Most major brands have a private barrel program, and increasingly smaller, craft-scale distillers are getting in on the action, too. The Drinkhacker team has reviewed a handful of these selections over the years from the likes of Four Roses, Blanton’s, Maker’s Mark, Weller and others. We’ve even had the opportunity to help personally select several barrels from Joseph A. Magnus and WhistlePig. It seemed like private barrel picks were starting to be old news, until Old Forester dropped a barrel-sized bomb on the bourbon world earlier this year and announced a complete overhaul of their current program.
We sat down with Old Forester’s Master Taster, Jackie Zykan, to discuss the changes to the program, and she could almost not contain her excitement for what’s to come. “I’m so thrilled. I can’t wait. I think there’s going to be a lot of really excited people out there. It’s going to be crazy,” she told us. So, what exactly is going to get bourbon-lovers so giddy? Since 2013, Old Forester has had a single barrel program, but you could be forgiven for not knowing that. When they began, only about 10 barrels a month were being sold as private selections. While that number is now in the 40-50 range, there hasn’t been a whole lot of energy around Old Forester picks from the bourbon groups that tend to popularize these kinds of things.
That lack of enthusiasm for perfectly good bourbon has probably had a lot to do with the lackluster 90 proof required of the old Old Forester private barrels. While half the fun of a private pick is finding a truly unique barrel, the other half is bottling that barrel at as close to the original barrel proof as possible. Plenty of distilleries, like Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace, won’t let you take home a cask strength pick, but they at least let you take home something higher than 45%, an abv that’s common, if not a little low, across the industry’s standard offerings. “The original barrel program proof was 90 because that was what Old Forester was marketed as back in the 1870s,” Jackie explained, but “we’ve had a lot of requests in recent years for barrel strength. That’s always been a hard moment [during a selection] when you have people tasting a barrel at barrel strength. It’s kind of just a novelty at that point because it’s going to get proofed down to 90.” But that’s all about to change.
Beginning later this spring, the 90 proof Old Forester picks are getting the boot, replaced by either a 100 proof or the highly coveted barrel strength option. Not just any barrel strength, either. “This is the first time Old Forester has ever done anything at full barrel strength. And I think it’s the first time anyone has done a barrel strength that is unfiltered, untouched and just raw straight from the barrel to bottle” Jackie tells us. Lest you think Old Forester just caved to pressure, Jackie insists it was more than that. “I taste every one of these, and I know they don’t all taste their best at 90 [proof]. And if someone is going to experience the brand for the first time and it happens to be with someone’s private selection single barrel, I want to be sure that every single bottle out there tastes the best that it possibly can.”
And those bottles will definitely taste different from one barrel selection to the next, but with Old Forester’s new offerings, it might not be as drastic a difference or as easy to anticipate a certain profile from the label. “Because we heat cycle our warehouses, there’s no top-to-bottom variance. Our variance is outside to inside,” says Jackie, meaning a high floor, mid floor, or low floor bottling isn’t going to give you the expected profile that it might at a distillery like Wild Turkey or Buffalo Trace. “We won’t have that traditional variance, so folks will just have to try.” And what are Jackie’s favorite spots for private barrels? “The 5th floor of H Warehouse is one of my favorite places” she tells us. “The 6th, 7th, and 8th floors of J Warehouse are always pretty intense. Heat cycling does take away that variance a little bit, but every now and then you just find these lots of great barrels.” Expected proofs for the barrel strength option will average 134-135, with nothing bottled over 139.5.
Barrel selections at the new proof will start in May. “I hope people are excited because this has been in the works for years, and it has been so hard to keep quiet about it,” Jackie told us at the end of our interview. Well, it’s quiet no longer. Jackie was gracious enough to supply us with samples of a 100 proof and barrel strength selection ahead of prime time, so stay tuned next month for the reviews!