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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, Old Forester Single Barrel, and Old Forester Statesman.
Now a fully-established staple bourbon in supermarkets, restaurants, and well-stocked bars, Old Forester has led the charge for a readily-available quality bourbon at a great price in the UK. Following the launch of their 86 proof bourbon into the UK market in 2014, marking the first time the brand officially stepped outside of the US, we’ve also seen the release of Old Forester Statesman to great acclaim, and even a few shipments of the Old Forester Whiskey Row Series making it over through independent importers answering the pleas of thirsty fans. By offering a robust bourbon at a proof that suits drinkers of all levels the UK wasted no time in embracing Old Forester and so when it was announced in August of 2019 that Old Forester will be launching their single barrel program in the UK, excitement hit the roof. Finally, bars, restaurants, and shops would be able to buy their own barrel and so be able to offer their customers a one-of-a-kind bottling of Old Forester. In the same fashion as the US, UK customers will travel to Louisville and pick their favourite barrel from several that have been pre-screened by Old Forester’s Master Taster Jackie Zykan for quality. The chosen barrel will then be dumped, cut to 90 proof, bottled under Old Forester’s distinct black and gold Single Barrel label, and shipped to the UK to be sold.
With the announcement of the program came a second surprise – the first barrel had not just been chosen already, but it was also set to be gracing the shelves of bars and specialist whiskey shops by the end of August. Bottled at 90 proof this ‘UK Bartender Barrel 001’ was the result of a surprise barrel pick conducted with 8 bartenders from all over the UK who were brought to Louisville by the distributor behind Old Forester in the UK. Chosen from a barrel originating from the 4th floor of Warehouse L the barrel yielded just over 100 bottles with only around 60 going to retail and the remainder going to the bars of the bartenders that chose the barrel.
Name: Old Forester Single Barrel – ‘UK Bartender Barrel 001’
Proof: 90 Proof (45% ABV)
Type: Straight bourbon whiskey
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Producer: Brown-Forman Corporation, Louisville, KY
Nose: The nose opens with fresh black cherries sitting in a deep brown-sugar caramel, followed by mellow vanilla, earthy baking spices, a touch of black pepper, and cacao dusted charred oak bringing up the rear.
Palate: The palate is viscous opening with dark stone fruit stewed in sticky brown sugar, followed by creamy vanilla, a kick of black pepper spice, mild earthy baking spices, and faintly bitter dark chocolate dipped in a red berry coulis as you continue to chew.
Finish: The finish opens with some residual spice that blooms in the chest as it goes down and moves to an aftertaste of dark chocolate, tannic charred oak, and almost burnt caramel.
Wow! This bourbon is complex, vigorous, and packed full of classic Old Forester flavours that are turned up to the max. It’s also very well-balanced between its oak-driven spice notes, the corn-driven caramel notes, and the yeast and rye-driven fruit components. Despite being of a similar age, when compared to the standard 86 proof the Single Barrel easily stands out with the classic 86 seeming very grain-forward with sweet buttery corn, peppery rye, and a more pronounced cherry note. Whereas the standard 86 is quite flavourful on its own the Single Barrel has gone a step further than this and added a delicious depth and balance to its flavours whilst still delivering a bourbon that is unmistakably Old Forester. My first clue that this was going to be a step up from an everyday Old Forester was on the nose which opens sweet with fresh cherries and caramel and quickly turns towards the darker notes of black pepper, cacao, barrel char, and earthy baking spices. The palate follows this lead whilst adding viscosity, even more flavour complexity, and a drinking experience that had me scratching my head in trying to pinpoint exactly what I was tasting – bitter dark chocolate dipped in red berry coulis is a very specific note that I’ve never come across before. It has an incredible depth of flavour with charred oak notes carrying the brunt of this depth and working together with the grain notes to give an impression of a concentrated bourbon that’s packed full of flavour and possibly due to what many call the ‘short barrel effect’ (i.e. more evaporation = more concentrated flavours). It’s similar to Statesman in its bold flavour but this Single Barrel has a fruitier presence whereas Statesman is spicier with lots of warm oak notes.
As far as first impressions go this single barrel has really pulled out all the stops and demonstrated the full potential of what the Single Barrel program offers UK-based fans. Although a growing bourbon market, single barrel programs in the UK are few and far between and the entry of Old Forester’s program into the market is a big step forward that hopefully means in the future we’ll have ready access to many more incredible single barrels just like this one. My hat also goes off to the UK distributer, the UK Old Forester Brand Ambassador, and the bartenders who picked this fantastic barrel. A lot of work went into bringing this to fruition and the whiskey reflects this effort beautifully.
Try or Buy?
Unfortunately bottles from this barrel are no doubt long gone and sold out. However, fear not curious drinker as 2020 is set to be a big year for this program and we’ll no doubt see multiple barrel roll into the market before the year is out. In other good news this Single Barrel is also available in all the bars that sent bartenders to pick it so next time you see a bottle on a back-bar give it a punt, you won’t be disappointed!