My, how the world has changed since the last Old Forester Birthday Bourbon came around, right? Back in the fall of 2019, who could have anticipated the tumult that 2020 would bring, and continues to bring? Back then, we were just happy to be sipping on the highest-proof Birthday Bourbon batch to date, enjoying the quality that is customary for Old Forester’s most prized yearly limited release whiskey. Who would have known that the 2020 release would fall during the middle of a freaking pandemic?
It gives us solace, though, that Birthday Bourbon is still here, and indeed this is a pretty big historical year for both the brand and the Brown-Forman owned distillery. 2020 is not only the 150th year since George Garvin Brown founded his company, but it’s also the 20th anniversary of the first edition of Birthday Bourbon. It stands to reason that Master Distiller Chris Morris and Master Taster Jackie Zykan would feel a particular imperative to honor the company’s history with their selection here, officially releasing on Sept. 2.
What they chose for the 2020 Birthday Bourbon is drawn from 10-year-old barrels of Old Forester Bourbon—all of which come from a single mash bill that is represented with great variety over the course of their product lineup—and bottled at 98 proof, down a scooch from last year’s 105 proof, which was the highest of Birthday Bourbon releases to date. These are always hotly contested bottles with high value on the secondary market, so your chance of coming across one in the wild may be slim, but they can often be found for pours in high-quality whiskey bars.
With that said, let’s get right into it. What is 2020’s Birthday Bourbon like, and how does it compare to 2019’s vintage?
On the nose, the 2020 Birthday Bourbon strikes me as pretty classical, albeit amplified, Old Forester—tons of vanilla bean, caramel, flambéed banana, some citrus and clove. Wet oak is fairly prominent on the nose as well, as are subtler impressions of cotton candy and fennel. This seems to promise a pretty classic Old Forester/Brown-Forman experience, as the “burnt sugar and bananas” note is often associated with the distillery, although it seems to show up in wildly varying intensity from brand to brand and batch to batch. Meanwhile, it is notable that I’m not getting much darker/red fruit on the nose this time around, as this is also sometimes a common profile in these whiskeys.
On the palate, this bourbon opens with a lovely rush of caramel and vanilla bean sweetness, tempered by considerable oakiness, but it definitely falls more on the side of “soft and sweet” rather than oak-driven or tannic. The bananas are certainly there, and very much in “dessert banana” ripeness, complemented by vanilla cream/whipped cream, some rye spice, spicy oak and hints of toasted coconut. Again, I’m not getting the dark fruit/cherry that I often get with these releases, with more of a caramel/vanilla/banana/oak domain taking precedence. The vanilla is particularly tasty, although I wouldn’t have minded some more fruity diversity that I associated with the 2019 entry. You might say that if 2019 was “cherries jubilee,” 2020 is more “bananas foster.”
All in all, 2020’s Birthday Bourbon is as tasty as you would expect it to be, although I think my personal taste runs slightly more toward the 2019 bottling. Still, I think this release is a very fitting tribute to the legacy of the distillery, and should be one that long-time Old Forester devotees find right up their alley. Keep an eye out for it as it arrives.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
ABV: 49% (98 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $130 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.