Sticking one’s nose into a tasting glass filled with the liquid ghosts of another era is a fine way to loosen up your brain. There are things we do for our craft that others should never try and, for me, that is drinking 100 proof bottled in bond bourbon at nine in the morning. But this isn’t entirely for my craft. I’m reigniting the past by tasting a series of venerable bottles simply because I’m thirsty for my own family history.
When my grandfather passed about 10 years ago, he left me his bourbon. I believe that the distribution of the deceased’s liquor around the family usually only happens down South. As a Yankee, I can say that his bequest is one that is quite memorable. You can spend all the money that someone leaves you on stuff. But far more memorable, at least to me, is to drink what he drank, from the bottle that he held in his hand.
To me this is better than all the money in the world, because you cannot buy my memories.
So as I jab my nose deeply into the tasting glass, I detect something more than just the nose of maple syrup and toasty oak. I sense my own mortality and it makes me pause. You don’t just drink a bottle of 1952 bourbon to say that you drank it; you pull on little sips and take it slowly.
I just received a bottle from Old Forester. It is simply named Birthday Bourbon. Twelve years old, limited bottling. The bottle is an impressive shape, like a pot still in design. It would look extremely handsome on someone’s expansive bar. I love the design – with the thick cork finish and deep purple ribbon. The sign of victory in the sporting circles is this color, and in the case of this bourbon bottle, the ribbon is applied carefully over the top of the cork.
It’s a magnificent offering.
Peaches were in season on this particular morning, and anyone who has followed my tasting notes for OKRA Magazine knows that I like to eat seasonal foods along with my tasting. This morning is no exception. I recently traveled to Trenton, NJ to visit the farmers market that has existed for generations. The peaches that I selected were not the usual white and flavorless variety that are too smooth to be sumptuous. These were deeply colored in a rustic sort of way, not perfect by any means. When I scratched the outer skin the sweet perfume filled my air space and they gave a bit when I squeezed the flesh, eliciting a drop of sweet juice onto my fingertips I love peaches that have this quality. They are delicious fresh off the tree, of course. But the way I like to enjoy them over all other methods is roasted, and then drizzled with raw honey. In this case my raw honey came from Barr Hill Distillery in Vermont.
Honey is a seasonal product and this season the honey smacks from bitter herbs, sweet white flowers and toast slathered in orange marmalade. The peaches, hot from the oven and slightly caramelized from the heat sop up the sticky liquid and combine to become something more than sensuous. They become a life form onto themselves. You cannot do this with regular supermarket honey. And with bourbon tasting, I can think of nothing more delicious than peaches – roasted, hot from the oven, drizzled with raw honey.
1952 Old Forester Tasting Notes:
1952 Old Forester Bourbon. Bottled in Bond. Made by men long gone. There is a soft heat to the Old Forester 1952. It’s quite lively in the glass, sharp delineation of char to sweet. They haven’t made bourbon like this in almost a generation. The oak is lightly charred with notes of grilled cornbread soaked in Amish butter (high butterfat) and rubbed with peach butter. I drink another sip and it warms my throat deeply, sliding down to my stomach and offering a deep sense of placement in the universe. I picture my grandfather with one of his cut crystal glasses clutched in his hand; maybe a cube of ice and a healthy portion of the 1952 Old Forester catching light like a rare jewel. I’m suddenly caught off guard. The room is filled with the scent of buttered popcorn drenched in brown butter and sweet caramel. There is the attack across the bow with the 100 proof alcohol leading the charge, and then it melts over your tongue very softly. Finally the taste of cast iron cooked and slightly charred spoon bread finishes a most memorable sip of history.
1954 Old Forester Tasting Notes:
This bourbon is so incredibly lively for its age. I’m almost stunned by the sharp nose and the intense burn to follow. My grandfather must have enjoyed this bottle over all the others because it was filled with the least amount of this bourbon left in his collection. The 1954 was built for the ages. It tastes very similar to the Birthday Bourbon, with orange zest in the nose and toasted cornbread across the top of my mouth. That cornbread is just dripping with the high butterfat Amish butter and the char of the toasted corn is memorable. The finish is lengthily and fat across my mouth. By far the best flavor of the 1954 is the flavor of history. They just don’t make bourbon like this any longer. The barrels are different, the grain is different and the men, who make this bourbon following the same recipe, don’t have the same techniques for coaxing flavor out of the sometimes-unforgiving grains that their predecessors did. The 1954 is still quite hot in the mouth. I recommend dripping some water over the top to release some of the heat and possibly letting the glass sit open to the atmosphere for a spell to soften the burn. There is plenty of burn in the sweet droplets of this bourbon.
2001 Birthday Bourbon Tasting Notes:
I just noticed that the top of the ribbon on the 2001 Birthday Bourbon has a Greek key design that is very detailed and handsome against the thick cork finish. The Bourbon that resides within the bottle is built, like the 1954, for long life. I’m wondering why they chose to bottle this bourbon at 98 proof, but one sip and I know. There isn’t much difference between 98 and 100 proof. This is not Bottled in Bond like the 1952 nor the 1954 expressions but the brisk potency of this bourbon makes me believe that after 60 years or so, this bottling might just possess the same nose as the earlier expressions. But who knows, I might drink the bottle way before that.
Slightly charred popcorn fills the room and the smoke reminds me of the aromas I inhaled while visiting Four Roses a few months ago. It’s dreamy bourbon, not at all for beginners. It’s very sophisticated and bold. Not everyone will understand the dry finish, or the lack of sugary sweetness. There is something very challenging about this bourbon. It is not bourbon to be sipped over crushed ice either. You may want to crush some mint over the top and add a bit of Branch Water, but that’s it. Don’t add simple syrup…and please under no circumstances mix this bourbon with cola. I’ll seek you out and try to convince you to keep it very simple with respect to the Birthday Bourbon. It’s not what you add to it that makes this bourbon interesting. It’s what you don’t have to add to it that makes Old Forester so dramatically different from other bourbon on the market.
It’s darned good stuff!