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.
Started in 2015 to commemorate key historic dates in the brand’s extensive 149 year history, the Old Forester Whiskey Row Series saw a permanent line extension of Old Forester’s core portfolio of 86 proof and 100 proof bourbons. Named the Whiskey Row series in honour of the famous Whiskey Row in Louisville the series was launched in the build up to Old Forester opening their state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot distillery and visitor centre in the same building they had occupied nearly a 100 years previous on Whiskey Row. As an extension to the existing range this series also aimed to introduce prospective and existing Old Forester fans to the versatility of Old Forester’s one-recipe bourbon by producing 4 distinct styles of bourbon through the alteration of several factors.
A consistent release since 2015, Old Forester’s 1870 Original Batch pays tribute to the year that Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown established the Old Forrester brand (now spelled Old Forester) by blending bourbon from 3 different distilleries to create a consistent and superior medicinal bourbon that was also the world’s first bottled bourbon. Now producing all their own whiskey since 1901, this product attempts to pay tribute to Old Forester’s proud NDP days and recreate the original process of sourcing from 3 distilleries by pulling 7 barrels from 3 separate heat-cycled warehouses and batching these 21 barrels. The barrels chosen for this expression vary in age, day of entry and proof of entry in order to better mimic the original Old Forrester bourbon. As part of the Whiskey Row series, this was the first bottling to tell a part of the brand’s story in the run up to opening their state-of-the-art distillery on the historic Whiskey Row in Louisville, where the original Old Forester offices were set up in 1870.
Name: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch
Proof: 90 Proof (45% ABV)
Type: Straight bourbon whiskey
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Producer: Brown-Forman Corporation
Nose: The nose opens with warm toasted oak, toffee, faint black pepper, a touch of dark stone fruit, and earthy charred oak.
Palate: The palate opens with a medium viscosity before delivering notes of chocolate milk which transform into sweet toasted oak, clove-heavy baking spices, white pepper, butterscotch, almond flakes, sweet black stone- fruit, faintly floral vanilla, and hints of herbaceous oak in the back.
Finish: The finish opens with a lingering heat from the palate before notes of toasted oak, clove, and burnt caramel fade into an aftertaste of herbaceous and tannic charred oak.
This is delicious and is a very welcome addition to the existing Old Forester core portfolio. Sipping it side by side with the standard 86 proof Old Forester bourbon it’s clear that it follows the 86’s lead in viscosity but without the hallmark banana and cherry forward notes. Instead, it’s the next level up with added maturity and complexity, giving a delicious note of dried cherries which combines with a robust mix of milk chocolate, sweet caramel, dark stone fruit, peppery spice, vanilla bean, and a touch of earthy oak all rolled into one. As far as dominant notes, a peppery kick on the palate and toasted oak-driven notes that are reminiscent of shortbread biscuits are the most apparent. The more you drink, the more bourbon soaked cherries make an appearance on the back palate but this usually happens around pour number three and it’s quickly obvious that in this batch the toasted oak profile has also added quite a lot to this. Drinking this I have to agree with Old Forester’s Master Blender Jackie Zykan that the 1870 is a middle-of-the-road and inoffensive upgrade to the classic 86 that’s not going to blow you away but does taste very good and is a step up from the 86.
Old Forester have been continuously making whiskey for almost 150 years and have had a product on the shelf in the form of their 86 proof and later 100 proof expressions. When it was announced that they were more than doubling their number of offerings with the permanent addition of the Whiskey Row series, fan fever and excitement built very quickly. Finally fans were going to get new expressions and twists on the classic Old Forester flavour profile through a variety of methods that also tell the brand’s story simultaneously. With such a rich brand history, the authenticity of the stories, and the quality of the whiskies has since resulted in the series being wildly successful and the best part is it’s all based on true history without a shred of excess marketing spin required.
Try or Buy?
In the US Old Forester 1870 carries an SRP of $45 and at this price it is definitely worth picking up a bottle or having someone bring you a bottle back (if you’re based outside the US like myself!) For UK fans of Old Forester this release can sometimes be found in small importers but as it has not been released through official channels here availability is scarce and often overpriced for the privilege. Instead I would highly recommend Old Forester Statesman which, although spicier, is a sterling example of good Old Forester whiskey.