Every American whiskey drinker should know Old Forester, since it was the first bourbon to come in a sealed bottle. But if that wasn’t noteworthy enough, it is also the only bourbon to have been available before, during and after Prohibition that’s still owned by the same company.
Yes, you read that correctly. Old Forester was one of the few brands of so-called medicinal whiskey available during the dry period; the bourbon could only be sold in pint bottles, which bore the warning “For Medicinal Purposes Only.” With a prescription from a licensed physician you could buy a small bottle of the liquor at a pharmacy—legally. The cardboard box in which the bottle came was devoid of artwork, bore simply the brand name and stated, “The same plain label since 1870. 55 years on the market and quality never questioned.” Hey, why mess with success?
Old Forester was uniquely positioned to take advantage of this situation, since back when it was originally created, in the late 19th century, it was marketed to doctors. At the time, whiskey was considered a cure-all for many common ailments, but at the time liquor was often cut and blended with all types of deleterious things. Doctors could never be sure if the whiskey would help or hurt a patient. But since Old Forester came in a sealed bottle, its contents could be prescribed without concern.
“We were ready to sell bourbon for the sniffles or what have you,” jokes Campbell Brown, great-great grandson of the brand’s founder, George Garvin Brown, and its current president.
Just a handful of companies, including George Garvin’s, which was by then known as Brown-Forman, were allowed to bottle medicinal whiskey. The brand’s commitment to quality—not to mention its founder’s position as a longtime pillar of the industry—no doubt helped it to secure a requisite and coveted license.
In fact, “George Garvin Brown was elected the first president of the National Liquor Dealers Association in 1894,” says Campbell. “In that same year he was elected president of the Wine and Spirits Association. Active roles in associations like these put the family in good standing and garnered respect for their ability to make quality bourbon.”
In the latter days of Prohibition, so-called distilling holidays allowed distilleries to fire up their stills for short periods and produce more medicinal whiskey. During these periods, according to Campbell, former Old Forester employees would be called back to work. “You get a distiller who’s now working in a grocery store because of Prohibition,” he explains. “They’d give him a call and say, ‘How’d you like to come back to work for a little while?’ Of course he was going to do it.”
Brown-Forman’s operations became leaner as Prohibition dragged on. The company shed employees and moved its operations from historic Whiskey Row, in the heart of downtown Louisville, to the edge of the city’s suburbs.
When the Volstead Act, which created Prohibition, was finally repealed in December, 1933, Old Forester was one of the last brands standing and was still being made by the same company. That same company, in fact, continues to make it today, more than a century and a half after George Garvin Brown started Old Forester on its journey.