Old Forester has been doing some cool stuff recently. From changing their recipe to tweaking the aging process, they have put out a series of bottles that all have interesting twists on the old reliable whiskey. For the bottle we’re looking at today, all of that tweaking and post-aging blending has been stripped away, and we get a look at what this whiskey tastes like as if you poured it directly from the barrel yourself.
The ‘old’ in Old Forester isn’t just a marketing ploy. The oldest bourbon in continuous production, it was first sold in 1870 (the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in a sealed bottle) and it continued production through prohibition as one of only 10 brands authorized for medicinal production.
Founded by a former pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown, the original version of Old Forester was sold to pharmacies as a medicinal product. Named after Dr. William Forrester who endorsed its consumption, it is said that the second “r” was dropped to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with the doctor.
The original Old Forester bourbon was a mixture of spirits distilled by other distilleries in the Kentucky area; however, starting in 1902 they purchased Mattingly’s distillery in Saint Mary, Kentucky to be the sole source.
While the company went through a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, and is currently a publicly traded company, the original Brown family still owns over 70% of the shares of the company and has de-facto control of the company.
Old Forester was the company’s best selling product prior to prohibition and continued production through that dark time; however, in post-prohibition era, Jack Daniels (coincidentally one of the company’s other brands) took the lead and remains the most popular whiskey in the world to this day. Other spirits produced by the Brown-Forman company (as it’s known today) include Woodford Reserve, Early Times, and Herradura Tequila.
Pretty much all of the Brown-Forman whiskey products start from the same grain bill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. This one is no different.
Once that fermented mash is distilled in their Louisville, KY plant, the spirit is socked away in charred oak barrels for approximately four years (although the bottle has no age statement beyond the “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” appellation).
Normally, Old Forester will selectively blend a number of barrels of whiskey together to form a consistent flavor profile. That doesn’t happen here, though — instead the contents of a single barrel of bourbon are directly emptied into these bottles.
The bottle design here is an older style, more traditional than their newer versions. It sports a thick base that quickly tapers to a slightly thinner waist, and then expands back to a thicker shoulder before ending in a medium length neck. The whole thing is topped with a gold seal and a cork stopper.
I like that they use a blue background for the label here. It makes this whole thing feel much more regal and special. Otherwise, though, not much changes between this version and the standard bottle.
As soon as you pour a glass of this whiskey you’ll notice that there’s something different about it. Instead of the golden amber or even brown color that usually comes from an Old Forester bottle, this has gone past brown to be damn near rust colored. There is a beautiful, remarkable red tint here that sets it apart from the other expressions.
Taking a whiff, there are no surprises here. There’s the brown sugar and vanilla that you’d expect from a barrel aged bourbon, but there’s also some cinnamon in there alongside some rye bread and just a hint of cherry. All good dark and rich components.
Honestly, I was not prepared for the first sip. The combination of the high alcohol content (~65% instead of the usual ~40% you find elsewhere) and the power of the flavors damn near knocked me on the floor. The good news is that I acclimated quickly, and boy am I glad that I did.
First on the list of tasting notes is a smoky charred oak flavor that’s almost like standing in front of a Texas barbecue pit. That deep and rich flavor is quickly joined by a bit of rich toffee caramel, some dark chocolate, and a hint of vanilla, but it doesn’t end there. The flavor changes one last time with the addition of a heavy hit of cherries at the end, almost but not quite turning the flavor profile from delicious to medicinal.
(Ironic, given the history of the brand.)
As the flavors dissipate, that cherry is the last thing to hang on. It lingers for quite a while and combines with some of the black pepper spice from the rye content to make for a very interesting finish.
To be honest, the cherry is a lot here. This is a powerful whiskey taken neat and definitely not for the faint of heart, either from the flavors or the alcohol content.
Some spirits are intended to be taken neat. Others are best enjoyed with a bit of ice. Heck, even Pappy Van Winkle himself preferred his spirits on the rocks with a twist of lemon. And in this case, adding a bit of ice to the whiskey makes this a whole new animal.
Instead of the brash and forceful whiskey that nearly knocked me out, this is a much easier sipping version. The flavors are still there, not nearly as well saturated as before but holding up against the ice way better than you’d expect for a bourbon. It’s a smoother, calmer, delicious presentation.
Really, what changes is the alcohol content and the cherry on the finish. There’s a little less alcohol per sip (or, at least, less perceived alcohol) so that burn is reduced. And the cherry that was singing loud and proud before is now a contributing member of the choir. It blends and balances nicely with everything else in the glass and doesn’t seem to be threatening to turn things “medicinal” any time soon.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I generally like a darker, richer, more smoky old fashioned. Which, thankfully, is exactly what we have here.
The flavors present in the whiskey are all on the darker side of the spectrum — especially that dark cherry that’s been hanging around. Combine it with the charred oak and the toffee caramel and there’s plenty for the angostura bitters to play with, making for a nicely balanced combination that would be perfectly at home in a dark, smoky night club. Even the bitterness in the bitters is naturally balanced out and no sugar is needed (but I’m not judging if you do add some).
I feel as bad about using this in a Kentucky Mule as I would using a Macallan in a highball. Sure, it’ll probably work… but it’s almost a waste. This is the reason why we don’t review scotch based cocktails — but since we review all of our bourbons in a Kentucky Mule, this cocktail is a necessary sacrifice.
Normally, I’m looking to make sure the flavors in the bourbon are able to be seen above the ginger beer. In this case, though, I’m actually looking to make sure it’s the ginger beer that hasn’t been trampled. The flavors in this bourbon are big and bold enough to take down that otherwise bright and cheerful ginger beer — but thankfully, in this case things balance out nicely. There’s a darkness and a depth to the cherry and charred oak that work well paired against the bright ginger for an entertaining and delicious experience.
Also nice to see is that there’s enough of the black pepper spice coming through at the end to be noticeable. I enjoy a good bit of rye in my bourbon specifically for this spicy texture, and in this case it does a good job being noticeable without being overpowering. A great balance overall.
I really liked the 1870 Original Batch version of Old Forester. And what we have here is a richer, deeper, more well saturated version of that whiskey. There’s a slight danger that things will go off the rails when taken neat, but once a touch of ice joins the party the whole experience becomes way more enjoyable.
This is the most expensive expression of Old Forester I’ve tried yet, and I think you really are getting your money’s worth here. Ignoring for a second the unique and special nature of a true single barrel bourbon, the flavors that this whiskey pulls off are fantastic. Sipping on the rocks, or in a cocktail, this is a great edition to the liquor cabinet.
That said, be forewarned: single barrel means a double bladed edge. It’s great when you get a great barrel, but that’s the luck of the draw.
|Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 65.4% ABV
Price: $83.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
Some bottles of whiskey are only great because of the work done by blenders. But here we have proof positive that this whiskey is great right out of the barrel.