Bourbon fans have reason to celebrate every September. This is the month that Old Forester releases its annual Birthday Bourbon, in honor of brand founder George Garvin being born on Sept. 2, 1846.
The 2019 Birthday Bourbon is the 19th iteration in the yearly line, and comes out at a higher proof, 105, than any previous version. To discuss what goes into creating a premium, highly-sought-after whiskey like Birthday Bourbon, we recently caught up with Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan.
Beverage Dynamics: Why did you go with a higher proof this year?
Jackie Zykan: Every year we go into creating Birthday Bourbon through the same proofing process. We taste the Birthday Bourbon samples at every proof that we can do. We taste it at 86 proof, at 87, 88, 90, and so on. And in doing so, we start whittling out the edges, so to speak. We’re looking to find that sweet spot.
There’s always two whiskeys that stand out during this process: one at a lower proof, and one at a higher proof.
This year, the higher proof really showed off some great balance. And so much happened between the lower proof that we loved, which was 99, and the higher proof, that I did not want to rob anybody of the full experience. If we bottled at 99, I feared that the whole journey from there to 105 would be something that drinkers were missing out on.
BD: How would you define the flavors of Birthday Bourbon?
JZ: These are flavors beyond the typical Old Forester profile. There is no flagship profile for Birthday Bourbon, there’s no specific version we search for every year.
This year, there’s a wonderful honeydew melon note, something you never see out of Old Forester. It was a wonderful fluke. It really pops out. We knew we had to get that into the bottle. There’s also dark fruits, dewy fruits.
So much flavor comes in and out during the proofing process. What we’re looking for in higher proof is the balance. This year’s is a good example of heat translating into a spice finish. It provides roundness in the mouthfeel. It’s not overpowering.
BD: What is the consumer demographic for a whiskey like Birthday Bourbon?
JZ: We see some trends with Birthday Bourbon being a vintage-dated, yearly release. A lot of people like to buy a bottle from the year that their kids were born, and then save that bottle for their kid’s 21st birthday. We also see a lot of people buying bottles for a specific anniversary year, a year of celebration. The vintage dating adds a little more personal story to each release.
People camp outside the distillery each year for this whiskey. Hopefully they go home and drink it. A lot of work went into every bottle to make it a Birthday Bourbon.
BD: And yet we know some people will not drink it, with the rise of secondary markets, as well as the social media fad of people posting large, untouched whiskey collections.
JZ: We really want people to experience this bourbon, drink it. Don’t make it another unopened decanter that sits on a whiskey shelf where people don’t drink it.
And I get it. We’re in a whiskey boom, so some people are going to resell it.
BD: What are your thoughts on the higher prices seen on these secondary markets? Certainly you cannot buy Birthday Bourbon for its SRP of $99 on Facebook.
JK: It’s interesting. On one hand, it’s very wonderful, this bourbon boom, which is fantastic for all of us in the industry.
And then you have the mind-blowing prices, it’s everywhere, on the secondary market. Or maybe we just notice more because we’re in the industry. And these can be good, because they do bring more attention to the category.
We’re flattered as producers that someone would pay all that for what we make. But we do put the product on the shelf with flavors and at a price we believe in. We never mean to price-gouge.
Some people want us to raise the price of Birthday Bourbon up to $400 a bottle, because that’s what we see it go for on Facebook. But remember: these things ebb and flow. People used to fight over and spend thousands of dollars on Beanie Babies, and now all of those are sitting in garages.
People are going to pay what they’re going to pay for it. We think that if you can get your hands on Birthday Bourbon, find other people who would appreciate it, and share it with them.
BD: What can you tell me about what’s coming down the Old Forester pipeline?
JZ: Every year we like to have a shiny new toy. We just released a rye, and we’re not too far removed from the release of 1910. Next year is the 150th anniversary of Old Forester and Brown Forman existing. So you may or may not see some celebratory releases that we share with the world in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Old Forester and Brown Forman.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece, How Has Rabbit Hole Distillery Emerged in a Crowded Whiskey Market?