Sunday, April 19, 2015

Old Forester and Old Taylor: New Versus Old. A Historically Inflected Tasting.

Photo courtesy of Xavier Wine Co.
What makes a Bourbon great?  Corn's sweetness melded to the smoky richness of charred oak with the glorious maillard sugars of cooked oak's red line and some herbal bite of rye grain, and oak tannin.  It's the combination of mash, distillation, oak, and time.  All Bourbons, by law, have these things (although the flavoring grain can vary).  But some are extraordinary and some are less compelling.  Why?  Fascinatingly we see some brands achieve greatness and then slip over time.  Others up their game.  Part of the story is that American whiskey brands exist independently from particular distilleries.  Some brands get sold to new owners who shift production to new distilleries and new mash bills and have little in common, as time passes, with what they once were.  In fact, that's pretty much the norm for most whiskey brands, no matter what the marketing says.  But it seldom jumps out at you like when you taste new and old expressions head to head.

Josh Feldman and Steve Zeller 
Photo by Dana Weisberg Zeller
A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of doing a public tasting that did just that with Steve Zeller of The Smoky Beast at a new liquor store called the Xavier Wine Company, a fine emerging establishment down in Manhattan's slick Meat Packing District.  Jim Parisi of Xavier Wine welcomed us with open arms to a wonderful event space in the basement, around a single enormous table built from a gigantic slab of a single tree.  Steve and I had structured the tasting to compare old and new expressions of two Bourbon brands that are deeply connected with the history of Bourbon itself:  Old Forester and Old Taylor.  Steve and I have great chemistry.  We love to drink together and geek out together.  Steve has tasted more widely of American whiskey than I have and is a great presenter.  Personally, I like to tell a long detailed history - but in a structured tasting you need to rein it in and let people drink.  Ha ha!  I'm completely joking!  I talked everyone's ears off and here's the gist of what I said and what it all tasted like:

FYI - Steve Zeller has already blogged about this tasting on his excellent blog:  The Smoky Beast:

Old Forester was the original Bourbon brand sold exclusively in sealed bottles. The branding story emphasizes continuity of family ownership of Brown Forman corporation and fidelity to the original expression.

George Garvin Brown (1846-1917) joined his half brother John Thompson Street Brown Jr. (J.T.S. Brown) who had started a wholesale whiskey business on Whiskey Row, Main Street, Louisville in 1870.  They bought in bulk from J.M. Atherton Distillery and Mellwood Distillery and BF Mattingly Distillery. Blended and sold under brand names like “Sidros Bourbon”, “Atherton…” “Mellwood Bourbon” sold by the barrel. Other brands included “Larue’s Best” “Widow McBee”, “Diamond Bluff”, “Beech Fork”, “Fox Mountain”, Old Forman” “Golden Age”, “Major Paul” etc… But barrels were often adulterated and/or diluted. To counter this G. G. Brown decided to bottle the whiskey with the brand “Old Forrester”. Named for “Dr. William Forrester” a leading Louisville KY physician. (Michael Veach’s story - debunking the popular rumor of it being named for Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest). The label was meant to look like a doctor’s prescription. So, right off the bat, Old Forester was what would today be called an "NDP" brand (whiskey bottled by a company that buys it bulk from other distilleries, which doesn't distill any whiskey of its own). We don't think of the brand that way because the situation soon changed.

In 1902 Brown Forman bought the Mattingly Distillery that had been their major supplier. 1907 they added St. Mary’s Distillery. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, Brown Forman bought the Early Times brand from S. L. Guthrie. Whiskey at the many rickhouses was moved to White Mill’s Distilling #414, located at Jefferson County 5th District, Louisville, as a concentration warehouse to bottled for medicinal purposes. The distillery was rebuilt in anticipation of Repeal - and was renamed "Brown-Forman Distillery" DSP #414. It produced the Old Forester brand from the end of WWII until 1980.
Distilled and bottled at DSP-KY-414
After that, production of Old Forester was moved to Early Times Distillery DSP #354 (originally called the Old Kentucky Distillery, it had been purchased by BF in 1953 and renamed Early Times). Shively, KY (suburb of Louisville)

By the way, in 1956 Brown Forman - purchased the Jack Daniels Distillery too. They have had some success with that brand as well.  

