Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is a sign of the times: a very aged American whiskey that is getting great reviews and whiskey fans across the country are chasing after. In other words, bourbon is booming. Brown-Forman’s 23rd annual release on September 2, celebrating founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday, encapsulates the immense quality and popularity the industry has achieved.
But how long can bourbon stay so trendy? And what exactly goes into creating such a well-received one-off annual product like Birthday Bourbon? For answers, we recently spoke with old forester Master taster Melissa Rift.
Tell us about this year’s Bourbon anniversary.
Melissa Rift: It was fun, because we started developing it as soon as I got into that role. Next year’s one excites me, because I will be able to get my hands on it very soon. But this one ties into last year’s release. Last year it was an 11 year old expression, at 96 proofs. When I started this fall as master taster and sat down with (master distiller) Chris Morris, he told me that for the previous year’s Anniversary Bourbon they had booked a double batch. They wanted to do a timed outing.
So they had already identified the barrels, which made my job easier, haha. This year’s and last year’s releases take place on the same day of production, but 12 months apart in terms of aging. This allows consumers to review the different qualities of the ’22 and ’23 versions. How they have similar characteristics, but how that extra year of aging adds more woody and caramelized developments.
Why has Birthday Bourbon become so popular?
M: Part of the reason is that these are some of the oldest fluids produced by Old Forester. We do not normally produce older products as our thermal cycles cause significant loss of liquid through evaporation, affecting the consistency of the liquids in these older barrels. But older endorsements, by design, will be more popular with consumers.
I think it’s also because Birthday Bourbon is the only vintage bourbon on the market. And while it’s a little different every year, people now expect the same level of quality from every Birthday Bourbon, even if the flavors differ.
How much longer will this bourbon boom last?
M: People like to speculate that we are nearing the top or that the bubble is about to 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 some catching up to do there.
Maybe we won’t see the same number of startups and new brands popping up online. Not that I don’t like startups and new brands that add more innovation and entrepreneurship to our industry. I like this. But we could see a decline in investment opportunities for new brands, as consumers turn more to brands that they already know will have consistent quality.
What’s next for the whiskey industry?
M: Many people are now reaching the legal drinking age. And even if they drink less in quantity, they are interested in the quality of their drink. They care a lot about craft spirits: where the beans come from, what yeast you use to propagate. This is the whole “slow food” mentality. This is what interests the new LDA consumer.
I also think you’ll continue to see big investments in the experiential side of the industry. The Bourbon Trail has become extremely popular in Kentucky. People are building whiskey destinations in rural Kentucky, bringing economic growth everywhere. And you’re also seeing whiskey tourism picking up outside of Kentucky.
We give people a place to connect with brands and create a real relationship, so it’s not just a bottle on the shelf.
This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.