stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 43%, $22
I covered much of the history of the Old Forester brand and the Brown-Forman Corporation in my recent Birthday Bourbon post. There were a few points that I skipped over though, in part to keep that post from getting too long, but also because I wanted to save those topics for a few other bottles that were sitting on the old whiskey shelf.
First a slight correction; in the above mentioned post (which has since been updated) I stated that Old Forester was introduced in 1870. In actuality, the company that eventually came to be known as Brown-Forman was founded in 1870, but they sold whiskey by the barrel under several other brands before introducing Old Forester in 1873. In that post, I talked about the production of Old Forester transitioning through a variety of different distilleries during its long history, but didn’t cover some other changes that have happened along the way.
It was originally bottled at 90 proof and stayed that way until Prohibition. As I mentioned before, Brown-Forman was one of only a handful of companies that were able to obtain a license to sell medicinal whiskey during that dark period. Medicinal whiskey was a product that was highly regulated by the federal government, and one of the requirements was that it had to be Bottled in Bond. There are a few different regulations that a whiskey must conform to in order to qualify as being Bottled in Bond. One of the stipulations is that it must be bottled at 100 proof (50% abv), so Old Forester saw its proof go up at the dawn of Prohibition for the first time since its inception.
Brown-Forman chose to keep Old Forester as a Bottled in Bond product after Prohibition ended, but in 1959 they added an 86 proof bottling to the lineup. Then, around 2002 or 2003 the Bottled in Bond designation was dropped from the 100 proof version of Old Forester. Bonded whiskeys must be the product of one distillation season, so this change would have given the company a little more flexibility in terms of vatting together whiskeys with a wider variety of ages. In 2006 the 100 proof bottling was re-launched with new labeling as Old Forester Signature. The reasoning given was that the barrels were now being specially selected to produce a different flavor profile than the 86 proof bottling. In the past, the 86 proof Old Forester had just been a watered down version of the 100 proof bottling.
I’m going to taste the 86 Proof Old Forester today, but first I want to go off on a brief tangent. Since Prohibition ended, Brown-Forman has stayed on a significant path of growth which has been fueled by a steady stream of acquisitions. I’m just going to consider a few of them here.
In 1945 they purchased the Louisville, KY facilities of the Wood Mosaic Company. The plant dated to the early 1920’s and had started as a furniture factory. At the onset of World War II, it was converted to make rifle stocks for the British and plywood parts for military aircraft. After the war, Brown-Forman transformed the factory into a cooperage so they could make their own whiskey barrels. This facility was named Bluegrass Cooperage, but in 2009 it was renamed as the Brown-Forman Cooperage.
Another important acquisition happened in 1955, with the purchase of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. Why is the significant? Well, Jack Daniel’s may have just been a small regional distillery at the time (producing only 200,000 cases of whiskey per year), but Brown-Forman was able to grow the brand into the best selling American whiskey by 1996. Worldwide case sales for the brand were up to 8.9 million in 2006 and they hit 12.4 million cases in 2012, vastly outpacing Brown-Forman’s other whiskey brands.
Making that much whiskey takes an awful lot of barrels. The Bluegrass Cooperage had long supplied barrels to distilleries outside of the Brown-Forman family, but the growth of Jack Daniel’s put and end to that practice in 2006. The company announced that it would build a second cooperage in Alabama in mid 2012, and that facility went online two years later, in mid 2014. The facility, named Jack Daniel’s Cooperage, won’t be up to full capacity until at least the end of 2015, but once it reaches that point it will match the output of Brown-Forman Cooperage. The company is presently still only producing new barrels for its own use, and I’ve been told that is unlikely to change in the next two to three years (that was the personal opinion of an employee, not an official company statement).
While there are a handful of other barrel producers, all of them operate on a very small scale, with one exception. That one exception is the Independent Stave Company. Started in 1912 as a stave and barrel head producer, Independent Stave expanded into bourbon barrel manufacturing in 1951. Eventually the lion’s share of the barrels produced in the US were coming from either Brown-Forman or Independent Stave. Once Brown-Forman stopped doing external barrel sales in 2006, Independent Stave, with its two cooperages (Lebanon, KY and Lebanon, MO), was really the only game in town for all of the other whiskey distillers.
Then, in the March of 2014 the online store section of Independent Stave’s website had a message stating that they had current customers on allocation and were unable to take new orders. It also said that they hoped to be able to address new inquiries within 6 to 12 months. By December of 2014 that message had been updated to say 9 to 12 months, and it as of today it has not changed. The barrel shortage is here and it is real.
Where this story really gets interesting is with a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that I got a few months ago. This came from a gentleman in China who owns a company that produces oak barrels. They seem to be focused on wine barrels now, but surely the whiskey industry will be in their sights soon (and if not them, I’d imagine a similar company will try to fill the void).
And that brings up a whole host of intriguing questions. Does the species of oak that is native to northern Japan (Mizunara, aka Quercus mongolica var. crispula) and used by their whisky industry also grow in China? Are there other oak species growing in China that are suitable for barrel making? How will the quality control of Chinese made barrels be? How much of a cost savings will a producer see with Chinese barrels? Will barrel origin become a selling point for American whiskeys? Currently, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; will the laws be updated to only allow American Oak?
Okay, back on track and on to the whiskey.
The nose has moderate intensity and shows notes of grain, leather and dry spice, along with a good hit of alcohol. On the palate it is mild up front, but rapidly picks up stream as it moves along. There’s a prominent but short-lived wave of sweetness on the mid-palate (candy corn and maple sugar) which is quickly followed by leather and a touch of oak. On the finish it quickly turns dry and spicy with the heat from the alcohol becoming more dominant. Wood and spice notes carry it along late in the finish, but it does fall a little flat at the very end. Overall it’s a little clumsy as it transitions from start to finish, but I’d still call it a respectable glass of whiskey.