Wednesday 06 December 2017
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There’s a street down by the Ohio River in Louisville that used to be known as Whisky Row. From the late 1700s right through to prohibition, this part of town was crammed full of distillers, rectifiers and wholesalers which, at the end of each day, would roll their barrels down the hill to the harbour for transport on to the Mississippi, New Orleans and beyond. Prohibition hit hard in the 1920s, forcing many of these businesses to mothball their operations or even cash out completely. Even after the ban was lifted, the arrival of other drinks – most notably vodka – caused more pain for the bourbon distillers in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and by the end of the 20th century whisky row was no more; just a line of neglected historic buildings, a poignant reminder of Louisville’s glorious past.
There were however a handful of bourbons across the state that survived these trials, and one in particular that is key to the continuing story of Whisky Row: Old Forester. Old Forester was founded in 1870 by a pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown, who took the unusual step of selling his spirit in sealed glass bottles, rather than the more common approach of selling by the barrel. After several years growing the business, George went into partnership with his friend George Forman and changed its name to Brown-Forman. If that sounds familiar, it should: Brown-Forman also owns Jack Daniels.
When prohibition arrived, George’s pharmaceutical background suddenly became very useful, and the company was one of only six to receive a license to continue distilling for medicinal purposes. As a much-cherished ‘home brand’ in and around Louisville, Old Forester also saw off the slump of the 70s and 80s and is today one of the only bourbons to have been in constant production for 150 years, run by five generations of the same family.
It’s against this backdrop that Campbell Brown, George’s greatgreat grandson, welcomes us to his bustling construction site in the heart of Whisky Row. While the beautiful facades remain intact, years of neglect and a devastating fire in 2015 mean the fabric of the historic buildings needs rebuilding from the ground up.
There’s not much to look at just now, but Campbell paints a great picture of how Old Forester’s new distillery will soon look.
“In August we’ll be putting in a column still manufactured right here in Louisville, then all the rest of the equipment will be in for testing by January,” he says. “We’re very focused on the visitor experience, so the public will be able to watch barrels being charred at our in-house cooper station, see the entire distilling process from top to bottom and even have drinks or attend workshops in our rooftop bar.
“Harking back to the way things used to be done, at the end of each day we’ll roll that day’s barrels out the back entrance on Washington, and load them onto a vintage truck for transportation to our warehouse…
We’re going for a public opening in June 2018, but we want to be able to entertain customer and clients here for the Derby in May.”
The new distillery, which will run alongside Old Forester’s existing production facility, is about more than brand building though; the plan is to use its smaller stills and more boutique style to move the distiller in new (or old) directions.
“Our Whisky Row series gives our own take on historical bourbon styles, which people find really interesting. So, they’re very lightly filtered, at a proof that’s reflective of a particular time in history, or we’ll do different things with the char on the barrel and so on. It’s looking back through time at a history of bourbon trends through one brand.
“We’re also going to expand our single barrel programme here, which allows people to buy and fill their own barrel of Old Forester. The interesting thing about this is that every barrel is unique in its own subtle way, so a single barrel Old Forester gives you something nobody else will experience.”
As ubiquitous as Old Forester is in Kentucky, and particularly around Louisville, it’s still not all that well known in the UK. This could be about to change though, thanks to the distillery’s involvement in the sequel to 2015’s surprise box-office hit Kingsman: The Secret Service. Out September 2017, Kingsman: The Golden Circle continues the story of Eggsy, Roxy and Harry Hart as they seek assistance from the agents of Statesman, an allied spy organisation in Kentucky.
The revitalisation of Whisky Row reflects the wider confidence that abounds in Kentucky’s bourbon industry
Old Forester’s involvement began when Campbell’s cousin, who lives in the UK, got chatting with the film’s director, Matthew Vaughn, at a party. “Matthew mentioned that he was planning on taking the next film to America and, instead of tailors, he wanted the most American profession he could think of, which is distilling! My cousin put us in touch, so we gave him the history of Old Forester and shared a lot of old photographs, and our involvement grew from there.”
The filmmakers loved the idea of having continuity right back to the pre-prohibition days, when the fictional Statesman agency was established, so asked Old Forester to create a special whiskey that could feature in the film.
“In creating Statesman, we looked at what made Eggsy’s story so great. Here’s a kid who’d been through some rough times, but we see him grow in maturity and sophistication; the message is that pressure and fire give you character. So we identified the barrels in our warehouse that had really been exposed to the heat – the most mature four-year-old barrels that we had – and built a whiskey around those. It’s 95 proof and delicious.”
With the film’s stars including Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry and Colin Firth on hand to promote Old Forester’s involvement, the project could be a big boost for this venerable brand, particularly in the UK. Beyond this though, the revitalisation of Whisky Row reflects the wider confidence that abounds in Kentucky’s bourbon industry just now, with new distilleries opening up and old brands looking for new drinkers. For lovers of quality craft alcohol everywhere, it’s a sight to warm the heart.
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