George Garvin Brown was born in Munfordville, Kentucky in the year 1846. His father was John Thompson Street Brown and George’s mother was Mary Garvin Brown, J.T.S. Brown’s second wife. George had seven older brothers and sisters. When the American Civil War came to Munfordville, George was sent to live and be educated in Louisville. He stayed with relatives and went to Male High School. For reasons unknown today, he never finished his education and went home to Munfordville briefly before returning to Louisville seeking work.
Brown found work as a pharmaceutical salesman for Henry Chambers and Co. He sold barrels of whiskey to drugstores and doctors in Louisville. George soon found many doctors were complaining about the quality of the whiskey. It was good when they purchased it, however, the quality declined as they used it. Brown decided that the answer was to sell the whiskey by the bottle as he knew it would not continue to age or change in flavor in the bottle. If he could purchase barrels of whiskey and marry them together and adjust the proof to what was the preferred proof for medicine, and then bottle it, the quality would remain the same. Chambers agreed that this was a good idea and offered to help Brown go into business selling bottled whiskey to the market. He offered to raise $500 if Brown would do the same. That would start the business.
Brown partnered with his oldest brother, J.T.S. Brown, Jr., and raised the $500. Chambers talked to many of the physicians that were his customers and they agreed that this was a good idea and together they raised $5,000 to help George go into business. George purchased barrels and started bottling Old Forrester, named for a local physician. The business was a success, however, within three years, J.T.S. decided to leave the company to found his own liquor company with his sons. George partnered first with Henry Chambers and then his cousin James Thompson, who had just come to America from Ireland. When Thompson left the company in 1890 to start his own liquor company, James Thompson & Bro. (later renamed Glenmore), Brown brought in with George Forman and the company becomes Brown-Forman.
Brown was a well-respected businessman and a community leader. He was active in his church and had a reputation for honesty and integrity. According to the book Nothing Better in the Market, when he found himself in financial difficulty around the turn of the century and filed for bankruptcy to relieve himself from his debts, he was very proud of the fact that he eventually paid every one of the debts back, even though he was not legally obligated to do so. It should be noted that the debt came from another business Brown had invested in, Giant Tobacco Company, not Brown-Forman.
Brown was a founding member in one of the organizations that would eventually become the Kentucky Distillers Association. He was opposed to Prohibition and wrote the book The Holy Bible Repudiates “Prohibition” which quoted Bible verses that supported the use of alcohol to argue against Prohibition. In 1902 Brown-Forman acquired the J.G. Mattingly Distillery in St. Mary’s, Kentucky. He had purchased barrels from that distillery for many years so it was only natural to acquire the distillery. He continued to purchase barrels and have his bottling done for Brown-Forman at the Mellwood Distillery in Louisville. Mattingly did not have enough warehouse space and no bottling line, so it was necessary to continue his business with Mellwood Distillery.
Brown was a generous person who donated money to many causes. He donated money when the G.A.R. held their encampment in Louisville in 1895. That was just one of the many public events to which he donated his money. George also supported the local culture, donating to museums and the arts. He set a standard of giving that has been carried on by his family for over 100 years. Brown-Forman donates large amounts of money to the arts to this day.
George Garvin Brown died in 1917. His son Owsley Brown took over the company. Brown-Forman of today is a publicly-traded stock, but the family still possesses controlling interest. George’s legacy lives on in the company and Old Forester is still their flagship brand. He was truly a Bourbon Baron.
Photos via the archives of Michael Veach and Brown-Forman