Travel

A visit to Old Forester Distillery

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Margaret and I have been to enough bourbon distilleries now to know the drill: first the vats of sour mash, then the still(s), then the rickhouses where the bourbon ages in barrels, then the tasting. Up to now, it’s always all been in a pastoral setting among Kentucky’s gently rolling hills. But the Old Forester Distillery is different: it’s in downtown Louisville.

You’ll find a few other distilleries up and down Main Street and on adjacent blocks, making downtown Louisville a burgeoning whiskey center. It was one before Prohibition, but that misstep in American history decimated Kentucky’s whiskey industry and sent many distillers into bankruptcy.

For a long time Old Forester was distilled and bottled at a facility just outside Louisville proper. But there’s gold in them thar whikey-tourism hills and Old Forester led the way in returning to Louisville’s famous Whiskey Row. Stepping onto this street feels very much like returning to 1870.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Little of the original building remains behind its facade. This is a modern facility through and through. Every bit of it is tourist-friendly.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Here we are peering into one of the vats of fermenting sour mash. It looks like a giant corn muffin.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Here’s one of the vats, empty, ready for a new batch.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Old Forester’s parent company, Brown-Forman, is the last independently-owned distiller in the nation. They own a whole bunch of liquor brands, including Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve. Brown-Forman is further unique in that they own their own cooperage — they make their own barrels. The main cooperage is elsewhere in Kentucky, but for us tourists a cooper makes a few barrels at the Old Forester site.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

To be considered a bourbon, a whiskey must be made of at least 51% corn and must be aged in new barrels made of oak and charred inside. Here’s a barrel getting its char.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

After the whiskey has been distilled, it’s clear, essentially moonshine. They pour it into a barrel, seal it with a bung, and let it age in a warehouse. To be a bourbon, it must age for at least two years. Here a barrel is being emptied, on its way to being bottled.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Here’s the Old Forester bottling machine, doing its stuff.

Old Forester Distillery Tour

Every bourbon distillery tour ends with tasting some of the product. Old Forester uses the same sour mash mixture to make a number of bourbons, including their original 86-proof bourbon (left). They age their distillate in different ways and for different lengths of time to get their other bourbons, including Old Forester 1897 (center) and Old Forester 1920 (right).

Old Forester Distillery Tour

The folks at Old Forester kept the tour fun and quick, and at $18 per adult it’s not terribly expensive. If ever you’re on Whiskey Row, do step inside.

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12 thoughts on “A visit to Old Forester Distillery

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Believe it or not, my first job out of college was as a photo assistant for an advertising studio in Milwaukee. One of our accounts was for an international display company located here, and one of the things my photographer did, he was a “liquids and pouring specialist”, (having worked for the breweries at one time), was to shoot high end pics of Old Forester bottles on 8X10 transparency to be worked into die-cut in-store displays! I had never heard of Old Forester, wasn’t a big seller up here, but got to talk with a very knowledgeable brad rep about it during the shoots. Very interesting guy, fun, and an example of why a nosey guy like me got into commercial photography!

    • Oh cool, to specialize so narrowly sounds like fun. Old Forester is most popular in Kentucky, I hear. It is apparently a very big seller in Louisville proper. If you go to a bar and order a whiskey cocktail and don’t specify the whiskey you want, you get Old Forester.

  2. Heide says:

    I learn so many interesting things through your blog, Jim! For instance: I’d never before considered where the barrels come from, or how they’re made and prepared. Thanks for letting us tag along!

  3. DougD says:

    A giant corn muffin could be fun too.

    Jim, were you going to give me any suggestions for distilleries to visit on my epic road trip with my dad? Or is the route too far east? And what bourbon to buy while I’m in your country? So many questions..

    • I’m afraid you’re going to be a couple-three hours east of the Kentucky distilleries. If you want to detour, they’re all over central Kentucky and super easy to find.

      I don’t know what bourbons you can get in Canada at what prices, but I love anything with the Willett name on it, plus Blanton’s. Plenty of the common whiskies have extra-aged expressions, like Old Forester’s 1870 or 1920, that are usually very good and worth trying. Just stay on the upper shelves at the liquor store and you should be fine.

  4. I’ve never toured a distillery before, although I’ve been through a few wine vineyard tours. It’s always very cool to see the process – great snaps, there!

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