Old Forester’s 117 Series launched in the spring of 2021, and its sporadic releases since have served as both an experimental and nostalgic platform for the brand to explore different aspects of the Old Forester bourbon flavor profile. In the company’s words: “The 117 Series offers a deep dive, or deconstruction, on how either the individual Old Forester Whiskey Row Series expressions are crafted or highlights other historical moments of Old Forester’s history on W. Main Street.”
The first few entries in the 117 Series seemed to focus on highlighting specific aspects of how whiskey can be transformed in the aging process, with the “High Angel’s Share” release exploring what a whiskey barrel tastes like after an unusually high degree of evaporation, or the “Warehouse K” release putting a spotlight on the character of a particular aging rickhouse. The 1910 Extra Old batch, on the other hand, was a natural extension of double aging gimmick already used for Old Forester 1910, simply taking that process to its zenith.
The latest release, on the other hand, feels like it has less of a concrete base in the whiskey making process, and instead is a tribute to an important moment in the distillery’s history: That time its newly constructed downtown Louisville distillery was almost destroyed by a fire. That fire swept through the history-rich Whiskey Row section of Louisville’s W. Main St. in 2015, and threatened the newly constructed, $45 million facility that Old Forester was about to open. Thankfully, members of the Louisville Fire Department arrived in time to avert the worst of the potential damage, saving any number of buildings with deep links to the history of Kentucky bourbon. In honor of that achievement, members of the fire department team then chose barrels distilled at around the date of the fire, which have now come to maturity at roughly 7 years old. Those barrels constitute the 117 Series Whiskey Row Fire Bourbon release, being bottled at 100 proof.
On one hand, it’s a nice story, and it does commemorate an important moment for the Louisville Old Forester facility. But at the same time, this release is arguably less unique than any of the previous bottles in the 117 Series—there’s no particular, novel process being highlighted, nor did these barrels experience any unusual aging quirk. It’s not as if these are “surviving” barrels that rode out a disaster, ‘ala Buffalo Trace/E.H. Taylor’s heavily gimmicked “Warehouse C. Tornado Surviving” batch. In effect, this is pretty much like a store pick of Old Forester 100 Proof, albeit with the unusual distinction of having a specific age statement, which most OF batches do not. This is all to say, I imagine there will be some whiskey geeks out there who will wish this entry in the 117 Series had more of a specific hook for what’s in the bottle, given that previous entries in the series have trended more toward the experimental.
Like other 117 Series batches, Whiskey Row Fire is a limited release coming in 375 ml half bottles, with a $60 MSRP. I still like this idea for limited releases—it means more overall bottles, and a lower bar to entry for people to try the batch—but there is a question of value here, in selling something similar to an Old Forester 100 barrel pick for the equivalent of $120 per 750 ml. Again, I could see some of the whiskey geek community questioning whether this release is unique enough to command that price point.
Regardless, let’s finally get to tasting.
On the nose, this one is quite inviting and rich, with some lovely notes of buttery caramel corn, cherry cordial, and a whole lot of chocolate—one of my favorite aspects of the Old Forester/Brown-Forman bourbon profile, and a note that shows up in most of my favorite Old Forester bottles. Underneath, there’s also a significant oakiness and something suggestive of fruitcake—vinous, gingery fruitcake. All in all, I quite like this nose.
On the palate, though, things actually veer off in a significantly drier direction than I was initially expecting from that nose. The brighter fruit notes are retained, with cranberry and cherry, but there’s more oak coming through on the palate than the nose initially suggested, along with more spice. That spice takes on a cola-like dimension, combining with berry fruitiness, light caramel and some oaky astringency. There are faint herbal notions as well, before tingly cola spice and drying oak seem to exert themselves more strongly over the finish. All in all, it’s an intriguing profile, though it doesn’t quite deliver the richness that the nose is hinting at.
On its own merit, this is an interesting batch of Old Forester bourbon, though I still feel like I’m missing a more concrete or unifying concept for the liquid in the bottle that might have made it stand out more among the limited releases currently saturating the market. Perhaps future 117 Series releases will take the series back down a more overtly experimental route.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 375 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.