Old Forester is a bourbon that deserves the name. Historic and well respected in the community, it’s considered by many to be the benchmark for a good bourbon. Today we’re taking a look at the flagship product from this historic company: the 86 Proof bourbon.
The ‘old’ in Old Forester isn’t just a marketing ploy. The oldest bourbon in continuous production, it was first sold in 1870 (the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in a sealed bottle) and it continued production through prohibition as one of only 10 brands authorized for medicinal production.
Founded by a former pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown, the original version of Old Forester was sold to pharmacies as a medicinal product. Named after Dr. William Forrester (originally bottled with the double “r” as well), who endorsed its consumption, it is said that the second “r” was dropped to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with the doctor.
The original Old Forester bourbon was a mixture of spirits distilled by other distilleries in the Kentucky area, but starting in 1902 they purchased Matingly’s distillery in Saint Mary, Kentucky to be the sole source.
While the company went through a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, and is currently a publicly traded company, the original Brown family still owns over 70% of the shares of the company and de-facto control of the company.
Old Forester was the company’s best selling product prior to prohibition and continued production through that dark time; however, post-prohibition Jack Daniels (coincidentally one of the company’s other brands) took the lead and remains the most popular whiskey in the world to this day. Other spirits produced by the Brown-Forman company (as it is known today) include Woodford Reserve, Early Times, and Herradura Tequila.
This specific bourbon, the 86 Proof “blue label” version, is considered to be the flagship “middle shelf” product that balances price with performance.
Pretty much all of the Brown-Forman whiskey products start from the same grain bill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. This one is no different. Once that fermented mash is distilled in their Louisville, KY plant, the spirit is socked away in charred oak barrels for approximately four years (although the bottle has no age statement beyond the “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” appellation) prior to bottling.
Looking through the older photos of this product, it appears that the branding has had a recent refresh. Instead of the older version where the lettering was apparently painted onto the bottle, this new version simply has two stickers with the branding information on the front and back.
The more prominent front sticker is a white background with gold border, and the most prominent feature is the brand logo. There’s a blue border just inside the gold border, and underneath is a gold box that contains the information about this specific product. This gold box appears to be a consistent feature from the old design, remaining through the re-branding process.
The bottle itself is fairly normal, nothing to write home about. It flares slightly as it approaches the shoulder and has a relatively short neck, which is topped with a metal screw-on cap (which also has some blue accents).
The spirit is a rich dark brown color in the bottle and in the glass, almost the color of coffee.
The first thing I smell is brown sugar, with a bit of caramel backing. There’s also some vanilla thrown in the mix to round out the typical bourbon profile.
The spirit has a good thickness, something I’d class as medium bodied which is appropriate for a 43% ABV spirit. Just like with the Statesman version I reviewed previously, there isn’t much flavor initially but as the liquid sits in your mouth, the flavors start to develop and that same idea that you just licked the inside of a charred oak barrel starts to formulate. The caramel and vanilla are very apparent, and I think I get a bit of actual wood-y oak flavor too.
There’s a tiny bit of peppery spice finish on the end thanks to the rye, but not nearly as much as I would expect from the 18% rye content in the grain bill. The spirit finishes smooth without any bite or unpleasantness.
There’s absolutely no difference that I can identify. Which is great.
Normally ice changes things — and typically for the worse. I like it when I can actually taste the flavors and have my drink chilled at the same time. In this case I get exactly what I want, a bold flavorful bourbon that doesn’t seem to be bothered by some slight dilution and chilling.
This bodes very well for the cocktails.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This actually balances really well.
Typically with the added orange bitters a drink tends to either become too bitter or the orange doesn’t have enough firepower to make itself clear through whatever else is going on. In this case, the orange is present but so is the caramel and vanilla. It’s a good balance between sweet and tangy with some added delicious orange zest.
Fizz (Kentucky Mule)
I bought a one liter bottle of this bourbon for the review. (By the way, here at Thirty-One Whiskey we always buy the bottles we review just to make sure that we’re not being swayed by the distillery.) And I drank the entire liter in the course of this review. Not in one sitting (obviously) but enjoyably over the course of a couple weeks. Because, after all, we like to be studious in our judgement here.
The primary way I drank this whiskey? In a Kentucky Mule.
This might be the perfect bourbon for a Kentucky Mule. Just the right flavors and boldness that the bourbon comes clearly through all that ginger beer, but also not so overpowering that the drink stops being refreshing. It’s absolutely delicious.
This is a great “standard” bourbon to have around the house. It works well in every situation no matter how you mix it, and it’s inexpensive enough that you don’t mind if someone adds a splash of Diet Coke.
What would make this a “perfect” bourbon? For the price I think it’s good, but I would appreciate a little more craft in the spirit. I appreciate the craftsmanship and ingenuity that goes into some of the smaller batch productions and the interesting flavors that process produces. Here it’s one standard unit of bourbon. Really good bourbon, but they aren’t taking any chances with the flavor profile.
It’s just right for the intended purpose though, a good middle-of-the-road option that is delicious enough to be persistently drinkable while inexpensive enough to serve regularly.
Old Forester 86 Proof
Owner: Brown-Forman Corp.
Production: Kentucky, USA
Grain bill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Aging: 4 to 6 years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $19 / 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Better than Bulleit Bourbon. But I wish they kept the old branding on the bottle — personally, I think it looked cooler.