Historical Marker #2103 in Louisville notes the significance of the “Old Forester” brand, which was the first commercially bottled bourbon.
It will likely never be known who produced the first bourbon distilled in Kentucky. The spirits’ history dates back to the Bluegrass State’s earliest days in the late eighteenth century. At that time—and throughout much of the nineteenth century—bourbon distillers commercially packaged their products in barrels, casks, and kegs. Naturally, this led to an inconsistency in product quality.
In order to maintain a consistent level of appearance and taste, in the 1870s innovative distiller George Garvin Brown of Louisville started producing Old Forester in sealed glass bottles. Not only did this new practice provide a better product, it also allowed individual buyers to purchase the branded name on the retail market. Previously, bottled whiskey was most often only available through purchase through bars or saloons that bought the product wholesale in barrels and then sold the whiskey to individuals in generic bottles. Con men and counterfeiters found that they could easily “water” or otherwise alter purchased bourbon for resale, which proved to be troublesome for consumers and for physicians, who often prescribed or utilized whiskey as an anesthetic. These practices hurt the reputation of the product, cost the distiller in sales, and did not allow the opportunity to build brand loyalty with customers.
Brown, who got his start as a pharmaceutical salesman, was also an innovative distiller in that he trademarked his Old Forester label. The origins of the product’s name are obscure, conflicting, and somewhat controversial. One story goes that Old Forester was named for a Louisville physician, William Forrester, a customer and proponent of the product’s medicinal qualities. Other sources assert that the namesake was Confederate war criminal and early Klu Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. Also unknown is the reason behind the change in spelling—early bottles of Old Forester were spelled with double “r’s,” but the name was later changed to include only one “r.”
Today, the Brown-Forman Corporation continues to offer Old Forester. The Old Forester brand is the nation's oldest continually bottled bourbon. It even survived Prohibition, when it was one of the six Kentucky brands bottled for medicinal purposes—at a higher proof of 115. In addition to Old Forester Brown Forman also produces some of the most recognizable names in whiskey and bourbon, including Woodford Reserve, Early Times, and Jack Daniels.