The family continuity angle is completely true. George Garvin Brown IV, great great grandson of George Garvin Brown, is chairman. In May 2015 his brother Campbell Brown (age 47) will take control.
So, from a modern dusty hunting angle, the big divide is around 1980 when production shifted from Brown Forman #414 to Early Times #354.

We tasted two expressions head to head: 2014 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Old Forester Bottled in Bond Fall 1973-Fall 1979:

Old Forester BiB Fall 1973-Fall 1979 (6 years old) 50% abv. DSP-KY-414

Color: Medium-dark amber

Nose: Dark malty sweet, pecan nutty, and complex sandalwood incense with dense oak filigree. Rich.

Palate: Big sweet opening, with dark brown malty rich flavors and a rich mouth feel. Maple and fig on the expansion, melded with big and complex oak, redolent of old furniture, leather, and char. The finish is long and lingering, back to nuts and figs and sandalwood incense with a fragrant herbal bitter aspect. Superb, memorable Bourbon, redolent of the dark, rich, sweet brown qualities that typify the best Bourbons of America's mid-20th century golden age.


Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 (distilled 2002 - 12 years old) 48.5% abv (97 Proof), DSP-KY-354

Color: Light amber.

Nose: Sweet caramel, pecans, malt, solvent, oak, char, and loam.

Palate: Sweet opening with toffee, and honey. The mouth feel is thin and hot. There is citrus, solvent and some yeast on expansion. Oak and bitters on the turn. A fairly short finish for a big Bourbon.

There's little comparison here. Despite being half the age in wood of the new stuff, the 1970s Old Forester BiB totally skins the new stuff. It's richer, thicker, more complex, and more satisfying. Why? Clearly there was something special going on at the Brown Forman Distillery #414 in the mid-century decades. That said, there is a nutty flavor in common. You have to linger over them, but the kinship is clearly detectable, even though they were made at different distilleries.

The second pairing was between Old Taylor produced by National Distillers and Colonel EH Taylor produced at Buffalo Trace. 

Old Taylor fits the theme of "Bourbon origins" because Edmund Haynes Taylor himself was one of the major 19th century early leaders of industrialized Bourbon production in Kentucky and is often credited with getting the Bottled In Bond act passed, which completed what the Brown brothers started in moving the market permanently away from selling Bourbon in barrels to selling it in sealed bottles with recognizable brand names.
E. H. Taylor (Edmund Haynes Taylor 1832-1922) was the grand nephew of Zachary Taylor. He was named for his father's wealthier and more successful brother, a banker, and he started working at his uncle's bank in Frankfort, KY, at age 19. In 1857 the bank closed and Taylor got into various schemes with an incorporated "E.H. Taylor and Company" started in 1858 including dealing cotton during the Civil War. After the war, Taylor provided financial backing for the Gaines, Berry, and Co. who built the Old Hermitage distillery and resurrected the Old Crow brand (after Dr. James C. Crow, the Scottish immigrant distiller who is popularly credited with the sour mash process no near universally used for making Bourbon, had died taking his recipe with him to the grave). Old Hermitage distillery was a success and post-war demand for Kentucky whiskey was high so Taylor assembled investors and started the O.F.C. Distillery in 1869.

Taylor wanted O.F.C to be a showpiece and he invested heavily in it. He also purchased the Carlisle Distillery, and then the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. Over production and then the run on the banks known as the Panic of 1875 forced Taylor into bankruptcy. Two of Taylor's major customers, August Labrot and the firm of Gregory and Stagg took over Taylor's distilleries.

