(L-R) Chris Brown, Mac Brown and Eileen Brown listen as master distiller Chris Morris describes three single-barrel bourbons. One will be chosen as their private barrel to be bottled. (Photo by Steve Coomes)

For the first time in 40 years, Brown-Forman is selling entire barrels of its iconic Old Forester bourbon to customers who’d like to have, say, 220 bottles labeled as their very own.

Cost: $7,500.

Pricey, right? But divided by 220, that’s about $34 a bottle, which is a bit below shelf price for premium bourbon.

Still not in your budget?

“It doesn’t have to be one person, it can be a syndicate of friends if you like,” said master distiller Chris Morris, who oversees the company’s Woodford Reserve and Old Forester brands. One department of staffers at B-F is teaming up to buy its own, and the Kentucky Bourbon Society is discussing doing the same. “There is some buzz already about the program since word leaked out. So we’re already hearing from several retailers who want to buy one for their stores.”

Mac Brown, a B-F vice president, got the first one Thursday, and said he plans to give a good bit of his bottles away.

“This is really special, so sharing it will be a lot of fun,” said Brown.

When B-F last sold single barrels, it was done under the President’s Choice program, meaning those barrels were chosen for customers by then-B-F president George Garvin Brown, II.

Now, Morris chooses three barrels from a selection of 200 (about a day’s production when it’s distilling) in Old Forester’s 4- to 6-year-old inventory. He then lets customers taste each and make their own choice. (It also conducts a similar program for its Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey brand. Interested? Click here to see a video about it.)

Brown, his wife, Eileen, and their son, Chris, came to a chilly and serenely quiet warehouse in Shively to do their sampling.

“How do you find the gems, the really good barrels?” Chris Brown, Mac and Eileen Brown’s son, (who also works at Brown-Forman), asked Morris.

Once bottled and personalized, this is the final result.

Mac Brown cut him off, joking, “This guy’s a big drinker!”

“I’m a big sipper,” Morris retorted.

When Chris Brown asked how many barrels Morris thinks he’s sampled in his career, Morris said, “That number’s like your weight and cholesterol: you don’t want to know.”

Morris started by leading the group through a tasting of three finished Old Forester products: 86 proof, 100 proof, and Birthday Bourbon (released annually on Sept. 2. George Garvin Brown’s birthday). The purpose of the exercise was to provide a broad understanding of its finished products, which are made from blends of many barrels, not just single barrels.

When the group tasted single barrel samples, they noticed remarkably different flavors and aromas.

Sample A was floral and fruity, Sample B bore hints of clove, anisette and cinnamon, and Sample C brought oak, vanilla and cinnamon to the nose.

“Combined, these barrels would make Old Forester, but separated, they are single barrels, one-offs, uniquely flavored,” Morris said. “That’s what we’re after with this.”

In addition to the private tasting, barrel customers are taken on tours of Brown-Forman’s headquarters and its cooperage.

If it’s not convenient for customers to travel to Brown-Forman for the tasting, the distillery will send them Morris’s chosen trio of samples, and he’ll lead them through a tele-tasting.

As the Brown family discussed its choices, they mostly were in agreement: They liked A for its lighter and more fragrant profile, but they also liked C for its spicy notes. Mac Brown was the first to stand up for C as his choice.

“When you’re sitting at home with a drink, you’ve got a glass full of ice and it’s filled with Old Forester, C will still be there at the end of the drink, as opposed to A, which might water down,” he said.

“So here’s the question,” Morris began, guiding the trio, “do you want something in the comfort zone or something that’s going to stand out?”

“Well, the one that stands out, of course,” Mac Brown said.

With his wife and son nodding in agreement, Chris Brown declared, “Sounds like we have a winner.”

(For what it’s worth, I chose A, but also liked C.)

According to Morris, the finished bourbon will be 90 proof, which was George Garvin Brown’s preferred ABV.

Joking throughout the tasting, Mac Brown pointed out the irony of the moment.

“George Garvin Brown started this company by being the first distiller in the nation to put bourbon in a bottle,” he said. “And now, here we are, 140 years later, selling bourbon from a barrel.”

To learn more about the Old Forester Single Barrel program, visit its website.

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

2 thoughts on “Straws extra: For first time in 40 years, Brown-Forman will sell you Old Forester by the barrel … literally

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