You can’t talk about the bourbon industry without talking about Brown-Forman and Old Forester due to the deep and rich history that surrounds both the brand and the family of owners. From a spelling change of the name to being the only brand that is still owned and produced by the same family of owners before, during and after American Prohibition, Old Forester has survived the test of time. For over one hundred and fifty years, including some of the hardest times in history such as wars, Prohibition and decline in the bourbon industry, Old Forester has stayed true to its morals and beliefs. A company that was started out to be the producer of the highest quality bourbon at a time when quality was not enforced still produces some of the highest quality distillates on the market.
Old Forrester (notice the three R’s in its name) was founded by George Garvin Brown and his half-brother John Thompson Street Brown, Jr. George was born on Wednesday September 2, 1846 in Munfordville, Kentucky to John Thompson Street Brown Sr. and Mary Garvin Brown. Mary was John Sr.’s second spouse and was not the mother to John Jr. The John Thompson Street Brown name is infamous in the bourbon industry and has a whole history of its own, but is more commonly known as J.T.S. Brown. John Sr. was born on Sunday April 7, 1793 in Hanover County, Virginia. During George’s childhood, the American Civil War was ongoing and his father was off fighting in the war as a Confederate officer. He was sent off to Louisville, Kentucky to attend high school in 1863 at Male High School. He did not complete school, but found work afterwards as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company Henry Chambers and Co. During this time whiskey was one of the treatments that doctors would prescribe to patients so part of his job dealt with dealing with doctors and alcohol. Through his sales he would often hear complaints from doctors about the poor quality of whiskey. At this point in time whiskey was not sold packaged in bottles but would often be served out of a barrel into another container. There were no quality regulations of whiskey so consumers were at the mercy of distillers being honest about what went into their products. Seeing and hearing this sparked the desire to want to offer his own quality product. After bringing up the idea to Henry Chambers, Henry supported and encouraged George to start his own company. George turned to his half-brother John Jr. to join him in this venture.
John Thompson Street Brown, Jr. was born on Monday June 8, 1829 in Hart County, Kentucky to John Thompson Brown Sr. and Elizabeth Creel Brown. Elizabeth was John Thompson Street Brown’s first spouse. John Thompson Jr. met and married Emily Graham and the two had six children, Carrie, David, Andrew, Creel, Emily and John Thomson Street III. Prior to joining his brother George in the liquor business, JTS Jr. had prior experience in the industry as a liquor merchant.
The brother duo founded J.T.S. Brown & Brother with $5,500 and money borrowed from others. They decided to name their brand of bottled whiskey Old Forrester after Dr. William S. Forrester. The doctor was born on Saturday August 13, 1836 in Jefferson County in Kentucky and was orphaned during his childhood when his parents died when he was nine. His father was from Scotland and had been a physician during his life. After the death of his parents, William was in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Joshua Frye Speed. William received an education from the public schools of Louisville, Kentucky and then later attended and graduated from Louisville Medical University. He followed in his father’s footsteps and studied to be in the medical field. Friday April 12, 1861 marked the beginning of the American Civil War and William enlisted to be a surgeon. He served in the Fifth Kentucky Cavalry as part of the Union Army during the war. During these times medicine was not as advanced and practices were not as they are today, so here he was probably exposed to a lot of use of alcohol for both disinfecting and medicinal consumption. After the conclusion of his service, William went to New York where he studied medicine. Once completed the doctor moved back to Louisville and began his medical practice. In his personal life he was married to Frannie H. Forrester and the two had three children together, R. A. Forrester, J. Speed Forrester, and J.H. Forrester. Throughout his years of practice he became a well-known and respected doctor of Louisville. During his years of practice Dr. Forrester more than likely used and prescribed whiskey on countless occasions. The doctor was a supporter and endorsed the brand that the Brown brothers were creating.
