On a breezy Thursday afternoon on the Husk Bar patio, the vivacious Jackie Zykan asked her eager audience to take a "tiny sip, super tiny, like you're sipping a cup of hot coffee" of the Old Forester 1870 Original Batch bourbon. "We've all had different food today, we've all tasted different things, let's get on the same page."
The first sip was an assault, of course, like slurping gasoline in the middle of the desert. "Ok now take another sip, better right?" And it was, much better. Zykan describes the 1870 as "not too overpowering for newbies" and "not offensive to bourbon drinkers." The tasting notes read "shortbread, sweet citrus, honeysuckle, hint of clove, and nutmeg" and if you swill it long enough, those flavors do come through. But the most interesting note about this particular bourbon has nothing to do with its taste. It's all about the story.
In 1870 you would swill whiskey for nearly any ailment. Head cold, toothache, bear attack? Whiskey. George Garvin Brown, a pharmaceutical salesman, decided he wanted to take this whiskey and blend it to achieve a consistent quality. With $5,500 in saved and borrowed money, Brown and his half brother started J.T.S. Brown and Bro. This would evolve to become Brown-Forman, a company
that now owns a myriad of popular spirit brands.
Old Forester bourbon was named for Dr. William Forrester, a customer of Brown's when he was working as a salesman. The bourbon is the first to be sold in sealed glass bottles in the country, and it is the only bourbon to never go off the market. That's right, never. Not even during Prohibition (it was sold for medicinal purposes). The 1870 of today is made from 21 barrels — seven different barrels in three separate distilleries — to match the process of yore.
Zykan, a young face behind the century old product, possesses the "did you know?" quips of an enthused college professor and the mile-a-minute pizzazz of a talk show host. Originally interested in biology and chemistry, Zykan, who was bartending her way through college, knew she couldn't stay away from the science of booze. She would go on to become a beverage director in Louisville, and would eventually meet with fifth generation Old Forester president Campbell Brown. They met up for an old-fashioned, and the rest is brown water history.
From Prohibition to cocktail bitters
The next three bourbons Zykan presented were the 1897 Bottled in Bond, the 1920 Prohibition Style, and the Old Forester Single Barrel. As someone who thoroughly enjoys a Manhattan but who is far from being a connoisseur, The Bottled in Bond was hands down my favorite. Smooth and strong and spicy, I wanted a few more tastes, or a whole bottle, of the stuff. The Prohibition style was a cool 115 proof, with what one may say would "put a little hair on your chest." Zykan informed us that this boozy yet delightful blend is a true representative of the bourbon that would have been produced on the cusp of Prohibition.
The final presentation of Zykan's seminar was of the new to the market Old Forester cocktail bitters. The mixers are a passion project of Zykan's — their genesis is rooted in Zykan's own family tree. The Bohemian bitters is named for her father, who is originally from Bohemia; the Smoked Cinnamon was made to honor her Grandma Zykan; and the Hummingbird, with notes of cardamom and florals, was named after her maternal grandmother, Millie, who adored hummingbirds.
"It's really par for the course," said Zykan. "Old Forester is all about telling their story."
You can purchase the Old Forester Single Barrel at Bottles for around $40, and you can order Zykan's bitters line online
. And Wine + Food festers, keep an eye out for Zykan and her storied bourbon in the Culinary Village this weekend.