1933 at the end of prohibition, followed by Norton-Simon was next in 1972, and then to the Distillers Limited of Scotland in 1984 (who merged with Guinness in 1986 to form Untied Distillers, which ultimately becomes Diageo in 1997).
Finally, in 1999, Heaven Hill distillery purchased the Bernheim Distillery and the Old Fitzgerald brand from Diageo to create additional capacity after a fire destroyed their Bardstown distillery and seven rickhouses, and remains the owner of this historic brand today. (I swear, sometimes I feel like Charlie Kelly researching Pepe Silvia when I dig through these corporate histories.)
Old Fitzgerald bourbons have been released in different age statements, ranging from youthful expressions of four years to well-matured releases exceeding a decade. Some editions have earned cult status among bourbon enthusiasts due to their aging process and limited availability. Certain Old Fitzgerald bottles proudly bear the label “Bottled-in-Bond”, signifying adherence to strict U.S. government standards, including being distilled at a single distillery in one distillation season and aged for a minimum of four years in a federally bonded warehouse. This designation is synonymous with quality in the bourbon world.
It’s worth noting that a rumor that I came across multiple times when researching this bourbon is that Heaven Hill is slowly phasing out this bottom-shelf Old Fitzgerald offering for their Larceny bourbon. There is no confirmation about this, but for what it’s worth, when I was at Heaven Hill a few weeks ago Larceny was prominently displayed… while Old Fitzgerald was nowhere to be found.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
What makes Old Fitzgerald distinct is its status as a wheated bourbon. All bourbons in the United States must contain at least 51% corn in their raw ingredients and the rest from other kinds of grains, and most distilleries either stick to 100% corn or add in some rye and barley. Wheat is a somewhat rare choice in a mashbill, but not unheard of. The specific mash bill is not clearly disclosed, but based on several sources online, we can guess that the mashbill is something close to 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley.
This grain is then milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid which is then distilled in a still. The newly made whiskey is then put in a new charred American oak barrel to be aged for a minimum of two years, which is the minimum time to meet the legal requirement for Kentucky straight bourbon. It should be noted that there is no age statement on the bottle — so while two years is the minimum requirement we know this has to meet, it could also include blended sources that are significantly older.
The other unique thing about this bourbon is that is uses a sour mash in the distillation process. This means that some of the mash from previous batches is held back to be used in future batches of mash (a similar concept to a sourdough bread starter). This process tends to give bourbon a sweeter and more robust flavor.
The bottle has a vibe that looks like it has not changed since the 1940’s. It’s a very basic bottle design with a few labels in a red-gold-black color palette. That said, I don’t hate the design choice, as it harkens back to the long history of the Old Fitzgerald brand.
The bottle is plain, simple, and a little bit boring. It’s a cylindrical body, curved shoulder, and medium length neck all topped off with an off-gold screw-on plastic cap. This is a design that we encounter frequently, and it’s as uninspired as it is efficient.
As I mentioned, I envision this label being great in the mid-century era, on Don Draper’s office bar cart. The artistic flourishes, rich colors, and bold distillery emblems are all suggestive of that time period. In today’s world of bourbon, though, these elements just seem bland. But even though I’m not personally a fan, I can understand the embrace of the historical look.
This bourbon has an aroma that is surprisingly filled with rye-like spiciness and pepper that I would not expect from a wheated bourbon. The spice is complemented by oaky notes provided by the aging process, and a subtle undertone of faint sweetness adds some additional complexity.
Old Fitzgerald bourbon showcases a surprising flavor profile that notably lacks sweetness up front. It presents a bold and bitter taste, accompanied by distinctive pepper notes that you would expect to find in a high-rye bourbon (which we didn’t have any reason to suspect in the mashbill). There are more subtle notes of cinnamon, cardamom, and a touch of mint. On the finish, there is a very faint hint of sweetness that adds an intriguing contrast to the initial intensity.
If this were actually high-rye bourbon, I think I might actually like this. But when I think of wheated bourbon, there are a couple of staples that come to mind: Weller Special Reserve and Maker’s Mark. And compared to the flavor profile of those, this is way off the mark.
You normally expect a bourbon to mellow slightly when on the rocks, and I was hoping that this would finally drink more like a wheated bourbon than a rye. It does mellow out some… but the experience is still much more like a rye whiskey.
The baking spices are still present and are now the most prominent flavor; however, the rye-like spice and heat are still there. Not that it’s all bad, though — the sweetness is more pronounced now, which makes this bourbon very drinkable on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This bourbon surprisingly exudes smoothness and a well-balanced character in an old fashioned. The rye-like heat is present but restrained by the sweetness of sugar and the bright notes of orange. While bitters contribute to the complexity, they don’t steal the spotlight, allowing the bourbon to shine.
This reminds me of a comment that I have heard a couple of bartenders (one at Chicago’s Scofflaw and one at Heaven Hill’s distillery bar) make about Mellow Corn, another bottom shelf product from Heaven Hill: while it’s a low end spirit, it’s great for bartenders for its versatility. While Nick didn’t agree in his assessment of Mellow Corn, I do think that statement may hold true for Old Fitzgerald.
Another winner in the cocktail column. The flavor of the bourbon stands up well to the bold bright flavors of the ginger beer. You can still make out the spices in the bourbon and the rye-like pepper notes, and it results in a well balanced and flavorful cocktail.
As I have mentioned in other articles, I don’t always love a Kentucky mule… it’s just not my jam. However, this is a version that I would be happy to drink on a warm spring afternoon. (That is what will most likely become of the remainder of this bottle.)
If you are looking for a low cost bourbon to use in cocktails, this might be a perfect fit. It’s not great neat or on the rocks, but will hold up against some of the most demanding mixers. And at $16 a bottle, you can even work to perfect your own cocktail creation for your Halloween party without breaking the bank.
As we have discovered firsthand (unfortunately for our taste buds) throughout the month, there are much worse options you could grab from the bottom shelf.
|Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $15.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
A surprisingly capable bottle — and the perfect accessory for your mixologist costume.