LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The average person doesn’t live long enough to sample the total range of output of a long-time whiskey distillery. That’s what made a recent tasting of Old Forester bourbons held here so special.
The occasion was put together by Chris Morris, master distiller who is behind today’s expressions of Old Forester (as well as Woodford Reserve) from the Brown-Forman company, in honor of the 162nd birthday of its founder, George Garvin Brown.
More than 100 bourbon connoisseurs gathered in the Victorian elegance of the Filson Historical Society headquarters to sample a selection of six Old Forester whiskies in a timeline tasting that ranged from 1916 to 2008.
Such a lineup would be difficult enough to arrange for any brand, given the scarcity of old whiskies, but it was accomplished with the assistance of Michael R. Veach, Filson’s Special Collections Assistant and a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame since 2006 who said he has found rare whiskies through auctions and private sales.
Old Forester was founded in 1870 by Brown. It survived Prohibition when his son, Owsley Brown, obtained one of only 10 federal licenses to continue selling whiskey — for medicinal purposes. Thus, Brown-Forman is the only existing U.S. company in the spirits and wine business that has spanned pre-, during and post-Prohibition periods.
Since 1902, Old Forester — which began as a blend of other people’s whiskies — has been distilled by Brown-Forman at three successive facilities. The yeast strain used today was isolated in 1929 when Brown and his cohorts needed to restart fermentation after other strains died out during Prohibition.
Here’s a brief look at the timeline tasting:
— 1916 Old Forester: This bourbon was distilled in 1916, the year before
George Garvin Brown died, but languished in wood barrels for 22 years, forgotten during Prohibition. After so long in the wood, it is a unique bourbon: 100 proof, a very dark color with a smell of molasses and lots of oak. Heavy in tannins, with notes of prune and bittersweet chocolate but none of the signature caramel and vanilla for which bourbon is known. Surprisingly, it was quite palatable.
— 1933 Old Forester President’s Choice: This single barrel expression was the first post-Prohibition bourbon from Brown-Forman. It carried a golden color and spicy notes with the expected caramel and vanilla notes. Rich and oaky, in the classic dry bourbon style.
— 1992 Old Forester: This is the Old Forester that dipped to 86 proof and came from the present distillery in Shively, Ky. A milder, softer flavor profile and light amber color differentiate it from the long-time run of Old Forester bourbon. Brown spices, wood, caramel and tobacco notes are prevalent and this expression tastes more of rye than its predecessors.
— Today’s Old Forester 86 Proof: Even more amber in color than earlier versions. Soft and sweet yet with a pleasant bite of spice carried along with the traditional vanilla, caramel and oak notes.
— Old Forester Signature: This is the 100 proof modern expression that Chris Morris calls “a salute to the original.” It is a blend of mingled seasons and goes back to the dark orangey color and less sweetness, leaning instead toward more spice, wood and fruit. It’s a cool, calm bourbon with no burn.
— Old Forester Repeal Bourbon: This one-time, limited-release expression created to mark the anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal, is a classic bourbon with its vanilla, caramel and brown sugar notes and orange-amber coloring, but it is much more complex than that. A definite note of chocolate and berries gives it a chocolate-covered cherry characteristic.
Orange notes that are suggested by the coloring begin to come through as the whiskey opens up, and the well-oaked liquid carries hints of spice and mint. This is, overall, a warm, crisp, satisfying bourbon. It won’t hit the market until November, however.
(William M. Dowd covers the adult beverage industry online at BillDowd.com.)