The spectacular debut of the Old Forester 117 series hints at great wonders to come. (photo courtesy of the brand)

Full disclosure: I’ve never met a bourbon I didn’t like, in the Will Rodgers sense. I like some more than others, and occasionally I try a bourbon that I find transformative. I think back to the first time I tasted Woodford Reserve, lo these many years ago, and was smitten by a sophisticated spirit with fine bourbon smoothness with a touch of scotch-iness to it. Old Forester’s first release in a new curated 117 Series, the High Angels‘ Share ($49.99), is just such a game-changing bourbon.

As it turns out, my reference to Woodford is on-point. Old Forester’s core offering carries a very similar mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barkey. But the brand also has a VERY rich history as being the longest-running bourbon still on the market (the spirit was even among a handful of bourbons allowed to continue production during Prohibition for “medicinal purposes”). It was also the first bourbon sold in sealed bottles—a nice gimmick devised by founder George Garvin Brown, a former pharmaceutical salesman, in 1870. Old Forester is based in Shively, Kentucky, just a smidgeon outside the modern city limits of Louisville.

That’s the same “Brown” in the current owner Brown-Forman Corporation’s name, which is a huge spirits conglomerate that also produces Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia vodka, Korbel champagne, and, yes, Woodford Reserve bourbon, among a long list of best-sellers.

With such a robust 150-year history, it was only natural that the distiller create some celebratory products that delve into an exceptional inventory of barrels. In the High Angels’ Share product, Old Forester tapped into barrels that lost an exceptional volume during the aging process (the fabled “angels’ share” referenced in the name), creating a bourbon with intense concentrations: color, flavors, proof, and complexity. All this was overseen by Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan, a leading woman in the field.

“Creating The 117 Series has been a labor of love, and seeing my signature on the label is one of the highlights of my career. My mind is exploding with the endless possibilities of this smaller scale of experimentation and innovation,” she says. “This series presents an opportunity to pull the curtain back and share the isolates of the blending process to help deepen the understanding of how variants in maturation affect flavor profile. We’re playing in uncharted territory here, and those who love Old Forester like we do will have the chance to explore with us.”

Many thanks, Jackie.

I mean it. My “exploration” of the High Angels’ Share evidenced an immediate and abundant sweet/caramely/smokey aroma that traveled well beyond my shot glass. I didn’t have to stick my nose down to get the gist. That sweetness, in the brown sugar realm, was my first tongue note, but at 110 proof, it also carried a bold alcohol burst leading to a clean peppery finish. I wisely chose my next sip of this garnet-red concoction with a rock, and even that simple move unveiled the truer complexity of this bourbon. A swirl of the cube tamped down the ear-wax-melting alcohol kick a bit and allowed flavors of smoke, dried fruits, aromatic spices, and a touch of coffee to roam freely. If with-a-rock is not the officially recommended way to drink the High Angel’s Share, I hereby nominate it.    

Zykan and Old Forester have big plans for the 117 Series: From playing with the mash and yeast strains to barrel and maturation environment experiments, the possibilities are limitless. Subsequent releases in The 117 Series may explore selections from specific warehouses, barrel manipulations, deconstructed blends, and more. And with 150 years of heritage and an inventive mind and tongue behind the project, I can’t wait for what’s next.