Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris and Old Forester master bourbon specialist Jackie Zykan in the lab proofing and tasting Old Forester's 2016 Birthday bourbon. | All photos courtesy of Brown-Forman

There’s been a lot of local bourbon activity in the past 10 days, and I planned on touching on the high points of those stories in a roundup fashion. But Old Forester’s pair of 2016 releases, set to appear on retailers’ shelves next month, earned a spotlight of their own. They’re just that good.

Last Thursday, atop the roof of the Frazier History Museum, a group of whiskey writers was treated to the first public sips of Old Fo’s 2016 Birthday release and 1920 Prohibition Style. Both were flat-out fantastic.

“Prohibition,” as it was referred to, is a 115-proof expression created to reflect what you might have gotten during those 13 grim years when whiskey couldn’t be sold legally for the sole reason of enjoying it. “Medicinal whiskey,” was prescribed and bottled at 100 proof, but as the legend goes, if you had a friend at Old Forester (or any distillery operating as a medicinal booze dispensary) who could sneak you a bottle thieved directly from the barrel, it would have been about 115 proof.Old-Forester-1920-Prohibiti

This bourbon not only drinks remarkably with remarkable softness at that proof (I’ve had plenty in the 90s that were harsh, so don’t let the number concern you), at only 4.5 years old, it rolls in with good body and complexity. Expect ample dark stone fruit and oak on the nose, and layers of caramel, spice and toasted marshmallow on the palate. At $59 per bottle, this is on the “special occasion purchase” end of my budget, but it will make it into the budget.

Prohibition is third expression in Old Forester’s Whiskey Row bourbon collection. The first, 1870, was a 90-proof whiskey that, for $49 a bottle, left me thinking, “I’d rather have Old Forester Signature 100-proof for half that.” The second, a 100-proof Bottled-In-Bond was markedly better, really good in fact, but at $55 (give or take a few bucks), it was still a little pricey. But this one is my favorite of the trio by a good margin.

Birthday 2016 release: There’s good news and bad news on this 16th edition of Old Forester Birthday. Bad first: The suggested retail price for this whiskey is $79, which is absolutely fair price for its exceptional quality. But since secondary market prices for the 2015 and 2014 expressions average $170 (according to BottleBlueBook.com), you can expect retailers to nudge this at least into the $90 range and fetch that price all day long.

But there are three pieces of good news: The 2016 release came from 93 barrels, making this the largest-ever release of Birthday at 2,400 six-bottle cases (14,400 bottles), so your chances of getting a bottle next month are vastly improved over past years.

Good news part two is this is a remarkable bourbon born of barrels rested on the fifth floor of Warehouse K at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville. Many were positioned near windows, which is believed to give those “sun-kissed” casks a bit more complexity.Old-Fo-Birthday-2016-web

The best news is the flavor is outstanding, leading some in our group to dub it their favorite Birthday yet. The nose brings butterscotch by the bucket before accents of citrus, oak and dried cherries wriggle in. At only 97 proof, it brings spice without heat and intensity without punishing the palate. It’s the kind of bourbon you roll around in your mouth for a long spell before swallowing.

Old Forester master bourbon specialist Jackie Zykan said she and master distiller chose the proof after “the flavor just fell off” when watered down to 94 proof. When tasted above 97, spice was too pronounced.

Zykan described the finish as “like eating black jelly beans in the middle of an orange grove.” I didn’t get that licorice-anise note, but I got plenty of orange, which is so Fo’.

(Zykan, it’s worth noting, is excellent in her newish role. If anyone is still wondering if she got the hire for her camera-ready looks, they’ve not seen the longtime bartender at work for B-F. She’s articulate, poised, confident and knowledgeable in the job. It’s only great to see young talent perform so well in a serious and occasionally stodgy, male-dominated industry.)

Keep watch for these whiskeys on the market in early to mid-September. And if you have connections at a liquor store who will tuck some birthday away for you, reach out to them now.

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