By Richard Thomas
The brand of Old Fitzgerald dates back to the post-Civil War era of the bourbon business, introduced in 1870 and marketed to passenger railways, steamboats and private clubs.Who exactly John E. Fitzgerald was–insofar as historians and not marketeers are concerned–is a murky question, and the brand was originated by a rectifier based in Milwaukee named Herbst.
Old Fitz wasn’t always the wheated bourbon we think of it today, however. Back in the day, the main selling point was that it was the last great Kentucky bourbon made in pot stills. The brand didn’t pick up its wheated identity until its production was brought over to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery during Prohibition. When Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992, Old Fitz moved to the Bernheim Distillery, which in turn was sold to current owners Heaven Hill in 1999. Ownership of Old Fitzgerald went with it.
In 2018, Heaven Hill decided to revamp Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Bourbon as a more upmarket expression, bottled in decanters and done twice a year as distinct, limited edition releases. The series also includes an annual, distillery-only release denoted by its red labeling, but we will be excluding those from consideration here. While the series is a new one, it has had enough installments to look back and see how it has done by looking towards its best examples.
5. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Spring 2021: This year’s pair of bourbons were pretty close, but the Spring version was slightly better than the most recent Fall release. This was the first time the series had dipped down in age to eight years old, and the croakers made much of that, but there are two things to keep in mind about that age statement. First off, eight years old is still older than the vintage version of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond ever was, the same age as the standard Very Very Old Fitzgerald, in fact. Second, this particular bourbon was better than three older bourbons in the series. Again, age isn’t everything, and this bourbon with the mint and eucalyptus is part of the proof.
4. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Spring 2019: This bourbon was 13 1/2 years old, and came with a flavor profile that matched expectations very well. The bourbon was based on a foundation of rich caramel plus fruity citrus and cherries, but also endowed with earthy and wood-driven spicy notes that reflect its middle aged character. It was a lovely pour, one of the oldest installments in the series thus far, and well worth collecting should you find it.
3. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Fall 2020: Old Fitz Autumn 2020 came with a Janus mask, so divergent were the nose and palate. The scent was earthy and nutty, suggesting that perhaps 14 years of aging had taken too much from the native character of the wheated bourbon spirit. All that evaporated upon sipping, however, with a current of citrus oils asserting itself until the finish came on, when the bourbon reverted to its oaky and nutty start. It was quite a ride, and one well worth going on.
2. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Spring 2018: Coming in at #2 is the inaugural release, an 11 year old. It was the redheaded cuckoo in the series. For one thing, there was a dry aspect and the golden raisins note I found in it, which were reminiscent of a Sherry cask finish and enough to make me look at the glass and wonder if a cask hadn’t found it’s way into the batching by mistake. Also, the bourbon was leathery and woody in a way that was peculiar for an 11 year old, no matter what floor of the rickhouse some of the casks were aged on. Since this one came out, Old Fitzgerald Bondeds defy expectations of what wheated bourbon is supposed to be as often as not, and it all started here.
1. Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond Fall 2019: People like me are fond of saying older whiskey isn’t always better whiskey, and here comes this one to make a liar of me: at 15 years old, it is the oldest bourbon of the series. I’m not surprised it is the best, though: 15 years, pushing the ceiling of what I like to call “middle aged” for American Whiskey, has been where the best expressions are to be found. That would be because pushing beyond this point risks trading maturity for over-oaking.
This expression was no exception. The bourbon hit me like a small plate of fig newtons with a caramel and citrus drizzle, dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg for good measure… if that plate were cut from an old barrel head, that is.