Growing old is an interesting proposition.
It’s right there in our language. We GET older, we GROW up whether we like it or not. But these phrases imply a gift. The imply that it is a privilege to age and that we are constantly changing and growing.
Contrast that with the utter fear of aging that our culture exhibits. It’s also right there in our language. We don’t just develop. We deteriorate, mellow, and mature. And at every point along the journey we can’t help but express disbelief at how many chronological ticker marks we’ve accrued. Our own experience is that we are always the oldest that we have ever been, so exclamations like, “I can’t believe 90’s kids can legally drink!” or “Holy Shit, it’s been nearly five years since Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond was discontinued!” make us feel old and make those older than us roll their eyes at the young ‘uns.
Even in whiskey we want our spirits older, but not too old. Age at a certain point becomes a novelty act, reacting to a new release almost as if to your great-great aunts 97th Birthday, “A 27 Year old Bourbon you say? That’s adorable.” Yet we bemoan the loss of every single age statement, and doubly so when it’s a rocksteady brand that’s stood the test of time yet is still dropped in favor of something new, young, and millennial.
The loss of the Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond was a loss I felt personally and deeply. While never technically discontinued the Old Fitz was removed from most markets over the past five years in favor of it’s cousin Larceny. Same liquid inside, even still has the Fitzgerald name on the bottle still. It’s technically John E. Fitzgerald’s Larceny, referring to the legend that the original brand was named for.
In short, this tastes like Old Fitzgerald, which is a blessing and a curse
John E. Fitzgerald was a tax bondsman for the U.S. government, which meant that he was one of two people on site at the Old Judge Distillery to have keys to the bonded warehouse. This ensured that there was no theft, since no one could enter the warehouse with out him, and that the government was properly collecting it’s taxes on the whiskey production. However, the workers kept noticing certain honey barrels, the especially tasty ones, were coming up short and that Old Fitz always seemed to have some extra tasty liquid on hand. These barrels became known as “Fitzgeralds” and a brand of whiskey was eventually named after the man and his harmless acts of larceny.
The brand went on to become a working class hero. Bourbon Legend says that the brand was originally sold only to steamships, rail workers, and private clubs. After Prohibition the brand was purchased by Stitzel-Weller, the famed distillery owned by the notorious Pappy Van Winkle. In fact, during his tenure at the Stizel-Weller Distillery Pappy didn’t sell any Pappy. He sold Old Fitzgerald and it was by far their most successful brand. Like all the whiskies made at Stitzel-Weller Old Fitz had that “whisper of wheat” in the mashbill that made their whiskey so unique at the time.
During the whiskey dark ages of the 70’s and 80’s the brand was purchased by United Distillers, which through several mergers and acquisitions eventually became the behemoth that is Diageo. United Distillers/Diageo closed the Sitzel-Weller distillery in 1994, moved production of Old Fitzgerald to the Bernheim Distillery. Then in 1999 they sold the Bernheim Distillery, and the Old Fitzgerald brand, to Heaven Hill. Heaven Hill continues to make wheated bourbon and releases it under the Old Fitzgerald name to this day.
The story hasn’t changed. The whiskey hasn’t changed. But the age, the label, and the price certainly have. While Larceny is still a very reasonably priced bottle of whiskey it doesn’t carry the massive bang for your buck that the old Bottled-In-Bond did. And by freeing up the Fitzgerald name from a bargain priced Bottled-In-Bond the team at Heaven Hill have been able to make attempts to push the premiumization of the brand. Some of them more successful than others.
They tested the waters with the one off release of John E. Fitzgerald’s 20 Year Old Bourbon which was some of the last whiskey actually distilled at Stizel-Weller which was released to mixed reviews. And now comes the release of the long awaited Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond Decanter Series.
The series will be a limited release each Spring and Fall for the next few years. The throw back to the old label name also comes with a throw back to another old Bourbon tradition: fancy decanters. More important than the glassware though is that this is a Bottled-In-Bond whiskey, it’s 11 years old, and it’s got the price tag to prove it with a suggested retail price of $110.
So how does it stack up?
The packaging and labeling are fantastic. It’s like seeing an old friend after the divorce now that they’ve started working out and gotten a haircut. It still looks like them but a cleaner, fitter, more attractive version of them.
The nose has all the oak you’d expect from an 11-year old, but also a touch of apricot and butter. On the mid palette is black pepper, stone fruit, a hint of nuttiness and a slightly thin caramel which leads into an aggressively woody finish that lingers hot and with a slight exhalation of cherry.
In short, this tastes like Old Fitzgerald, which is a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand I’m incredibly happy to have something that tastes like my old timey Bottled-In-Bond back but at the rarity prices it’s not something I would necessarily pick up off the shelf, and it’s certainly not an every day drinker like it used to be. The extra aging has made the product deeper and mellower but it’s also made it richer and pricier. Much like your recently divorced friend it doesn’t seem interested with hanging out with the same crowd it used to.
In the end I’m happy to see the return of Old Fitzgerald in a semi regular release but it does feel like the difference between hanging out with your college buddies and your great-great aunt. The one you want to see every weekend, the other you’ll drop in on at the holidays. Maybe. If the plane tickets aren’t too expensive.