There will be a time and a place for delving deeper into the long history of the Old Forester brand, but this post is neither the time nor the place. Well, maybe this post is a little bit of the time and the place. Old Forester’s historical claim to fame is that it was the first distillery to sell all of its bourbon in glass bottles. While this may sound like a bit of marketing fluff and not super impressive, it’s actually a kind of a big deal. Prior to 1870, when Old Forester began bottling all of its bourbon, distillers and brokers sold all their spirit in barrels. Any bottling was done by retailers, or bars or even “health care providers”. In those days, what happened between those barrels and bottles was anybody’s guess. It’s probably a safe bet that very little whiskey was retailed at cask strength. At it’s best, the whiskey was likely just watered down. At it’s worst, it was watered down, “augmented” with fruit juice, or colored with tobacco juice, and/or who knows what else. There was little to no guarantee of quality or consistency with bourbon back then. But, as demand for whiskey grew, so did a desire for a more reliable product. One of the groups that apparently were quite vocal in this desire were physicians. At the time, doctors thought that whiskey could treat a variety of maladies including (I’m assuming) livining up the blood, curing the vapors, and sedating the kids. Doctors and increasingly discerning whiskey drinkers wanted a consistent product, and George Garvin Brown, the founder of the company that soon became Brown-Forman, saw an opportunity to give them one.
In 1870, Brown formed a company with his half brother and began selling whiskey in glass bottles that were sealed as a way to guarantee the purity and quality of the contents. They named the whiskey Old Forrester* after a local doctor who probably over-prescribed their whiskey. Because the process of making glass bottles was not automated at this time, Old Forrester* was more expensive than most other whiskeys on the market, but with the physicians’ seal of approval and its growing reputation, the brand was successful enough to survive until the turn of the century when two events helped bolster its place in the market. In 1897, the Bottled-In-Bond act was passed, which provided government regulation and a guarantee of a whiskey’s relative quality. And in the early 1900s, a man named Michael Owens invented and patented an automated glass bottle making machine which reduced the costs of bottle-making by nearly 80%. While these two events obviously helped not just Old Forester, but the whiskey industry in general, the brand’s early commitment to a quality, consistent product laid a stable foundation which enabled it to weather the coming decades. But, as I said…that will have to wait for another time and place.
According to the company literature, Old Forester Straight Rye Whiskey is the first new Old Forester recipe developed in almost 150 years. While Brown-Forman has acquired other rye whiskey brands over the years, there’s not been an Old Forester rye up until this one was first released in early 2019. What sets this apart from other current ryes is its unique mashbill. Today, most widely available ryes are either of the “barely-rye” variety (at least 51% rye to meet the legal requirement, then around 40% corn and the rest malted barley) or the “high-rye” variety (up to 95% rye and 5% malted barley). The barley’s role in these recipes is usually more about aiding in fermentation than flavoring the spirit, it’s mostly the rye, or that rye and corn combo taking center stage. Old Forester’s Rye features a mashbill of 65% rye, 20% malted barley and 15% corn, which means that while the rye will obviously be front and center, the barley will be taking on more of a flavoring role than it does in most other ryes. The Old Forester Rye does not have a stated age, but is at least four years old, with the majority probably falling somewhere in that four to six year range. It’s been bottled at a generous 50% ABV and is intended to be part of the brand’s standard line-up.
The Nose: Initially a little hot/solvent-y but that quickly passes, with vibrant sweetness and grain moving in. There’s floral honey, spiced orange peel, a bit of cherry cola, fig paste, and dried sesame candies. The rye is crusty, crackling rye bread, along with some herbal, almost dark beer hints. The oak is not very strong, sharp edgy boards with spice notes of cloves, nutmeg, warm cinnamon, and smoky vanilla bean.
The Palate: Relatively smooth with a lightly oily mouthfeel. The palate is a bit more rugged than the nose with initial notes of dark honey, milky caramel, and pithy citrus. Behind that, there’s vanilla bean and dark chocolate shavings. That crusty rye bread is now joined by a bit of banana bread. Stronger, edgy, grippy oak grows steadily with big spice notes of clove, nutmeg, allspice, and black pepper.
The Finish: Nice and long with more floral honey, more out-of-the-oven banana bread, more tannic oak, and more peppery baking spice.
Thoughts: Startlingly excellent whiskey. Yes, there’s a certain amount of (anticipated) youth here, but there’s also balance, structure, and a fresh complexity that feels both familiar and new all at the same time. The expected rye & corn combination is there, but it mercifully takes a back seat for once. Instead, the rye is more prominent, toasty and bready, and it plays very nicely with the increased, similarly toasty barley notes. This one’s just damn enjoyable both neat and over ice, and in a spirit-forward one like an Old Fashioned, it really shines. These days the big bourbon and rye companies just can’t seem to resist charging folks a lot of money for whiskeys that didn’t use to or shouldn’t now cost that much money. It’s very nice to see an excellent, interesting, high-ABV rye like this hit the shelves at a more-than-reasonable price of around $20-$25. Definitely recommended.
*Ah, did you notice the two R’s in Forrester? In this case, my usual slapdash proofreading is not to blame. Originally the bourbon was named “Old Forrester after that doctor. The story goes that after the good Doc retired, the company dropped one of the R’s. There you have it.
- “History – Brown-Forman.” Brown-Forman, http://www.brown-forman.com/about/history/.
- “Invent Now: Hall of Fame: Search: Inventor Profile: Michael Joseph Owens.” Invent Now | Hall of Fame | Search | Inventor Profile | Michael Joseph Owens, web.archive.org/web/20120927020621/http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/357.html.
- “Michael Joseph Owens.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Joseph_Owens.
- “Old Forester.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Forester.
- “Our Stories.” Old Forester, http://www.oldforester.com/origins/.
- “Rye Whisky.” Old Forester, http://www.oldforester.com/whiskies/rye/.