Urban Bourbon: Brown-Forman

Maintaining the most notable presence amid the scattered remnants of Louisville’s once mighty whiskey distilling industry is Brown-Forman. Their facility near the corner of Dixie Highway and West Broadway (right across the street from Heaven Hill) is crowned with a giant bottle of the distillery’s signature product, Old Forester Bourbon. There is a second location a little further up the road at 2921 Dixie Highway, where I believe most of the distilling takes place, but it doesn’t have a giant bottle of Early Times or anything on it. About the only thing to see when you drive down the service road to that facility is a security guard who will politely but firmly tell you to turn around and please don’t take any photos. Neither location is open to the public for tours, but at least the 850 Dixie Highway location sits right on the highway, so you can stand on the sidewalk and take photos of the building and the giant bottle of Old Forester — though if you are particularly nerdy and linger around too long trying to get your photo just so, the guard at the front gate might get suspicious and start making calls.

Writing about the history of Brown-Forman is both refreshing and disappointing. Refreshing because there’s an unheard-of level of transparency regarding their history and their brands; disappointing because part of the frustrating fun of writing about bourbon distillers is navigating the murky swamp of lies, mergers, and folklore manufactured by the marketing department that characterizes the industry. Oh Brown-Forman, don’t you know how this business works? Actually, I guess they do, since they are one of the biggest independent distilleries in the market. Not only do they distill Old Forester and Early Times at their Louisville distillery, but they also own Canadian Mist, Finlandia Vodka, Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort, and some no-name hillbilly outfit in Tennessee by the name of Jack Daniels. Among others.

The principle players in the story of Brown-Forman all got started in the mid-to-late 1800s. The Early Times Distillery was founded in 1863 and launched with three brands: Early Times, A.G. Nall, and Jack Beam. Beams…they are everywhere. In this case, Jack Beam was John Henry Beam, grandson of Beam family patriarch Jacob Beam and younger brother of Jim. Jack had been running a small family still when he decided to up his game and open his own distillery on the outskirts of Bardstown. He named it Early Times, after the nearby Louisville & Nashville Railroad Early Times Station.

A few years later, in 1866, Jack Daniels was founded down in Lynchburg, Tennessee. And a few years after that, in 1870, J.T.S. Brown & Brother was founded by J.T.S. Brown and his brother, George Gavin Brown. Their first brand was Old Forester,  allegedly named after physician William Forrester who regularly prescribed it as a medicine. George Gavin Brown was originally a pharmaceutical salesman, and Old Forester (the spelling was changed to avoid direct connection to the doctor) was bottled primarily for “medicinal purposes.” When it launched, Old Forester was a blend of other whiskies the Browns had purchased, and it was the first Kentucky whiskey to be sold in sealed bottles to ensure that what you bought was actually Old Forester, and not something else a rascally shop proprietor had dumped into the bottle. It was the earliest version I know of of “premium” bourbon. George Forman (not a boxer) joined the company in 1872, and after a number of different management configurations and name tweaks, the company became Brown-Forman in 1890.

Brown-Forman downtown
Brown-Forman downtown

As was the case for many whiskey companies, it was an up and down road for Brown-Forman. Forman himself passed away in 1902, but George Garvin Brown decided to keep his old partner’s name in the company. At the onset of Prohibition, Brown-Forman was able to fall back on its medicinal roots to secure a license to distill for the much-beloved medicinal purposes only. If you’ve ever been on a bourbon distillery tour, you’ve probably noticed that pretty much every existing distillery brags about being “one of the only distilleries licensed to distill during Prohibition.” They all seem to tout this, even though pretty much everyone else says the same thing. It’s sort of like bragging about being “voted New York’s number one pizzeria ” a sign that just about every single pizzeria in the city displays. Early Times was suffering during the same period, though, and in 1923, their entire stock of whiskey was sold to Brown-Forman. The old Early Times distillery was dismantled, but a new one was built in Shively, thus marking Brown-Forman’s first major foray into distilling their own spirits.

Prohibition, floods, the Great Depression, and World War II all continued to wreak havoc with the company, but they persevered and remained a family-owned operation. After the war, business began to recover and the company started to expand rapidly. In 1930, the company hired its own master distiller, Manual Ice, and began making its own whiskey instead of just buying it from other sources. In 1936, a former University of Louisville professor named Dr. Frank Shipman joined Brown-Forman and began to substantially ramp up production at the facility, turning Brown-Forman into a full-fledged whiskey factory. They continued to acquire other distilleries as well. In 1953, the once-ailing Early Times officially becomes the best-selling bourbon in America. In 1955, the company acquires Jack Daniels, which had never fully recovered from Prohibition (which started much earlier and ended much later in Tennessee than in most of the rest of the country).

