One of the biggest side effects of the ongoing whiskey boom has been the increased popularity of barrel picks. It seems like any store or group worth their salt get at least a few barrel selections per year. It’s not even unheard of to find picks sitting on the shelf of a store that didn’t necessarily taste or choose that barrel. One take I occasionally hear is that people turn to barrel picks in lieu of more conventionally allocated bottles, a sentiment I certainly sympathize with. I live in a town where the only stores that reliably sell picks are Total Wine and ABC Fine Wine & Spirits. If I want one from a non-franchised store, I have to drive about 45 minutes out of town. Fortunately, the place that comes to mind quickly became a personal favorite even before stepping inside for the first time.
Inlet Harbour Liquor is an independently run store in Riviera Beach, FL. The owner, Shelby Meisler, has an interesting system in place to help address the aforementioned allocated bottle situation. Whenever a customer purchases two bottles of his store picks, they get one entry for the chance to win an allocated bottle (or set of bottles). Once a certain number of bottles are sold (depending on the prize), he records himself picking one of the contestants before reaching out to them. One of his first barrel picks (in late 2020) was for Old Forester Barrel Strength bourbon, a brand I’ve generally had good experience with. It came from floor 3 of warehouse L and was bottled at 64% ABV.
Nose: Immediate brown sugar and an underlying rickhouse characteristic. Ubiquitous cherry-banana note is present, but not overbearing. A touch of mint in there too. Slightly bready component almost gives this a banana bread/muffin aroma. Woody vanilla and a bit of light roast coffee. Has a syrupy, green apple undercurrent. Post-sip brings out the maple syrup aroma I love to get in Brown-Forman products.
Palate: Hits hard down the middle of the palate. Leads with a bubblegum punch before syrupy cherry and green apple notes take over. Vanilla begins to weave throughout, but it’s all about the fruity flavors. Tons of cherry cordial to go around while barrel char warms the finish up (literally and figuratively). A little caramel on the back.
Finish: Long, yet surprisingly balanced compared to the rest of the experience. Light brown sugar, apricot, and wisps of that lightly woody vanilla note from the nose. Boozy cherry essence is still in swing, but it feels dialed back, allowing the other notes to stand up.
Unlike Old Forester as a brand, I’ve had an incredibly rocky relationship with this bottle. I distinctly remember getting a hot banana bread or muffin note when trying it in-store prior to purchase. Since then it proved to be an aggressive and downright sickly experience, often to its detriment. I’d occasionally warm up to it only to feel punched back down on subsequent visits. In a way, it reminded me of a former coworker who I could never get a good read on. There were certainly times we worked well together, but those were few and far between.
Now that I’ve finally polished this bottle off, the question remains: what were my final impressions? I will say the last handful of pours were more enjoyable; I bet my tasting notes make this sound like an incredible pour. However, tasting notes in and of themselves are just one part of the equation in the overall experience a whiskey can provide. To that end, I’d argue how the flavors integrate is paramount. This has been the biggest obstacle I’ve faced with Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Strength. And if word of mouth means anything, then my experience was consistent with others.
Nearly every whiskey has its audience. The stuff I like isn’t necessarily going to be what other people like, even if we agree 95% of the time. It’s just one reason this hobby remains so fun. You know what else is fun? Noticing your palate shift. I’m not going to say I’ve done 180 on this Inlet Harbour selection, but I can at least see an audience for its profile. Ultimately, the main reason I’d be reluctant to reach for another Old Forester Barrel Strength selection wouldn’t be the profile, but the price. Even in our current inflationary market, $90 is nothing to scoff at (if anything, it can feel worse). The lack of an age statement doesn’t help, either. Chances are slim that I’ll eat the cost of another Old Forester Single Barrel Barrel Strength bourbon; too much competition exists with better stats while being easier on the wallet and more consistently enjoyable.