Sunday, April 12, 2015

Old Forester, Signature

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 50%, $25

I covered quite a bit of information regarding the Brown-Forman Corporation and their Old Forester brand over the course of three recent posts: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Old Forester 86 proof and Woodford Reserve. I’m going to taste the 100 proof version of Old Forester today, but first a quick summary with a few additional points and then a brief tangent.

I noted that Old Forester and Early Times have both been made in the same Brown-Forman owned distillery in Shively since 1979. They were also both made in the same distillery in Louisville from 1933 to 1940. From 1940 to 1979, Early Times was made in Shively and Old Forester was made in Louisville. There are some important differences between the two whiskeys though.

The first is their mash bills: Old Forester is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley, while Early Times is 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley. Additionally, the two whiskeys are fermented with different yeast strains. Looking at their respective labels, you might also notice that Old Forester is bourbon and Early Times is not. In 1985 Early Times, at least what they bottle to sell domestically, went from being straight bourbon to being Kentucky whiskey. That change in designation was the result of some (about 20%) of the whiskey being aged in used barrels.

The last difference is the stills. When production was stopped in Louisville in 1979 the still from that facility was moved to Shively and set up next to the existing still there. They are column stills of notably different diameter. Old Forester is distilled on the smaller diameter one that was moved there from Louisville and Early Times is distilled on the larger diameter one that dates to 1955 when the Shively distillery was modernized and expanded.

And that brings me to an interesting point. In the fall of 2014 Brown-Forman announced that they would be building a new Old Forester distillery in downtown Louisville (not on the same site as the original, but less than two miles away), which should be operational by the fall of 2016. The company has stated that the new distillery will be capable of producing 100,000 cases of Old Forester per year. That is slightly less than what they sold in 2014. But production of Woodford Reserve was at 300,000 cases for the same year, and with at least 50% of the whiskey in Woodford Reserve coming from the smaller diameter still at the Shively distillery, clearly both recipes (Old Forester and Early Times) will continue to be made there even after the new distillery is functional. I’m quite curious to see if they build a replica of the smaller diameter still for the new distillery, or if they go with an entirely new still design.

While American whiskey producers have been much more restrained with price increases for most of the past decade than their Scottish counterparts, the effects of supply and demand have finally caught up and resulted in some big price jumps for American Whiskey over the last couple of years. Looking back at my Old Forester Birthday Bourbon post, you’ll see that the price of that bottling went from $40 in 2008 to $60 in 2014. A 50% increase over 6 years is a pretty dramatic rise. While the recent price jumps can be shocking, one really must put them in the context of just how undervalued American whiskey had become by the start of the recent boom.

I decided to do just that, by comparing the price of Old Forester Signature (current and from 2006) with the historical pricing of Old Forester Bonded (essentially the equivalent product, Brown-Forman changed it from Bonded to Signature around 2002 or 2003). Thanks to the key-word searchable newspaper archive on Google that dates back as far as the 1800’s, and the fact that retail whiskey prices used to be listed in newspaper ads, I was able to get a pretty good sampling of prices from the post World War II boom years.

There are a few variables to keep in mind. Bonded whiskey has a minimum age requirement of four years. Coming out of Prohibition most of the whiskey being sold as Bonded was more expensive, older product distilled prior to 1920. There was a notable price drop of Bonded whiskeys in 1938 when the distillate produced after Prohibition finally reached four years of age.

The Federal Excise Tax on distilled spirits is assessed on a proof gallon (a gallon at 50% abv) basis. The rate has changed in somewhat of a random manor over the last 75 years, creating a variable in pricing. It went from $4 to $6 in 1942, to $9 in 1944, to $10.50 in 1951, to $12.50 in 1985, and finally to its current rate of $13.50 in 1991.

During World War II the U.S. Government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA) kept prices artificially low for many products that were in short supply during the war. Those price controls ended for whiskey in October of 1946 and quick price jumps followed. At that time bonded whiskey was expected to remain a scarce commodity for several years as distillers had produced nothing but industrial alcohol for the last two years of the war, and that was followed by a period of limited production due to grain shortages.

Pricing could also vary quite a bit from one location to another around the country at any given time, as it does today. I found a good example of this from 1952 in the Eugene Register-Guard which stated that the Oregon price for Old Forester Bonded was $6.30 while the national average was $6.58. It also noted a high of $7.39 in South Dakota and a low of $5.29 in the District of Columbia.

With all that being said, I’m just going to list dates and prices with inflation corrected prices in parentheses, and follow that with tasting notes. All prices are for 1/5 gallon bottles (also referred to as 4/5 of a quart), which is essentially the same size as a modern 750 ml bottle. There is one noted exception where I included a price for a quart bottle of 86 proof Old Forester, assuming that the size and proof differences cancelled each other out.

2015 -  $25.00 ($25.00)
2006 -  $18.00 ($20.96)
1978 -  $  7.95 ($28.62) *86 proof, quart bottle*
1972 -  $  8.09 ($45.43)
1961 -  $  6.95 ($54.56)
1959 -  $  5.98 ($48.23)
1957 -  $  6.49 ($54.21)
1955 -  $  5.60 ($49.05)
1953 -  $  5.99 ($52.66)
1952 -  $  6.58 ($58.28)
1947 -  $  6.98 ($73.47)
1947 -  $  6.74 ($70.94)

Even under OPA price controls in 1946 a typical bottle of bonded bourbon would be priced right around $4 a bottle, which works out to $48.15 in 2015 dollars. It would have been nice to have a some more data to fill in the 1960’s and cover the 80’s and 90’s, but what I’ve put together here still does a good job of illustrating how bad things got for the bourbon industry in the 70’s and 80’s. While it’s unlikely that retail prices ever dropped during that period, they either held steady or rose at a rate that was far outpaced by inflation. Even with the market for American whiskey rebounding in the 1990’s and going into full boom mode during the following decade, when prices are corrected for inflation, they have really only risen in the past five years or so. And the prices that we have now are still a bargain relative to what was typical in the three decades following World War II.

Now on to the bourbon:

The nose has the same dark, brooding character that is evident in Woodford Reserve, but with more sweetness and in more of an elevated, spirit-driven way. On the palate it’s big and full flavored with a good balance of sweetness and oak / leather notes. A big wave of vanilla comes on from the mid-palate. It becomes somewhat aggressive as it moves into the finish, turning drier and spicier around the grain and oak core. The alcohol is obvious but not dominant. Overall its character is bold but not unruly. While the 100 proof Old Forester has a more aggressive flavor profile than 86 proof Old Forester or Woodford Reserve, it is more graceful than the 86 proof but lacks the refinement of Woodford.

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