In the early days of Old Forrester the brothers did not distill their own products. They frequently purchased stock from Mattingly Distillery, Mellwood Distillery and Atherton Distillery. They would take these barrels of whiskey and blend them together, proof down to 90 proof and then bottle the distillate. The bottles would be sealed with the signature of personal guarantee of quality from the Brown brothers. Bottling distillate was revolutionary and unheard of during these days for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons that no one was doing this at the time was because the glass had to be hand blown. Technology at the time wasn’t readily available for mechanical glass making, and even when it did become available there was still time needed before it became a cost efficient process. Hand blowing glass was not only time consuming but an added cost. They had a bottling building and offices located in downtown Louisville in an area known as Whiskey Row.
In 1870 the Old Forrester brand officially launched and they started selling their sealed bottles of whiskey. This would be a milestone that would change the bourbon industry forever. After just a few years of being in business, J.T.S. Brown Jr. decided to leave the company and start his own venture, JTS Brown and Sons. In 1873 after the departure of his brother, George went to his old employer, Henry Chambers. Henry bought into the company and it became known as Brown, Chambers and Company. In 1876 George reached out to his cousin, James Thompson Brown, who was from Ireland to join the firm. In 1881 Henry retired from the business and the firm became known as Brown-Thompson. As the years went by and technology continued to approve, in the late 1880’s the ability to have glass bottles blown by machine became possible and helped the firm in being able to more easily and cost efficiently produce the glass bottles needed for their whiskey.
In 1876 George Brown had gotten married to Amelia Bryan Owsley from Danville, Kentucky. Amelia had previously been married to Lawrence Carr Robinson (born 1846) in 1868, but the following year Lawrence died. Amelia was born on February 16, 1848. George and Amelia had seven children together: George Garvin Jr., Mary, Owsley, Elizabeth, James, Robinson and Amelia Bella.
In 1890, James left the firm to start his own company, James Thompson & Bro., with his brother Frank. James sold his shares of Brown-Thompson to the company’s accountant, George Forman. Despite all of the firm’s effort to provide for a level of trustable quality in the bourbon industry, there were a lot of companies who still did not practice providing an honest product to consumers. In an effort to provide quality assurance the Bottled in Bond Act was passed in 1897. During this period the brand changed their bottling proof to 100 from 90 proof. George did not want to change the proof of his bourbon because he thought it was already quality and proofed just right, but the act helped to make the 100 proof a quality marker that many consumers wanted. In 1901 the Brown-Forman name was officially incorporated and to this day the company still goes by that name. In 1901 George Forman passed away and his ownership in the company was purchased by George Brown.
At some point Dr. Forrester retired and his name fell out of the spotlight and fewer people began to associate the doctor’s name with the brand. The whiskey changed names to Old Forester by dropping one of the r’s, thus losing the direct association to the doctor. Dr. Forrester passed away on August 15, 1909 from complications with a disease that he had complications with for a year prior to his death. Three weeks before his death he became seriously ill from his condition and ultimately succumbed to the disease. Dr. Forrester was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
A large milestone was unturned in 1902 when Brown-Forman purchased the B.F. Mattingly Distillery, one of the distilleries that it was sourcing its product from. This allowed for the Old Forester brand to begin producing its own distillate. The distillery became known as Old Forester Distillery. In 1910 the distillery experienced a fire on the bottling line and production had to cease. There were already barrels of Old Forester product dumped out waiting for bottling, so the aged distillate was put back into a second barrel for storage while the necessary repairs were made. After business was able to resume the double barrel aged whiskey was bottled as Very Old Fine Whiskey and was the first double barreled bourbon.
George Brown’s son, Owsley Brown, joined his father in the whiskey business in 1910. Owsley was born on Tuesday February 25, 1879 in Louisville. He received his education at both public and private schools. He attended the University of Virginia and Center College. He married Laura Lee Lyons on October 18, 1905 and they had two children; William Lee Lyons Brown and Amelia.
