Kentucky is known for its great Bourbon distilleries and Brown-Forman is one of its best. They have a very rich heritage and I have chosen them as the first one in this series because they have an unbroken line of ownership that is unmatched in the industry. The company has been controlled by the Brown family since 1870. They have made a huge impact on the industry’s past and future.
George Garvin Brown and his older brother J.T.S. Brown started the company in 1870 with the creation of the Old Forrester brand as a Bourbon sold only by the bottle. The idea was that doctors had a problem with the quality of whiskey they would prescribe to patients. It would be fine one day but not so good a week later. This is because at that time whiskey was sold by the barrel and consumers would have to take a flask to their local liquor store or saloon to get it filled and whiskey would change as the fill level of the barrel decreased, or worse, if the dealer added water to the barrel to stretch supplies.
George Garvin Brown had the idea to purchase barrels and create a flavor profile and proof that was what they considered ideal, and then bottle the whiskey so that it would stay the same. He would then sell these bottles to the consumers and the physicians could be confident in what they were prescribing. This was an expensive proposition because bottles had to be blown by hand. It would be another 20 years before bottles would be machine blown and economically inexpensive. The idea took off and they decided to name the product “Old Forrester” after Louisville physician Dr. William Forrester. When the good doctor later retired, Brown dropped the second “r” from the name to make it the modern “Old Forester” brand.
J.T.S. Brown, Jr. left the partnership after a few years and the Company was known as Brown, Chambers and Co. A few years later George Garvin Brown was joined by his cousin from Northern Ireland, James Thompson to form Brown-Thompson. When James Thompson left to form James Thompson & Bro with his brother Frank, later to be called Glenmore Distillery, George Forman was added as a partner and the company became Brown-Forman. The company survived some rough economic times in the early 20th century and became one of the companies with a license to sell medicinal whiskey during prohibition. It is during prohibition that they add Early Times Bourbon to their portfolio of brands.
Even before prohibition the Brown family continued to be leaders in the industry not only through George Garvin Brown, but through his son Owsley Brown. George wrote a book called “The Holy Bible Repudiates Prohibition” in 1910. Owsley was instrumental in trade organization such as the formation of the KDA (Kentucky Distillers’ Association). When George died in 1917, the reigns passed to his son Owsley. Owsley kept the company alive during prohibition and was instrumental in the industry after repeal.
With the repeal of prohibition, Brown-Forman through Owsley was an influence in the industry helping to create the self-regulations that the industry wanted to keep the pre-prohibition abuses from happening again and make the industry more socially responsible. More importantly for the production side of the industry, Owsley saw that there was a huge talent gap left by 13 years of prohibition so he authorized a training program to educate the next generation of distillers led by Manual Ice, their Master Distiller. Brown-Forman is well known to this day as a place where their employees are well trained in the art of distillation and the evidence is the number of employees who go on to create or work for other distilleries such as Lincoln Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Willie Pratt (Michter’s) and Marianne Barnes (Castle & Key).
As the 20th century progressed Brown-Forman added Jack Daniels to their business and grew the brand from a small distillery in Tennessee to the world class whiskey of today. The company became a publicly owned company with stockholders but the Brown family remained in control with the majority of shares owned by the family members. Even in the hard times for whiskey of the late 60s, 70s and early 80s, Jack Daniels was still strong domestically and was growing in the export markets. Early Times was also very strong in the Asian markets where it remained a Bourbon even when the company turned it into a “Kentucky Whiskey” domestically by aging in used cooperage for the brand.
When Bourbon started its comeback with strong super premium brands in the 1990s, Brown-Forman took the extra step by purchasing the old Labrot and Graham distillery in Woodford County, Kentucky and rebuilding it into a pot still distillery to create their Woodford Reserve Bourbon. They continue to show innovation with their present Master Distiller Chris Morris through the creation of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection that experiments with some old processes (Sweet Mash, Four Grain) and new processes (barrel aging in Wine cask or barrels made of maple wood). Chris was also instrumental in creating the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon released every September to honor George Garvin Brown’s birthday which highlights a particular flavor aspect of the Old Forester brand.
Brown-Forman is a company rich in heritage but also still making an impact on the industry of the future. The company will be 150 years old in 2020 and it is hoped they will be around making great whiskey for many more centuries.
Photos Courtesy of Brown-Forman and Old Forester