If you’ve tasted Old Forester's 2023 Birthday Bourbon, don’t credit Melissa Rift for its particulars. As the brand’s master taster for only about a year, this is her first time observing the creation of the annual September release. This year she’s a student listening closely to input from Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris and the veteran R&D team managing the project.
Hopefully she took good notes, because come November, work begins anew on the 2024 Birthday release, and Rift’s stamp will be on it.
“This year was a great learning process,” Rift said of “Birthday,” the commonly used nickname. The annual release celebrates the Sept. 2 birthday of Old Forester founder, George Garvin Brown. “I listened a lot to soak up as much information as possible on past releases and their thought processes. Going into next year, I’ll get to be more involved.”
Her previous work as single barrel program manager at Bulleit Bourbon in Shelbyville, Ky., ensured her familiarity with good, old barrels. Many single barrel pickers (I among them) visiting over the past few years will tell you Rift got some excellent casks (two I enjoyed that were super shorties yielding just 48 and 69 bottles) into those lineups. Better yet, all were bourbon from mashbills born of old Seagram recipes—varying only slightly from Four Roses recipes—which added to their cool factor.
Barrels chosen for Old Forester’s Birthday release are picked more specifically, as in from one day’s production. This year’s batch came from 103 barrels filled on May 5, 2011, and from the fifth floor of Warehouse I on the campus of Brown-Forman Distillery in Shively, Ky.
Like a child celebrating its own birthday, Old Forester Birthday’s proof and age jump around a lot. The 2019 release was 11 years old with a proof of 105 (it remains one of my favorites, plus, I got to taste its brutish dump strength of 150 proof), while 2020’s age dropped to 10 years and 98 proof. The 2021 iteration was 12 years old and bottled at 104 proof, while last year’s release was 11 years old and proof to just 96. Proof for this year remained the same while age rose to 12. Why the randomness? The brand selects each year’s bottling based on taste. What a concept!
This price on this year’s release, the 23rd in the series, is a wallet-sapping $169.99, a full $130 higher than when it was introduced in 2000. Morris told me several years ago that, “We couldn’t give it away back then at that price.” If I recall correctly, Morris said that in 2015, the same year I bought a bottle of Birthday at retail for $80.
Back to the whiskey. Just like proofs and ages, my preference for each release of Birthday changes annually, and unfortunately this one (a 50ml sample from OF) isn’t a favorite. The nose leads with rye, acetone and tree fruit, which I dig in Old Fo’ … when those accents carry over to the palate. Fruit is subtle and rye is muted, though corn sweetness does coat the palate favorably. Some leather and cinnamon appear in the aftertaste, but the finish is lean. Little else is happening here. I’d hoped for more depth and complexity from a whiskey this old.
For what it’s worth, I’m a stalwart fan of Old Forester’s 100 proof Signature, one of the best bourbon bargains ever. So, given that’s my baseline for every bourbon released by the brand, I don’t think I’m asking too much of a bourbon that’s 7 years older and costs seven times more than Signature.
The good news in all this was this summer’s newest Old Forester 117 Series release, a bottled-in-bond. The whiskey was barreled in 2014, though Old Forester’s press release was vague about when it was bottled or, perhaps, even tanked. Rift called it 9 years old, so we’ll go with that.
There’s a lot of traditional Ol’ Fo’ goodness going on here: cooked stone fruit, dark honey, bright citrus notes and balanced oak—nothing drying at all; terrific mouthfeel. This drinks and finishes with tons of spice and a great cinnamon tingle. (Rift said, “The 117 has stewed blackberries, candied and caramelized notes … with that age on it, it’s beautiful.” The brand’s press release twice cited whipped cream as a flavor note, but it definitely eluded me.) I like this whiskey a great deal, and the price isn’t horrible at $59.99—albeit for a 375ml bottle.
I know this short post was scant on info about Melissa Rift, but you can expect she’ll make her more headlines as her work on the brand emerges and more releases influenced by her come out. Needless to say, I look forward to those.
For those lucky enough to do an Old Forester barrel pick with Rift, expect she’s a cool and knowledgeable customer who listens to what groups say rather than telling them what they should be thinking and tasting. I liked her style at Bulleit, and I’m glad she’s carried that over to Old Forester.