As the years of the American Prohibition grew closer, George Garvin Brown was against the restrictions that the act set to establish. He was so much against it that he published a book titled The Holy Bible Repudiates Prohibition. George however died before Prohibition ever began. On Wednesday January 24, 1917 he died and was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Owsley took over as president of Brown-Forman after his father’s death. The beginning of Owsley’s tenure as head of the company proved to be challenging as the prohibition of the production of alcohol began on Saturday January 17, 1920. Owsley applied and was awarded for Brown-Forman to be one of only six producers of medicinal whiskey during the years that Prohibition was in effect. The Old Forester brand was able to be produced and sold during these dark years. Many distilleries went out of business and closed their doors for good, but the ability to produce during these years helped keep the brand in business. This made Old Forester the only bourbon to be sold prior, during and after Prohibition that was owned by the same family.
During the years of Prohibition, Old Forester was bottling all of their whiskeys at 100 proof. In addition, they would add the distillate to the barrels to age at 100 proof as well. After spending some time aging and some of the water from the distillate evaporating, by the time the bourbon was ready to be bottled the proof in the barrel was approximately 115 proof. This provided the inspiration for the 1920 Prohibition Style bourbon that Old Forester produces today to pay homage to those times. After maturation the bourbon would be proofed down to 100 proof and bottled for medicinal use. In 1929 Brown-Forman purchased another distillery. Located in Louisville, the White Mills Distillery became the new home of Old Forester production.
On Tuesday December 5, 1933 Prohibition was repealed and alcohol manufacturers were able to operate more freely again. Having been able to produce during these years it allowed Old Forester to be ahead of their competition. With many shuttered distilleries from Prohibition, it allowed for Brown-Forman to be a powerful distillery and helped give them the ability to purchase another distillery in 1940. Owsley purchased the Old Kentucky Distillery located in Shively, Kentucky. The distillery was fairly new only, being built five years prior in 1935. Old Kentucky Distillery was the producer of Normandy Rye whiskey. It is this recipe that helped inspire the current recipe for the Old Forester Rye that was introduced in February 2019. Brown-Forman named the distillery Early Time Distillery. The firm had purchased the Early Times brand in 1923 during Prohibition.
Sunday December 7, 1941 marked the tragic attack of Pearl Harbor. Just two weeks after the attack Old Forester converted its entire production facility to make industrial alcohol at high proof to help aid in the war efforts. It was the first distillery to be fully converted for this type of production. As 1945 came around, Brown-Forman had their eye on another venture that would help change the way that they produced their bourbon and that was with the purchase of Wood Mosaic Company. The company was known for its woodworking capabilities mainly with furniture. With the purchase of the company it was renamed Bluegrass Cooperage Company. This allowed for Brown-Forman to produce its own barrels and control all aspects of its creation for Old Forester.
In 1951 Owsley Brown retired from the company and passed the reins to his son William Lee Lyons Brown Sr., starting the beginning of another generation of the same family owning the firm. William was born on July 26, 1906. He was married to Sara “Sally” Elizabeth Shallenberger Brown and they had three children together, Ina, William Lee Lyons Jr. and Owsley II. The following year after Owsley’s retirement, on October 31, 1952 he passed away. Owsley was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. He was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2008.
In 1955 Owsley Brown Frazier joined the company. Owsley Frazier was born on Tuesday May 7, 1935 to Harry Stucky Frazier and Amelia Brown Frazier. His mother Amelia is the daughter of Owsley Brown Sr. Amelia was born May, 1908 and Harry September 28, 1900. Owsley Frazier was raised in Louisville and attended Centre College and University of Louisville. He was the founder of the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville. Over the course of his 45 year career at Brown-Forman the company he held many roles including company attorney, director of personnel, vice chairman and even served on the board of directors.
In 1959 the world was introduced to Old Forester in 86 proof. This came as a response to a changing consumer market during that time. The rough and aggressive whiskies that were once enjoyed during the Prohibition era deviated more towards consumers wanting a lighter option. This did not replace the 100 proof version, but was an addition to its core line. This 86 proof is still offered by the company today.
