Old Forester has quite the pedigree.
Founded in 1873, it’s older than Coca-Cola and was the first bourbon to be sold in bottles. Even during Prohibition, a special medicinal license kept Old Forester in production. And for Louisville, it’s the ultimate “buy local” bourbon—distilled, bottled and aged right here in the city.
The spirit locals call “Old Fo’” might just be Louisville’s house bourbon. At Old Town Liquors on Bardstown Road, they sell a lot of bourbon, and Old Forester is a best-seller.
“As far as whiskies, probably the top, if not, it’s right there, as far as whiskies in general, especially with bourbons,” clerk Eric Best says.
“High quality product for the price,” he adds.
Best describes Old Forester as kind of a Goldilocks of bourbons: not as spicy as some, not as sweet as others. Another Old Forester advantage: at $17 for a fifth of a gallon, it’s a bargain.
But just because it’s affordable, doesn’t mean it’s cheap.
“There’s a stigma maybe that comes with Kentucky Tavern or Kentucky Gentleman. People may have it at home but it’s not sitting out prominently,” Best says. “Old Forester? No problem.”
You don’t need a lottery or a wait list to buy a bottle of Old Forester. While some bourbons have gone the route of luxury, this one has quietly built its reputation as a reliable, consistent drink with locals—a rapport, Best says.
“At least here in Louisville,” he says. “To me, it seems synonymous with a good, mid-range bourbon. It’s in a lot of bars, it’s a name you go to for a mixer, like when you order a seven-and-seven. It’s just one of those things—Ol’ Fo’ and ginger ale.”
Even the affectionate nickname is strictly a Louisville thing. If you order an Old Fo’ and ginger in a bar in, say, Denver or Chicago? You might get blank stares. Nobody knows when locals started shortening Old Forester to Old Fo’, but Best has heard it for years.
“Before I was supposed to be going to bars, that’s for sure. As early as I can remember that’s the way it’s been referred to,” he says. “And I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, maybe we all grew up with our parents drinking it.”
Try great-great-grandparents. Old Forester was developed by George Garvin Brown in the 1870s, launching what’s now the Brown-Forman Corporation, which his descendants still run.
Back in George’s time, bourbon was sold in barrels and bottled by retailers, which means anything could happen to the drink between the warehouse and the bar tab. Brown’s innovation led to an unheard-of consistency within a single brand. Today, Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris maintains that consistency by hand and by taste.
“We continue to batch barrels together from various days of production to round out each barrel’s individual character, and to bring strength to the batch to the whole,” says Morris.
Morris says a range of flavors comprise Old Forester’s profile, with a balance that makes it ideally suited for mixing in cocktails.
“You might recognize them as hints of black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. It has a nice balance of oak. It’s not too sweet, but it has those nice subtle caramel and vanilla and hints of chocolate,” he explains. “And what surprises people, it is really quite fruity and floral, with hints of rose petals and cherries and apples, and some hints of pear in it.”
That would surprise Doug Schutte. He’s one of the owners of The Bard’s Town, a Highlands pub and theater. Schutte doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a bourbon connoisseur, but even if The Bard’s Town isn’t strictly a bourbon bar, isn’t every bar in Louisville a bourbon bar?
Old Forester is his second best-selling bourbon. Schutte says, again, it’s about value.
“I know I’ve said it myself that Old Forester is the best bourbon for the money,” says Schutte. “It tastes a lot better than it’s priced.”
“I’ve never heard anybody turn down an Old Fo’,” he adds. “It’s just kind of a staple.”
What does surprise Schutte is that unlike some of its competitors, he’s never noticed an Old Fo’ billboard or promotion campaign. But maybe he’s forgetting the 62-foot tall water tower shaped like a bottle of Old Forester that sits atop the old Brown-Forman warehouse on 18th Street, and it can be seen from nearly anywhere in downtown Louisville.
Maybe Old Forester doesn’t need billboards or ads to stay on top in Louisville. They have the world’s largest whiskey bottle, watching over us all.
This story is part of WFPL’s Food & Drink Week. We’ll be exploring dining and libations in the Louisville area ahead of Thanksgiving. You’ll find new stories here everyday through the holiday.
Do you have a Thanksgiving dish that you want to share? Call WFPL at (502) 627-0485 or send us an e-mail here to let us know how it’s made and why you love it. We’ll post some of the submissions next week. Be sure to include your name.