A friend of mine is in the process of doing a routine purge of his liquor cabinet, and I was lucky enough to be around when he was trying to find a new home for some of his bottles. Among the collection was a bottle of Old Forester Statesman, a label that I knew less from its renowned history as a good spirit and more for its prominence in a certain movie franchise.
Old Forester is a bourbon that deserves the name more than any other. 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, but once prohibition ended one of the company’s other brands, Jack Daniels, 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 has to be one of the more, shall I say interesting origin stories for liquors in recent years:
In 2017, 20th Century Fox released a sequel to their popular Kingsman film titled “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” The plot of the movie (spoiler alert, I guess) revolved around a group of secret agents within the United States called the Statesman who operated out of a bourbon distillery in Kentucky. As part of the marketing push for the movie, Old Forester partnered with Fox to produce a special bottling of their spirit with the Statesman brand.
According to the marketing materials, this is simply a selection of standard Old Forester bourbon that was selected from the hottest part of the warehouse. As such the grain bill is the typical 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley — the same mixture used for Woodford Reserve. The spirit is bottled at the same alcohol content as their Old Forester Birthday Bourbon spirit, 95 proof instead of the typical 86 proof. Although the details of the aging on this spirit aren’t listed on the bottle, some other experts state that the spirit is aged between 4 and 6 years.
The most remarkable thing about this spirit is that it is still available on store shelves. I’m not sure whether that’s proof that the spirit is doing so well that they still make it — or so poorly that the original bottles are still hanging around, but it sure seems odd to see a specialty spirit created for a movie that came out two years ago still available for sale.
The bottle is a classic liquor bottle design, which I appreciate and like very much. It looks good on the shelf and feels good when pouring.
The label itself uses a more standard design for the Old Forester logo above a stylized Statesman logo, all without the typical white background. It’s a good design, mixing the well known brand with a distinctive style that lets you know this is something different.
The thick bottomed bottle is topped with a cork and a wood stopper.
The spirit is a wonderful dark amber color that seems luxurious and deep. It sure looks great in the bottle and in the glass. There is a strong smell of caramel and vanilla, traditional bourbon flavors that you’d expect from a well aged spirit.
Such a shame that none of those flavors come through very well in the tasting.
The first thing you’ll notice on sipping the spirit is that it’s a little lighter in weight than you would expect from a 95 proof (47.5% ABV) alcohol. That’s on the higher side of the spectrum and should provide a nice viscosity to the liquor but instead it’s remarkably light.
As the liquid flows over your tongue, you won’t notice much. At first there’s just a general warmth, followed by a taste that can best be described as licking an oak barrel. On the finish there’s a bitterness to the taste that attacks the back of your tongue and wipes out any remaining flavor that might have existed.
Things are a little better here. The ice and the colder temperature counteracts the bitterness in the liquor.
However, despite the reduced bitterness there’s still not much flavor. Instead of a nice complex mixture of those caramel and vanilla notes that were in the aroma there’s still just that “like licking the decking of the USS Constitution” taste.
It’s not terrible. But it isn’t very complex either.
Here’s where the spirit starts to make sense.
While the oak-y flavor isn’t very complex, it definitely is bold. And once you add some orange bitters and an orange peel to the mix, those elements add the necessary depth to make a drinkable cocktail. It isn’t something that will blow me away, but I wouldn’t turn it down at a bar.
Quick tip here: the sugar is what will ultimately eliminate the last of the bitterness from the spirit. With just the bitters and the orange peel alone there’s still that cheek sucking tannin at the end of the taste, a little bit of sugar and it’s gone like a magic trick.
If you’re making this into a mixed drink, a Kentucky mule might be your best bet. Not only does the sugar in the ginger beer counteract the tannin in the whiskey, but the ginger does a great job balancing with the oak flavor in the spirit.
It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. If my options were this or Jack Daniels I’d probably pick this due to the way it mixes well in an old fashioned. That said. I’m concerned about the longevity of this label considering the now outdated movie tie in, so if this piques your interest you should probably grab a bottle while you can. For me, I appreciate the uniqueness of the marketing campaign.
Old Forester Statesman
Owner: Brown-Forman Corp.
Production: Kentucky, USA
Grain bill: 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley
Aging: 4 to 6 years
Proof: 47.5% ABV
Price: $54.99/ 750ml ($0.07/ ml)
Overall Rating: 2/5
It’s not a fantastic spirit, but to me there’s some value in the rarity of the bottle and the oddity of how it came into existence.