The end of summer signals plenty of great things are coming: the end of constant sweating; the start of football season; and a slew of rare bourbon releases often kicked off by Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.
There are a handful of rare bourbons everyone should have the experience of drinking, and Birthday Bourbon is among them. Birthday Bourbon is arguably the rarest gem, because while other famously rare bottles are blended to match year to year, Birthday Bourbon is a unique, never-to-be-seen-again product every single year.
For 15 years the Brown-Forman master distiller has gone through the archives in the warehouses and selected a single batch, made on a single day, and bottled it to celebrate George Garvin Brown’s (who founded Brown-Forman in 1870) birthday on September 2.
Since every batch is different, here’s what you need to know about the 2016 Birthday Bourbon:
It was put to rest in barrels on June 4, 2004. But unlike some batches that get split up, this one ended up together on the 5th floor of a single warehouse. They were near a window, which means for more than a decade they were getting more direct sunlight than others.
Sunlight heats barrels up, and hotter barrels expand. Expanding barrels draw more whiskey into the wood. When the whiskey is pushed out as the wood cools, it extracts more flavoring elements from the wood like sugars and tannins. The term “flavor bomb” would fit nicely here, but we'll spare you.
2016 also marks the first time master distiller Chris Morris has worked with new selection partner and Old Forester master bourbon specialist Jackie Zykan on Birthday Bourbon — a match that seems to point to years of success to come. "It was a real treat having Jackie join me in selecting the bottle proof presentation for this year's release, after monitoring this group of barrels for 12 long years," says Morris. "With a batch proof of 156.4, obviously a lot of water was needed to bring this vintage down to our target range of 86 to 100 proof." (Sounds like fun tasting sessions, if you ask us.)
This year’s batch is a darker color, with a more syrupy, oaky mouthfeel, along with notes of cinnamon, dark caramel, and orange peel.
Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Don’t get too excited. While demand increases every year, the distillery is limited in what they can bottle, and this year’s batch is 14,400 bottles in total — about a thousand more than last year’s. To put it in perspective, that’s about twice what Pappy Van Winkle will release each year, and still a miniscule supply.
But Morris isn’t sure what caused this year’s batch to be more bountiful. The 2004-barreled whisky isn't particularly older or younger than any of the last 14 years of batches. "[It] could be the result of many factors,” he says, “such as the cooperage [barrel and cask makers] made some extra tight barrels that day or we had a lot of slow growth oak in the barrels.”
The demand for limited-edition products has skyrocketed in the last decade. In a press release this week Morris explained that In 2002, “when we first introduced Birthday Bourbon, the market for premium Bourbons was almost nonexistent. But 15 years later, global interest for premium Bourbons and well-crafted whiskeys is at a record high.”
Exactly how hard is it to find Birthday Bourbon? If you’re not on the list now with a friendly liquor store manager, you might already be out of luck. Kentucky shops are often better sources than other states, but it usually sells out within a day regardless of location.
Morris even found this out the hard way a couple of years ago when he gave away his own bottle and couldn’t find a replacement (without help). "Traditionally the Master Distiller receives a bottle from the brand team as a thank-you, and I hope that practice continues. However,” he says, “I have learned my lesson from years past: don't give that bottle away! Like everyone else I have to purchase additional bottles at retail, and there is no guarantee that there will be any to be found."
Yeah, we’d better get started with the phone calls. Birthday Bourbon is bottled at 97 proof and has a retail price of $79.99.