In 1870 George Garvin Brown was a pharmaceutical salesman for Henry Chambers and Co. He was selling whiskey to doctors and pharmacies. After hearing complaints about the changing quality of the whiskey the doctors were prescribing to patients, Brown came up with the idea of bottling whiskey to ensure the quality. Most whiskey at that time was being sold out of the barrel at the pharmacies, saloons and liquor dealers. Bottles were expensive and would cost more than the whiskey that went into them yet this made sense to the specialized market of medicinal whiskey. People would pay more for whiskey if it was for health reasons. Chambers agreed it was a good idea, but decided that he would rather see Brown start a company to create this whiskey. So instead, he agreed to help Brown set up his own company to sell the whiskey. With Chambers’ help, George Garvin Brown and his older brother J.T.S. Brown, Jr. set up a company and created Old Forrester.
At the time of the creation of the brand it was “Forrester” with three “r”s and not the current spelling of “Forester”. That is because the brand was named for Dr. Forrester, a local physician who was well regarded in Louisville and who agreed to endorse this project. Forrester had been orphaned as a child and was raised by the Speed family at their Farmington estate. He attended medical school at the University of Louisville and in New York City. He served as the surgeon for the 3rd Cavalry, United States Army in the American Civil War. He was respected as a physician in the city and a good choice to endorse this new product. When Dr. Forrester retired, Brown dropped an “r” from the name since it was no longer tied to the good doctor.
Old Forrester was a success and Brown had a growing business. His Brother, J.T.S. Brown, Jr. decided to leave the firm after a couple of years to create his own company with his sons. Chambers briefly joined Brown in the company until Brown was able to recruit his cousin James Thompson, who had come over from Ireland to settle in Louisville. The Brown-Thompson firm grew and became more profitable in the late 1880s when the improvement in technology allowed for machine blown bottles, making them more affordable for bottling whiskey. In 1890 James Thompson left the firm to form James Thompson & Bro. with his brother Frank, who also came over from Ireland. Thompson sold his shares in the company to George Forman who had been working for the firm as an accountant. Thus was born Brown-Forman. Old Forester was their flagship brand.
George Garvin Brown opposed the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. His reasons were that he sold a good quality whiskey at 90 proof and older than the 8 years that was the maximum bonding period. The regulation would not help his product and would hurt its sales. However, when the act did pass, Brown invested in the Mattingly Distillery in Nelson County and Old Forester became a bonded whiskey. The firm of Brown-Forman continued to grow until Prohibition.
During Prohibition, Brown-Forman was one of the six companies with a license to sell medicinal whiskey and Old Forester was still their flagship brand. They sold some brands for other people that did not have a license such as Yellowstone and they acquired the Early Times brand from the heirs of Jack Beam, but Old Forester was the brand that received the most support. In 1929 they were able to purchase the White Mills Distillery in Louisville and rebuild it as the Old Forester Distillery and make some whiskey to replenish their dwindling stocks of aged whiskey. When prohibition ended in 1933, the brand was well positioned in the re-opened markets across the country.
In the late 1940s Brown-Forman introduced an “Old Forester President’s Choice” to certain customers. The select customers could purchase a whole barrel of Old Forester picked by the President of the company and have it bottled for them with a special label. It was a single barrel product even though they never really marketed it as such. Liquor stores were the main target for the brand, but they did sell to individuals as well. In 1949 Brown-Forman also introduced a special glass decanter for Old Forester that was marketed during the holiday season as a gift idea for the Bourbon drinker.
After Brown-Forman purchased the Jack Daniel’s brand in the 1950s, Old Forester received less attention from the company and the sales declined. Since the brand was the brand that created the company, it was never really in danger of being discontinued, but it lost support in marketing as the dollars were spent on the brands Jack Daniel’s and Early Times, which were growing in popularity. Sales declined all through the 70s and 80s as Bourbon sales on the whole declined in the United States. It was not until the 21st century that Old Forester again began to take center stage. In the 1950s Brown-Forman introduced an 86 proof version of the brand for those looking for less proof in their whiskey. In the 1990s the company decided to quit producing a Bonded version of the brand but kept a 100 proof version that was not all from one season of a single year.
In the late 1990s Bourbon sales began to grow nationwide. Old Forester grew in popularity as more and more people discovered what a fine Bourbon it is even though it was not priced as a premium product. This led to the creation of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon inspired by the founder’s birthday. Master Distiller Chris Morris picks special barrels for this premium product every year and the bottles are released to the market in early September, on George Garvin Brown’s birthday. This release was a success and inspired Morris to push for even more premium bottlings of Old Forester that would be available all year. The Old Forester “Whiskey Row Series” was created for this purpose. Each bottling is inspired by a year in the history of the brand. The “1870” for the year the brand was created, the “1897” for the Bottled-in-Bond Act and the “1920” for Prohibition. The latest version, Brown-Forman says that the “1910” is for the year that George Garvin Brown started creating his own stock by double barreling the whiskey.
Old Forester has a rich heritage. It is also unique in that the brand has been owned by the same company and family since it was created in 1870. The Brown Family still has a majority holding of the company stock. It has several “premium” versions but the traditional brands of 86 and 100 proofs are not overshadowed by these brands. The brand will be 150 years old in 2020 and looks strong to still be around to celebrate its 200th birthday in 2070.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl