As recently as a few years ago, the Old Forester brand was known for the relative simplicity and straightforward nature of its product lineup, but those days have long since passed. Few major Kentucky bourbon producers have adapted better, or more quickly, to the era of limited release bourbon, both in terms of new year-round releases and special bourbons tied to promotions, anniversaries and annual releases. The last few years have seen Brown-Forman release their first barrel proof expressions of Old Forester, along with whiskeys such as the 150th Anniversary bottles, or this year’s first release of the 117 Series, High Angel’s Share. That’s in addition to sought-after limited releases such as the annual Birthday Bourbon release, and adding new entries to the year-round Whiskey Row series.
And that’s not even getting into rye! Old Forester’s first-ever rye brand came around in 2019 and made an immediate impact, standing out as a high-value, 100 proof offering that could often be found for less than $25. That made it an obvious inclusion in our list of the best values in rye whiskey, and the bottle quickly became a mainstay of cocktail bar wells. Making use of an unusual mash bill for Kentucky rye—65% rye, 20% malted barley and just 15% corn—Old Forester Rye was just unique enough to stand out, immediately establishing itself alongside stalwarts of the genre such as Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse Rye.
It should have been clear to us consumers, though, that the rye experiment was hardly going to stop there. If Old Forester was putting out a cask strength bourbon, you can bet they would eventually do so with their rye as well. That’s what we have here today in the new Old Forester Rye Single Barrel, which is indeed presented at barrel strength. This will obviously change from single barrel to single barrel, but Old Forester’s cask strength tends to be on the higher side—my sample weighs in at 63.5% ABV (127 proof), which is a pretty beefy rye indeed. As with most Old Forester products, this one is non-age-stated, though its maturation in Brown-Forman’s heat-cycled warehouses has the effect of speeding up maturation to some degree by forcing the spirit into and out of the wood grain of the charred oak barrel. Says Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan: “The Old Forester Rye Single Barrel delivers on the same balanced and unique flavor profile of our 100 proof expression, only amplified and in unfiltered, raw form.” It carries an MSRP of $80, and is releasing nationwide throughout June, albeit in limited quantities.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how Old Forester Rye’s big brother compares.
On the nose, my initial pass struck me as quite roasty, with plenty of charred oak, coffee and clove, and more savory whiffs of smoke or tobacco. This roastiness presented as intense at first, but then seemed to mellow out, revealing more fruity notes of juicy maraschino and citrus meringue, along with dried herbal nuances. There’s a bit of stinging heat, as one would likely expect on the nose at 127 proof, although this also seems to blow off quickly within a minute or two of the whiskey being in my glass. It’s a big nose, and one that is definitely not lacking in character.
On the palate, this single barrel rye finds an attractive balance between spicy, fruity, herbal and sweet elements. There are flashes of intense richness, toffee candies and deeply caramelized sugars, but not all that much residual sweetness at the end of the day, as it still finishes fairly dry. There are some of the lovely red fruit notes I often get on cask-strength Old Forester bourbons, a very bright fruitiness that lifts the dram away from being too heavy or leaden. There are savory notes of tobacco, and espresso-like roastiness, and also fresher notes of spearmint. The thing that stands out to me the most is spiciness, however—lots of spicy rye, big black pepper and hints of red chiles, leading to a long-lasting smolder in the chest. This is a big, explosively flavorful rye, folks. It is pulling no punches in its presentation, and instead swinging for the fences.
All in all, this feels like a big win to me. Despite the advanced proof, my palate never felt overpowered in terms of ethanol or alcoholic heat; nor does it ever feel in need of more maturation. Compared to the 100 proof version that is always available, this Old Forester Single Barrel Rye is like a cannon next to a derringer. For those who are seeking bombastic rye flavors, it’s very easy to recommend.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 63.5% (127 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $80 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.