The following year, in the summer of 1960, Owsley Brown II began to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather by joining the family business. Although the position was just as an intern while he still attended school, it was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. Owsley Brown II was born on Thursday September 10, 1942 in Louisville. He attended Woodberry Forest Prep School in Woodberry Forest, Virginia, went on to attend Yale and graduated in 1964 and then eventually went on to earn his Master’s in Science from Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Owsley II married Christina “Christy” Lee Brown in 1968 and the two had three children together, Owsley III, Brooke and Augusta.
In 1962 Old Forester introduced President’s Choice to the market which was a single barrel product. Old Forester claims that this was the first single barrel bourbon in the history of bourbon. Whether that is technically true or not, the company still offers this to this day as a rare and sought after bourbon that is selected by the president of the company. As the 1970’s approached, William Lee Lyons Brown Sr. passed away on Friday January 5, 1973. By the end of the decade, Old Forester production moved from the White Mills Distillery in Louisville to the Early Times Distillery in Shively in 1979.
Monday September 2, 2002 marked the 156th birthday of George Garvin so in celebration and honor of his birthday Old Forester released Birthday Bourbon. This is an annual release for George’s birthday which features varying proofs and number of barrels. This creates a different volume of bottles to be released each year. This is a very limited and rare release by the company that has become highly anticipated and demanded by bourbon consumers.
Owsley Brown II died September 26, 2011 in Louisville. He was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2015. Owsley Brown Frazier died Thursday August 16, 2012. In 2014 Old Forester released to market its Whiskey Row series which features four bourbons that pay homage to the early years of the company. The first expression in the series was Old Forester 1870 Original Batch which alludes to the year that George Garvin Brown first began the company. As homage to George sourcing and blending his early offerings from three different distilleries, Old Forester takes barrels from three different warehouses at varying proofs, flavor profiles and ages then blends them together. The second offering Old Forester 1897 Bottled In Bond pays tribute to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. This bourbon is made according to Bottled In Bond standards which includes being aged in federally bonded warehouses for a minimum of four years, bottled at 100 proof and of the same distillery in the same distilling season. Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whisky honors the Saturday October 22, 1910 fire on the bottling line that caused already dumped barrels to be placed back in barrels creating a double barrel aged whisky. This offering pays tribute to that fire and that secondary aging by dumping an aged product into a new barrel. The Volstead Act of 1920 was a dark time for distilleries when the Prohibition of alcohol production began, but Old Forester was still able to produce through this. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Whisky pays honor to whisky of that time. During Prohibition whisky had to be bottled at 100 proof, so when Old Forester would put bourbon in the barrels at 100 proof, as it aged water would evaporate leaving behind alcohol, thus strengthening the distillate in the barrel. At the end of aging the proof in the barrel would be at approximately 115 proof, so this bourbon is bottled at just that, 115 proof.
Just as the Whiskey Row series took Old Forester back to its roots, in 2018 the company moved to Whiskey Row at 119 West Main Street in Louisville, which was the same location that it called home pre-Prohibition. Named the Old Forester Distilling Company, this location featured its own cooperage which allowed barrels to be produced on site. This new location allows for tours to the public and showcases the company’s history and whiskey making processing. Due to space restrictions being in a downtown location, main production of their products is not done at this location.
In 2019 Old Forester introduced its first rye product, Old Forester Rye. The mashbill for their rye offering is 65% rye, 20% malted barley and 15% corn. This particular mashbill comes from the purchase of the Old Kentucky Distillery and the brand they produced Normandy Rye. This was the first new grain bill recipe introduced by the company since its inception.
As one of the oldest bourbon brands still around, Old Forester has survived the test of time from the adaptation during Prohibition to the medicinal market to the many generational changes within the Brown family. Next time you sit down with a pour of Old Forester bourbon remember the rich and complex history that allowed for that distillate to be in your glass and remember you are sipping more than what’s in your glass, you are sipping history.