The older I get and the more whiskey I sample, the quicker these limited releases truly seem to go by—yet another year has come and gone, and that can only mean it’s time for another Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release. And yet, this release was notably different from others in the lineage of this storied brand, as Brown-Forman rejiggered their method of distributing the sought-after Birthday Bourbon in 2022. Where previous years of Birthday Bourbon had always been sold at the Louisville distillery, inspiring long lines and a feverish atmosphere, this year the brand was taken entirely out of the physical retail space. Instead, an online national sweepstakes was held for the limited allotment of bottles, allowing for a fair (if random) chance for consumers all over the U.S. to potentially purchase a bottle. As with any other decision regarding allocated bourbon in the U.S. market, this was no doubt delightful to some, and infuriating to others.
Regardless, here’s what you’ll actually find within the 2022 edition of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, released in Sept. as always to celebrate the birthday of founder George Garvin Brown. This year’s batch carries an 11 year age statement, with a proof point a bit lower than the last few years, at 48% ABV (96 proof). As ever, this is a small batch of barrels chosen and blended by the brand’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris. It carries a $150 MSRP.
So with that said, let’s get right into tasting what is usually a yearly highlight.
On the nose, this one initially has some promising elements—lots of citrus and some hints of darker fruit are the first things one is likely to notice, with a suggestion of flamed orange peel. The “flamed” aspect suggests something else that becomes the dominant theme in this Birthday Bourbon, though, which is barrel char and roast. This is a uniquely roasty expression of Birthday Bourbon in my opinion, especially in comparison of my memories of previous batches. The nose reflects this with touches of smoke and ashy roast, along with dark chocolate, which form an interesting counterpoint to the more perky fruit notes. I’m getting a bare suggestion of something like oatmeal cookie as well, albeit somewhat covered up by charred oak.
On the palate, this bourbon turns drier for me than I was initially expecting, and the roast and oak again have a fairly heavy hand. I’m getting a lot of charred barrel influences, along with coffee and some brighter raspberry fruit. However, the overall impression is fairly dry, and I’m lacking more of the richness and caramelized sugars I typically associate with Birthday Bourbon. That isn’t to say that this is unpleasant, but I’m finding on repeated sips that the barrel spice, hints of rye spice and vanilla espresso notes feel a little flat without the sweetness to bring them more vivaciously to life.
The fact is, this is a unique and different stab at Birthday Bourbon than other more recent batches, and I get a sense that the brand was probably trying to explore some new direction. The result, however, lacks the depth of richness and complexity I usually associate with Birthday Bourbon. Is this objectively a good dram of bourbon? Yes, I’d say that it is. But it’s also one where I would likely struggle to justify spending the $150 listed MSRP, much less the absolutely absurd price gouging (300-500% is perfectly common) that can be expected on the secondary market, or via opportunistic retailers. Especially in a world where the reliably excellent likes of Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style are widely available, it feels like a bottle like Birthday Bourbon must be held to a higher standard than simply “good.”
This is, of course, an extremely subjective endeavor, to taste and determine a concept so nebulous as relative “value,” or compare a bourbon to a memory of previous releases. I’m sure there will be reviewers who hail this year’s Birthday Bourbon release as the “best yet,” or reviewers who didn’t enjoy last year’s batch, but fall head over heels for this year’s. As ever, your mileage may vary, but for me this 2022 batch struggles to live up to the standard that the series has long since set.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 48% (96 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $150 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.