Throughout the ensuing decades, Brown-Forman continued to add weapons to their arsenal, either in the form of distilleries or stakes in other large companies. In the 1970s, when whiskey was out of fashion and everyone wanted clear spirits, Brown-Forman introduced the first mass market “white” whiskey, Frost 8/80. Where as most modern white whiskey (you can read my cranky thoughts about that market here) is simply whiskey that has not really been aged, Frost 8/80 was a more or less standard Old Forester whiskey that had been filtered to remove the color. It was a pretty dismal failure that was not long on the market. Other more successful Brown-Forman experiments included buying their own cooperage (where barrels are made), which in turn led them to tweak the types of barrels in which Early Times was aged. Since the law says bourbon has to be aged in new, charred American oak barrels, they had to drop the “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” from the labels, which is why Early Times is now sold simply as Kentucky Whiskey. There is an export version that maintains the rules of bourbon and is still labeled as such, but you’ll have to go to another country to find that. In 1995, the company began renovating the old Labrot and Graham Distillery they had purchased, eventually turning it into the home of their new brand, Woodford Reserve — the bourbon that more or less kicked off the premium bourbon craze.


More than that goes on at Brown-Forman though. For years, and up until the purchase of the facility across the street, Heaven Hill’s whiskies were made primarily at Brown-Forman. Heaven Hill itself had suffered a devastating fire, and in the spirit of putting the friendly in friendly competition, Brown-Forman stepped in to help Heaven Hill maintain its various lines. And although they have their own distillery now, Heaven Hill still does some of its distilling at Brown-Forman. Given the cutthroat nature of most businesses, it might hard to grasp (which is unfortunate) the idea of a company stepping in to help a competitor when that competitor is down, but bourbon is often like that, thanks no doubt to the fact that there is so much cross-family exchange. After all, Brown-Forman Early Times was started by a Beam, and today still a Beam (Parker) is the master distiller at Heaven Hill. It’s nice to see an industry where everyone wants to succeed, but they don’t necessarily want to see everyone else fail.

Brown-Forman is still a whiskey factory as well, making whiskey that is then sold to other companies to be bottled under that company’s own labels. This is a pretty standard practice in Scotland, where “independent bottling” is a time-honored and much respected tradition. For whatever reason, Kentucky has a markedly different attitude about it, more akin to sneaking into the porno section of a video store. Bottlers go out of their way to obscure the fact that they are not their own distillery, going so far as to make up nonexistent “historic” distilleries, master distillers, and lineages. And companies like Brown-Forman are usually contractually or honor-bound not to spoil the illusion. So who knows how much Brown-Forman whiskey you might be drinking under a different name?

My own personal ties with Brown-Forman go back a ways. One of their master distillers, and the man who crafted the Woodford Reserve brand, was a family friend and occasional babysitter. And a few years ago, I was lucky enough to take a tour of Brown-Forman whiskies from the past seventy years, starting with a whiskey bottled in the 1930s, continuing up through each decade (with an unwelcome stop in the 1970s at Frost 8/80), and ending with the company’s newest whiskey, Early Times 354. 354 was current master distiller Chris Morris’ stab at taking the Early Times brand and returning it to its pre-barrel experimentation roots, being allowed once again to call it Kentucky Straight Bourbon. It was a great opportunity to trace the evolution of a distillery and its whiskey throughout the decades. If nothing else, I learned that i really like bourbon from the 40s and 50s.

Although Heaven Hill is, as I mentioned, right across the street, Brown-Forman remains the crown jewel in what is left of Louisville distilling. With rumbling happening at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery up the road, and with Louisville suddenly realizing that maybe it should capitalize on its lost distilling heritage, here is always talk about bringing the Bourbon Trail — the loose confederation of distilleries open to the public for tours — to the city. If that ever happens, Brown-Forman would be an obvious major attraction, but from what I can tell, they have no plans to open their doors to the public any time soon. I’m sure it’s the usual combination of insurance concerns and having to renovate to meet assorted safety measures, with a dash of the fact that they are in a part of town that is a bit rough at times.

Too bad. I’d love to have a stroll around the historic old building, or even the more industrial workhorse facility. If you want to make your own tour with a minimum of law breaking, you have some options. The facility at 850 Dixie Highway is, as I mentioned, right alongside Dixie Highway and so is easily viewable and photographable (?), even if you can’t go inside. The other facility sits back a ways from the highway, and photography of anything but the sign is discouraged, if politely so. However, yo can get a glimpse of the rest of the facility (it’s mammoth) and some awkward shots with other stuff in the way if you are willing to do a little extra driving. A couple of streets down from the Brown-Forman sign is Sonne Avenue, which you can follow to a pretty good view of the distillery rickhouses. Further down from there is Wathen Lane, which also affords you some limited views. You can also take a pseudo-tour courtesy of Google Maps. Or you could just write or call ahead and ask nicely. It’s not unheard of that they will make special arrangements if you can pitch your case well. Open or not, at least they are still there, keeping the spirit of urban distilling alive.