With only seven days to go until the new Old Forester Distillery opens to the public on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville, you would think there would be madness going on behind the scenes — signs being hung, gift shop shelves dusted and filled with product, tour guides rehearsing the facts.
But this is Brown-Forman, a company that works slow and steady to reach a desired outcome. And instead of worrying about last-minute issues, they took care of everything beforehand so they could introduce a product the week before doors open.
Insider was invited to the new distillery Friday morning, along with other local media, to learn more about the single-barrel The President’s Choice Old Forester and get a first look at the new digs. Unfortunately, we were sworn to secrecy regarding the immersive tour experience — that is, until it opens on Thursday, June 14.
(Look for our photos that morning, unless you see us out this weekend. We’ll swap pictures for bourbon anytime.)
So for now, we’ll focus on The President’s Choice, the latest expression of Old Forester that was resurrected from a program dating back to 1890. Back then, the Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown gifted a special bottle of Old Forester to the governor of Kentucky, Simon Bolivar Bucker.
Later on, in the 1940s, the company formalized the program and would hold onto special bottles selected by the president to be given only to VIPs, executives and politicians — never for sale to the public.
In the ’60s, then-president George Garvin Brown II sold what he called “The President’s Choice” by the barrel — which he personally selected — to liquor stores and private individuals, and bottles were made with a round label that included handwritten details.
After Brown II’s unexpected death in 1969, the program came to an end — until now.
Today’s President’s Choice will feature that same label and handwritten details like age, proof and warehouse. The bourbon also is being hand-selected by the current Old Forester President Campbell Brown, with the help of Master Taster Jackie Zykan.
Both Brown and Zykan, along with Master Distiller Chris Morris, were on hand Friday to introduce The President’s Choice. According to Zykan, the first series will be available at the gift shop only starting Friday, June 15. The bourbon will vary with each release — releases will be random throughout the year — but will be aged around 8 years old and fall between 110-120 proof.
If you’re lucky enough to stop in and find a bottle at the gift shop, it’ll cost $89.99.
“As we made plans for our new downtown distillery, we knew we wanted to offer some very special whiskey for our visitors,” Brown said. “I remembered seeing bottles selected by my grandfather through The President’s Choice program on family back-bars for years. It’s a real treat to reintroduce this program and carry on the tradition of selecting these very special barrels.”
Zykan explained that often throughout her inventory analysis — aka tasting bourbon aging in the rick houses — she’ll come across a honey barrel, a barrel that she knows immediately is special.
Oftentimes those barrels are saved for the single-barrel program or for higher-end products like the Birthday Bourbon, but now they also can be used for The President’s Choice.
“Though each will show distinct characteristics, these single barrels exhibit the true core of Old Forester — balance,” Zykan said. “The multitude of flavors present are distinct and harmonizing.”
As we sampled some of the first President’s Choice, Zykan pointed out the warm fruit notes present in this bottle. For an 111-proof bourbon, it was quite smooth, showing off more sweetness than spice, and had a finish that didn’t bite. She noted that Brown prefers his bourbon to be sweet — with immense notes of caramel and vanilla — so you can expect most President’s Choice selections to fall on that side of the bourbon spectrum.
Morris explained the company has been working to bring the program back since 2009 — proof that planning, attention to detail and innovation takes time. Slow and steady — a mantra, in this case, for both the bourbon and the bourbon maker.
The $45 million, 70,000-square-foot Old Forester Distillery will officially be open for public tours starting Friday, June 15. The day before, it’ll be open for staff, media and private guests.
The 45-60-minute tours, which include tastings, will be $16, and reservations can be made online.
Insider will give you a sneak peek inside the distillery on Thursday.
In other Brown-Forman news …
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, King Louis XIX of France (aka Louis-Antoine) had the shortest reign in history, lasting a mere 20 minutes in 1830 until he abdicated his position.
Brown-Forman‘s new King of Kentucky bourbon may also have a short reign on liquor store shelves, but not because it abdicates. We suspect the limited 14-year-old release won’t even make it to shelves, in fact, as there are only 1,000 bottles that’ll be divided between liquor stores and bars in Kentucky starting Friday, June 29.
In March, Insider was among a small group who got to try the new product during a lunch held in an Old Forester rick house in Shively. We found it to be simply delicious and rich — with immense notes of tropical fruit (pineapple, coconut), followed by the typical peppery spice and sweet caramel and vanilla flavors found in most bourbons.
King of Kentucky is a relaunch of a brand that was established in 1881 and retired in 1968.
“Given Brown-Forman’s 148-year history of crafting great Kentucky bourbon, it is a memorable event to bring back to life a long-retired brand and to introduce it to a new generation of aficionados,” said Master Distiller Chris Morris in a news release. “King of Kentucky will provide whiskey connoisseurs with a rare look into Brown-Forman’s rich barrel archives.”
This marks one of the oldest bourbons ever released by the company. Because Brown-Forman heat-cycles its Old Forester warehouses, when a bourbon barrel reaches beyond 12 years or so, often very little is left in the barrel due to evaporation — what they call the angel’s share. Hence, only 1,000 bottles for this initial release — but there will be other King of Kentucky releases each year.
Good luck finding it on liquor store shelves, but if you do, it should set you back about $199.