EH Taylor's son, Jacob Swigert Taylor had purchased a distillery on Glenn's Creek in Woodford County in 1879 called James C. Johnson Distillery. He renamed it J. Swigert Taylor Distillery and sold it to his father in 1882. They renamed it E.H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons Distillery RD#53 - a name it bore until 1900 when it was henceforth known as Old Taylor Distillery. Taylor, as he had done with O.F.C. desired to make it a showpiece and invested heavily. Taylor built the distillery building known as "The Castle" by 1887 and created a new brand called "Old Taylor". It was a success.

EH Taylor was interested in politics and eventually held many posts including the Mayor of Frankfort, and a Representative in the Kentucky State government. Savvy in politics and an experienced hand in the whiskey business, he was influential in the passage of both the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and the related but much further reaching Pure Food Act 1906.

National Distillers Corporation (the rump of the Whiskey Trust, which had operated as "American Medicinal Spirits Corporation" during Prohibition) purchased the distillery in 1936 and production continued until 1982. In 1985 American Brands (Beam) purchased the distillery which was allowed to become a ruins, while the warehouses continued to be used. The Castle is currently being resurrected by independent investors Will Arvin and Wes Murray who bought the site and are investing $6 million into renovating it. Marianne Barnes, 28, formerly of Brown-Foreman, was just named first master distiller. .

Beam produced Old Taylor until 2009 when it was purchased by Sazerac Corporation as part of a deal involving Effen vodka. Old Taylor is still produced in Frankfort, KY, but now at Buffalo Trace.

That's quite a story. But we were drinking whiskey and we had the opportunity to taste a 1970s example of Old Taylor produced at The Castle head to head against one of the new high end boutique expressions of Colonel EH Taylor produced at Buffalo Trace - the Barrel Proof (the 64.5% edition - which isn't known necessarily as the best of them - but is, without a doubt an assault on the high end by Buffalo Trace - a distillery that knows about making high end Bourbon.)

Old Taylor 40% abv. 1970s 4/5th quart bottle, no UPC, castle on the label.

Color: Medium amber.

Nose: Toffee, vanilla, jelly candies, turkish delight with powdered sugar.

Palate: Earthy sweet on opening. Juicy compote of citrus and apple. Sweet creamery butter. Then fruity on the expansion with notes of jelly candies and cotton candy joined to earthy loam. There is a cardboard note at the height of the expansion - a kiss of bitterness. Then the fruity returns in the medium long finish.


Experience has taught me that the 80 proof Old Taylor is a shadow of the Bottled In Bond version. I'll put these to a head to head in an upcoming post. But as it stands, this was the weakest pour of the night.

Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof 64.5% abv

Color: Medium amber

Nose: Vanilla, linseed oil, herbal notes of cut corn stalk, musky loam, and lurking notes of charred oak.

Palate: Explosive bourbon goodness. Sweet and grassy on the first hit, rapidly expanding into a big expansion full of citrus zing, blond Virginia tobacco and clean new leather. The turn to the finish is marked by herbal notes of licorice and cilantro which I recognize as rye. The finish itself is fairly long and nutty with herbal bitters and toasted seeds and oak char.


This was a totally unfair head to head pairing, pitting the lowest possible proof Bourbon against among the highest. But they are both young classic Bourbons and the palates are telling. The National Distillers OT of the 70s was fruity and candied - a classic flavor profile of the time. The new EH Taylor is a young Bourbon, but superbly crafted and a delicious pour. Totally different, but both successful and delicious to drink. The point here is that Bourbon's glory days are not in the past. The future of Bourbon remains bright - perhaps brighter than ever with plenty of demand, interest, and money stoking the production end of things to reach for the high end.

Jim Parisi is interested in having future events of this type at Xavier Wine Co.  Hopefully there will be many more and I'll see you there.
The great table at Xavier Wine's tasting room.  Photo by Jim Parisi