Both the crown jewel and establishing brand of the mighty Brown-Forman Corporation, Old Forester was created in 1870 by pharmaceutical salesman George Garvin Brown. The Old Forester brand was Brown’s answer to a medicinal whiskey market that was hampered in its day by inconsistent and poor quality whiskey being sold to unsuspecting customers. To tackle this, Brown set up the J.T.S. Brown and Bro. firm in Louisville and began sourcing high-quality bourbon directly from three different distilleries. These were blended for quality and consistency and marketed exclusively towards the medicinal whiskey trade. Brown also took advantage of the advances in glass bottle mass production in order to offer an exclusively bottled-only bourbon, making him the first to commercially bottle his bourbon. To distinguish his bourbon further, every bottle of Old Forrester bourbon was bottled, sealed, and carried Brown’s personal promise of its quality as well as his signature to authenticate it as such.
Originally spelled with two r’s, the brand name came from Dr. William Forrester, a leading Civil War physician and customer of George Garvin Brown when he was working as a pharmaceutical salesman in Louisville. Forrester allowed the use of his name to further validate Brown’s claim of the high quality of his medicinal whiskey with the name only changing to its modern spelling after Dr. Forrester retired and the association with his name was deemed unnecessary by Brown.
When Prohibition hit in 1920 Brown’s strict adherence to quality and his already-existing presence in the medicinal whiskey market resulted in Old Forester being granted one of just ten government licenses to bottle Bourbon for medicinal purposes during Prohibition. In fact since 1870 Old Forester has remained the only bourbon continuously distilled, available to buy, and marketed by the founding family before, during, and after Prohibition. It is officially the longest running Bourbon on the market today (approximately 147 years as of 2018).
In modern times Old Forester has transitioned from being a blend of sourced bourbon to instead being a blend of whiskies produced at the Brown-Forman distillery in Shively, KY, under Master Distiller Chris Morris and blended by Master Blender Jackie Zykan. As well as their flagship 86 proof Old Forester, the distillery also produces Old Forester Signature 100 proof, Old Forester rye whiskey, Old Forester Birthday bourbon, their very successful Whiskey Row series, President’s Choice, and Old Forester Statesman.
The history of Old Forester bourbon is as rich and colourful as the company and family that have been producing it for almost 150 years. A pioneering brand, it was originally released as an exclusively bottled 90 proof bourbon whisky. Old Forester aimed to establish a level of consumer trust and protection that other brands of the day couldn’t provide due to unscrupulous rectifiers flooding the market with tainted and stretched gut-rot spirits masquerading as quality bourbon. As a bottled and sealed product it carried legitimacy to its contents, source, and description as a quality medicinal product. When the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was enacted, Old Forester responded by becoming a 100 proof Bottled in Bond bourbon- remaining as such for the next 52 years. In 1959, in response to consumer palates shifting towards lighter whiskies and spirits post-World War II (in addition to their Bottled in Bond bourbon) Old Forester released the accompanying 86 proof bourbon which is still on the market today.
In modern times Old Forester is still under ownership and management of the descendants of George Garvin Brown (5th Gen) who own a majority stake in parent company, Brown-Forman Corporation. What sets Brown-Forman and their brands apart from other distilleries is not only the claim to having the longest running Bourbon on the market today, but also their ownership of their entire whisky production process from the cooperages making their barrels, to the equipment and structures involved in distillation, barrelling, ageing, and bottling their brands. When creating Old Forester consistency is key and achieving the required level depends on several key factors including barrels made to an exact level of toast and char, the use of a proprietary yeast strain, a signature high rye mashbill, heat cycled warehouses, and a large tasting panel that approve every batch after Master Blender Jacky Zykan has done her magic. Old Forester has only had 3 Master Distillers since 1963 which has helped to keep things consistent across the board.
Today I’m going to be taking a look at the flagship 86 proof Old Forester bourbon. This is a very affordable bourbon that has, until recently, managed to successfully fly under my radar due to its low proof and cheap price (“Do you really need another bottle of bourbon in the house?” – Mrs. Bourbon Paddy). However, having researched the bourbon and the history of the brand for this review I have to admit I am very excited to taste what all the fuss is about – let’s begin!
Name: Old Forester
Proof: 86 proof
Type: Straight bourbon whiskey
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Producer: Brown-Forman Corporation
Nose: The nose opens with sweet caramel, vanilla bean, and peppery earthy rye, fading to warm toasted oak, black cherry, orange peel, and herbaceous barrel smoke.
Palate: The palate is semi-viscous opening with sweet deep caramel and banana before a wave of sour black cherry, and earthy rye spice washes across the tongue and fades to a prickling toasted oak, dark chocolate, dark stone fruit with orange peel and a lingering herbaceous sweetness in the back.
Finish: The finish opens warm from the palate before earthy rye and burnt caramel emerge leaving an aftertaste of dark chocolate, orange peel oil and cracked black pepper.
For just 86 proof I’m very surprised at how nuanced and complex this bourbon is. There’s a lot of flavour that I wouldn’t normally associate with such an affordable offering which is a real added bonus. The dominant note is a dark cherry note which is balanced out by a peppery earthy note as the high rye content makes its presence known against the yeast’s floral banana notes. Despite the hot spice from the rye on the palate it is remarkably well balanced and drinkable – but you know you’re drinking young-ish high-rye bourbon neat that’s for sure! I can see how all these flavours would do very well either neat (for a flavour explosion) or mixed into a bourbon-based cocktail such as an Old Fashioned. Don’t have cocktail cherries or orange peel for your Old Fashioned? Look no further it’s already mixed in here! All this would need for an Old Fashioned is a dash of simple syrup, a dash of bitters, some ice, and a stir – sorted!
Old Forester have been doing this for over a century and it’s very clear in terms of the quality of what I’m drinking. As their entry-level bourbon this stuff is already a winner and pulls far ahead of several competitors – and it’s below 90 proof! I don’t think anyone who drinks this can say that below 90 proof is where limp and watered-down bourbon lives, this stuff is a flavour bomb waiting to go off. Between Master Distiller Chris Morris and Master Taster Jackie Zykan it’s clear that the bar is quite high even when it comes to blending this from 150+ barrels per batch. It’s complex without being overly so, it’s balanced between its sweet, spicy, and bitter elements, and the mouth-feel is very pleasant. Welcome to the daily drinker shelf little buddy! If this is the first step what is the rest of the portfolio like?
Try or Buy?
This is a no-brainer buy for me. In fact, I want to buy a case or two of this so I always have some close to hand as a daily drinker and can gift some to friends I know would appreciate it. In the words of Old Forester’s Master Blender Jackie Zykan, “Good whisky shouldn’t have to put you out (of extraordinary sums of money),” and this philosophy of creating a product that is high-quality, consistent, approachable, and affordable is why Old Forester is always very reasonably priced. In the UK I’ve seen this in ASDA for £25, and anyone not picking up a bottle at that price is doing themselves out of a great bourbon experience. US-based readers, I hope you guys are buying this by the handle because it’s worth your money every time.