Old Forester’s Melissa Rift on Birthday Bourbon, Whiskey’s Future

Old Forester Master Taster Melissa Rift birthday bourbon whiskey interview future
Old Forester Master Taster Melissa Rift.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is a sign of the times: a high-age-statement American whiskey that gets excellent reviews and has whiskeys fans nationwide chasing after it. In other words, bourbon is booming. Brown-Forman’s 23rd annual Sept. 2 release, celebrating founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday, encapsulates the immense quality and popularity the industry has achieved.

But for how long can bourbon remain so trendy? And what exactly goes into crafting an annual, one-off product as well-received as Birthday Bourbon? For answers, we recently spoke with Old Forester Master Taster Melissa Rift.

Beverage Dynamics: Tell us about this year’s Birthday Bourbon.

Melissa Rift: This was a fun one, because we started developing it right when I was coming into the role. Next year’s I’m excited for, because I can get my hands on it early on. But this one, it’s tied to last year’s release. Last year’s was an 11-year-old expression, at 96 proof. When I started that fall as Master Taster, and sat down with [Master Distiller] Chris Morris, he said that for the previous year’s Birthday Bourbon, they had set aside a double lot. They wanted to do a timed release.

So they already had the barrels identified, which made my job easier, haha. This year’s and last year’s releases are the same day of production, but 12 months apart in aging. This allows consumers to review the different qualities of the ’22 and the ’23 release. How they have similar characteristics, but how that additional year of aging adds more oak and caramelized developments.

BD: Why has Birthday Bourbon become so popular?

MR: Part of it is because these are some of the oldest liquids that Old Forester puts out. We don’t normally put out older products because our heat cycles lead to a loss of a lot of liquid through evaporation, affecting the consistency of the liquids in those older barrels. But higher age statements, by design, will be more popular with consumers.

I think it’s also because Birthday Bourbon is the only vintage-dated bourbon in the market. And even though it’s a little different every year, people have come to expect the same level of quality in each Birthday Bourbon, even if the flavors differ.

BD: How much longer will this bourbon boom to last?

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2023.

MR: People like to speculate that we’re approaching the peak, or that the bubble will burst. But I don’t see the industry slowing down anytime soon.

We’re not even close to the popularity of bourbon in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And we’re still growing globally. Scotch is head and shoulders above bourbon, globally. So we still have catching up to do there.

Maybe we won’t see the same breadth of startups and newer brands coming online. Not that I don’t love the startups and newer brands adding more innovation and entrepreneurship into our industry. I love that. But what we may see is a curving off of investment opportunities for newer brands, as consumers gravitate more towards brands that they already know will have consistency in quality.

BD: What’s next for the whiskey industry?

MR: Lots of folks are now coming into legal drinking age. And while they may drink less in quantity, they’re interested in drinking quality. They have a lot of interest in craft spirits: Where the grains came from, what yeast you use to propagate. It’s the whole ‘slow food’ mentality. That’s what the new LDA consumer is interested in.

I also think you’ll continue seeing big investments in the experiential side of the industry. The Bourbon Trail has become hugely popular in Kentucky. People are building whiskey destinations in rural parts of Kentucky, bringing economic growth all over. And you’re seeing whiskey tourism pick up outside of Kentucky, too.

We’re giving people a place to bond with the brands and create a real relationship, so that it’s not just a bottle on the shelf.

This interview was condensed and edited for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com. Read his recent piece, Interview: Malcolm Waring on Old Pulteney’s History of Sustainability.

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