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.
During the dark days of Prohibition from 1919 to 1933 the US government had made 10 licences available for distilleries to continue producing alcohol for the medicinal alcohol trade. Only six licences were ever granted and of those one was granted to George Garvin Brown so that his Old Forrester brand could continue to be bottled and produced as medicinal whiskey on Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row. Throughout this time medicinal whiskey had to be bottled at 100 proof, and with a barrel entry proof of the same, many whiskies came out of the barrel at around 115 proof thanks to the low humidity and high temperatures found in KY. Thus, in order to commemorate this significant period in its brand’s history, Old Forester released Old Forester 1920 ‘Prohibition Style’ bourbon in 2017. Bottled at 115 proof this was the 3rd release as part of Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series and instantly became the only ongoing Old Forester release with a proof higher than 100 proof. Fans flocked to it in their droves and it has since become the official bourbon of choice for many from the Whiskey Row series. Today I’ll be taking a look at this whiskey to see if it really is the best release of the Whiskey Row series.
Name: Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Whisky
Proof: 115 Proof (57.5% abv)
Type: Straight bourbon whiskey
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Producer: Brown-Forman Corporation
Nose: The nose opens with thick butterscotch, caramel bordering on being burnt, dried cherries, faint banana, and earthy baking spices with a hint of cola sweets and almonds. As you nose deeper it gives more dark chocolate, fresh black cherries, and tannic oak.
Palate: The palate is viscous with dark chocolate, black stonefruit, rye spice, and a tingling heat from the alcohol. Once this dissipates somewhat, a faint burn travels down the sides of the tongue whilst a deep black cherries and dark chocolate continue to dance across the palate with spice on the fringes. The dryer dark chocolate and clove notes from the barrels becomes more apparent as this fades, balancing out the initial sweetness.
Finish: The finish opens faintly bitter with dark chocolate, almonds, charred oak, and an aftertaste of tannic charred oak and cloves.
From the day it was released, Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style hit the ground running released and has proven extremely popular with bourbon drinkers across the globe. Despite only being released in US markets it wasn’t long before it was exported to the UK by independent importers where it also became a permanent feature on many whiskey drinker’s back bars. As Old Forester’s highest proof continuously released bourbon, 1920 for many is the pinnacle of the Whiskey Row series with 1910 trailing not too far behind. The whiskey itself is robust and packed with jacked up Old Forester notes, giving drinkers a spicy but balanced sipping experience. Thanks to its overall flavour complexity, it can be enjoyed both neat or mixed into a cocktail that needs a solid oak-driven backbone and shines through beautifully in whatever it mixes into. There’s viscosity, cherries, tonnes of sweet and earthy barrel notes, rye spice, and chocolate all at a proof that can not be argued with. How though does it compare to the rest of the Whiskey Row bourbons? Time for a blind taste off I think!
To do this a 25ml sample of each 1920, 1910, 1897, and 1870 were poured into discreetly numbered plain Glencairn glasses. These were then mixed around so I wouldn’t know which glass held which whiskey, and a 1 vs. 1 tasting of all 4 whiskies against the remaining 3 was done until a clear 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place whiskey had been established. Every whiskey got a head to head against each other whiskey and then favourites for higher places got a second, third, fourth, and sometimes fifth go against its nearest competitor for its final ranking place. The results are as follow:
1st Place – Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
Drank next to the 2nd place winner this whiskey hit all the same flavours and then kept going where 2nd place could not in terms of flavour, spice, and overall enjoyment. I didn’t necessarily want 1920 to be the overall winner (who wouldn’t have loved if an underdog like 1897 won) but alas it is the better whiskey of the 4 in terms of overall deliciousness so it gets 1st place.
2nd Place – Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond
A surprise 2nd place winner for sure with all the hype that surrounds the 1910, however, 1897 only missed out on 1st place by a hair’s breadth. What a fantastic bourbon from Old Forester and delivered at a proof where you just can’t argue. As the very close 2nd place winner this whiskey easily outperforms the remaining 2 whiskies and does it with style and most importantly great flavours.
3rd Place – Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whiskey
Imagine a bourbon that tastes like chocolate fudge cake and you’d get this exact offering. Although 1910 is packed full of chocolate fudge, toasted almonds, and fresh cherries, it couldn’t hold up against the pure Old Forester flavours in the 1920 and the 1897. On its own it’s a delicious whiskey that delivers some very interesting flavours but put against the others it doesn’t quite have the same robust flavour profile I get from the 1920 and the 1897. Sure there’s charred barrel notes galore and it’s still a quite decent whiskey but the others just light up your palate with flavours that are undeniably better in my opinion.
4th Place- Old Forester 1870 Original Batch
Look, somebody had to come in 4th place and unfortunately for the 1870 Original batch the rest of the Whiskey Row releases easily out-performed it on every level. Yes, on it’s own it is delicious, and as a whiskey that is trying to imitate the original 3 distillery blend that Old Forester was originally it does a great job, however, in terms of flavour it couldn’t compete against the others.
Tasting all 4 releases side by side wasn’t easy when one is a finished bourbon (1910) and the proofs begin at 90 and end at 115, however, good bourbon is what it is and so the rightful winner was chosen on the basis of what tastes best. As I’ve said before, these are all incredible examples of what Old Forester are capable of with the stocks they have, however, when put side by side there’s a clear winner (just about!) and a clear loser. This being said, when comparing 4 delicious whiskies it does come down to the very fine details and even though the 1920 won, all these whiskies are delicious in their own right and the only real winner was me tasting all four side-by-side.
Hopefully, this isn’t where Old Forester’s innovative streak dies and in the future I hope to see some more interesting releases that take Old Forester’s whiskey stocks and puts a unique spin on them in terms of what can be done. Another thing that became apparent as I reviewed these whiskies individually (and subsequently ranked them side by side) is the level of skill wielded by Old Forester’s Master Taster Jackie Zykan – who is personally responsible for every drop of these releases. What she has achieved in these whiskies is incredible, and although they have all retained their core Old Forester DNA her careful sorcery has resulted in 4 distinct whiskies that not only celebrate the brands colourful history but also give fans of the brand 4 new ways to enjoy Old Forester.
Try or Buy?
For around $60/£76 a bottle this whiskey is a must have. The hype is real and the price is incredible. Never be without.