Old Forester began with humble roots in 1870, when George Garvin Brown took $5,500, and along with his half-brother, start J.T.S. Brown & Bros – the first ones to sell whisky in sealed glass bottles to assure its quality. After a few organizational changes, George Brown became partners with George Forman, and renamed the company to Brown-Forman in 1890. In 1897, they were one of the first to introduce a bottled-in-bond product, produced under the Old Forester Name.

Over the years, Brown-Forman has produced many brands, including its flagship brand, Old Forester. Brown-Forman survived Prohibition as one of only 10 distilleries authorized for medicinal production. At one time, Old Forester was considered fine bourbon, releasing special decanters each year for the Christmas holiday. Throughout the 1980’s-1990’s, the brand languished and continued to lose market share. Beginning in 2014, Brown-Forman began reinvesting in the brand, including plans to return it to Whiskey Row in Downtown Louisville.

In addition to rejuvenating bottles and labeling, and making the Old Forester Mint Julep the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, Master Distiller Chris Morris handed over the reins to his heir-apparent – Marianne Barnes – to craft a tribute to Brown-Forman’s heritage with the Whiskey Row Series. Marianne subsequently left Brown-Forman to begin operations at Castle & Key (the former Old Taylor Distillery) and recently announced her departure to begin new ventures.

The Lineup

The Whiskey Row Series currently depicts four distinct time periods and bourbons: 1870, 1897, 1910, and 1920.

1870 Original Batch symbolizes the original batching process of the very first Old Forester expression. Barrels from 3 different distilleries were batched, each with a different entry proof and different age profile. The bourbon is bottled at 90 proof with no age statement.

1897 Bottled-in-Bond symbolizes Brown-Forman’s part in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. To be bottled-in-bond, it must be the product of a single distillation season, by one distiller, at one distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse under US government supervision for at least 4 years, and bottled at 100 proof.

1910 Old Fine Whisky represents an October 1910 fire that caused the bottling to be shut down for an indefinite length of time. Unfortunately, there was a large vat of mature whisky waiting to be bottled. Facing ruin, this whisky was instead stored in new, charred oak barrels to rest until the line could be returned to operation. The result was a first of its kind double barreling. Today, mature Old Forester enters a lightly toasted, heavily charred second barrel.   

1920 Prohibition Style completes the lineup, referencing Brown-Forman as one of 10 distillers able to continue producing medicinal spirits during Prohibition.  

The Tasting

For my tasting, I was joined by a long-time friend and co-worker, Tom. We agreed to taste these in historical order and share our thoughts along the way.

1870 Original Batch

TomJoseph Bourbon
EyeLight CaramelLight Copper
Nose Vanilla with corn notes at the end. Vanilla, yeast, “classic Old Forester
PalateOaky Very light with butterscotch and vanilla
Finish Smooth and short Short and smooth with a hint of spice
Overall Classic Old Forester notes here.  A nice
product, but I think I’d take the $50 I spent
and buy a couple bottles of Old Forester 100
instead. It would be very interesting to line
this up with Old Forester 86 and see how
similar these two

1897 Bottled-in-Bond

TomJoseph Bourbon
EyeLightMedium Copper
NoseCornVanilla, buttered cornbread
PalateButterscotchCaramel and butterscotch
More layered than the 1870
FinishMedium finish with a little bit of
Medium and smooth
with some peppery spice
Not bad. We’re getting better as
time goes by. This is definitely a little more
interesting than the 1870.

1910 Old Fine Whisky

TomJoseph Bourbon
EyeCopperMedium Copper
NoseWood – oakLoads of vanilla and oak wood scents
PalateButterscotchA brown-sugar, caramel crescendo
FinishShort and smoothMedium with some light hints of cinnamon and
baking spices
Things are definitely getting more interesting. This
double-barrel product is a solid rival to Brown-Forman’s
other double-barreled brand, Woodford Double-Oaked.
With an interesting profile, this is a strong contender
for top-billing in this tasting.

1920 Prohibition Style

TomJoseph Bourbon
EyeCopperMedium Copper
NoseWood and caramelBaking spices paired with classic vanilla
PalateSpicy. Cinnamon.There’s dark fruit and cinnamon here with some
layers of even light floral notes
FinishDry. Medium-long.Medium dry-oaky finish without heat
A lot of other tasters have given high marks to
1920. Old Forester has pulled off a smooth and
interesting taste profile without the heat and
burn associated with a higher proof.  This is a
well-done and complex spirit.

All-in-all, this was a great night spent with a good friend tasting some fine bourbons. The tastes that former assistant master distiller Marianne Barnes instilled in these expressions when they were created left a great testament. Each one is unique and exquisite on its own, but when shared together, they create a bourbon time capsule.

For our tasting, here’s our most-liked to least like run-down:
Tom – 1870, 1910, 1920, 1897
Joe – 1920, 1910, 1897, 1870

As Buffalo Trace Tour Guide Freddie Johnson shared in Neat, “Never bring out fine bourbons, unless you’re with friends or family, and not in a hurry.” I couldn’t agree more.

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