The Search for the Old Forrester

Merv Hanes, M.D.
Historian, Kentucky Obstetrical and Gynecological Society


In June of 1986 Larry Griffin (then President of the Jefferson County Medical Society, Kentucky Obstetrical and Gynecological Society and Louisville Obstetrical and Gynecological Society) asked me to do a brief history of the Louisville Obstetrical and Gynecological Society to be published in Louisville Medicine. I had been appointed as Historian of Kentucky Obstetrical and Gynecological Society in 1981 and at their annual meeting in 1986 had promised I would do a history for them.

I was aware of the loss of most of the previous minutes of the Society and sought help from Leonard Eddy and Sherrill Redmon at the Kornhauser Medical Science Library.  In a thin file folder was a photocopy of page 119 of the Richmond and Louisville Medical Journal (January 1870) announcing the election of the officers of the Louisville Obstetrical Society.

This was a startling discovery since no one was aware of the existence of this society at that early date and it was believed to have been founded in 1923.

This announcement was followed by an editorial entitled “A Plea For Louisville.”  That volume of the journal was located at the library and the complete editorial was reviewed.  The editor, E.S. Gaillard, wrote that in November of 1866 a few medical men met at one of their homes to organize the society.  These men were Newman, Brandeis, Ronald, Octerlone, Goodman, and Forrester.

Eugene Conner advised me that he had done a biographical sketch on John Avid Octerlone but knew little about the others except he had heard the famous bourbon Old Forester had been named for William Forrester.  Leo Bauer, retired vice-president of Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation was convinced that Conner was correct.

John Ed Pearce in his book Nothing Better In The Market  (published by Brown-Forman on their double golden anniversary) lists a number of possibilities for the origin of the name.

“A legend has it George Brown named it in honor of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the dashing Confederate cavalry man.  Why this Forrester rather than Old Forrest?  Others say that lumbering was booming in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys when the whiskey was first produced and so it was named for the symbolic, sturdy forester to attract his trade.  Why then two r’s?  Another is that it was named for a Catholic “Order of Foresters” which was a sort of insurance group plan of the era but it seems highly unlikely on the part of a firm Presbyterian whose forbearer had been deprived of his head for refusing to follow the Pope.  It has also been suggested that the whiskey may have been started as a private brand produced for Dr. William Forrester, a prominent Louisville physician of the era who may well have been a good customer.”

Little else was discovered until Mrs. Lillian Cuspak wrote to the University of Louisville inquiring of the year her grandfather, Dr. William Forrester, graduated from medical school.  In a subsequent letter to the author she stated that her father, Joshua Speed Forrester, had told her George Brown had named the brand for William Forrester.  Brown had been a pharmaceutical representative who called on the doctor’s office in 1867-1870.

George Brown was a clerk for Henry Chambers and Company and later a salesman for them. He and Dr. Forrester were neighbors and frequently dined at the Louisville Hotel.

Why should a whiskey be named for a physician?  It must be remembered there were few medicines in those days.  Pearce writes, “whiskey was still the major domestic anesthetic, tonic, pep pill and tranquilizer.”  Another of Brown’s friends, Dr. James Holloway, complained of the inconsistency of batches of whiskey he received – some excellent and the next batch very bad.  He believed a brand should be available which was always of the highest quality to be prescribed to his patients.  “Brown was determine to accomplish that goal and he was going to name it Old Forrester.”  (Why not Old Holloway?).  It is said he blended every drop himself and all was sold in clear glass bottles so the customer could see what he was getting.  Shortly after it was introduced on the market one the r’s was dropped.  The reason is not known.  Perhaps other physicians may have been reluctant to prescribe a medicine which marketed the name of one of their friendly competitors.  (It is unlikely Louie Herman or Sam Swope would serve his guests a brand called Old Cook or Old Payette.)  Perhaps Forrester had second thoughts about the use of his name for a bourbon however some preachers made whiskey in those times.

Old Forrester was not the first whiskey to be sold in bottles.  E.G. Booz, a Philadelphia distiller, sold his whiskey in bottles for a brief period but stopped because the band blown bottles were too expensive.  Nor was Old Forrester the first brand marketed by J.T.S. Brown and Bro.  They first blended and sold in kegs and barrels whiskeys named Mellwood Bourbon, Atherton Bourbon, Sidroc Bourbon, Major Paul’s Widow McB, and Larue’s Best.

Since bottles were still made by hand (the bottle making machine was invented by Owens in 1903), only the best whiskeys were blended and aging tied up capital for long periods of time it may well have been that Old Forrester (like our currently popular Maker’s Mark) “tastes expensive and it is.”  My friend, Ray Langston, a retired pharmacist, tells me it was referred to by some as “boat whiskey” because it was so smooth a chaser was not needed thus it could be consumed from the bottle while fishing on the lake or river.

Old Forrester was an immediate success.  Many unsolicited endorsements came from doctors.  One advertisement depicted a family doctor giving a patient a glass of Old Forester which was captioned “The Doctors Choice.”  Pearce includes the following verse

“Many, and many a day,
             Discriminating doctors say,
             Old Forester will life prolong,
             and render old age hale and strong.”

          He relates the story of Robertson Brown who fell ill with fever.  Since his mother was very ill at the time, he was cared for by Aunt Ann, the black maid.  When his temperature shot upward she bathed him from a wash basin filled with Old Forester.  Following his recovery she said “Me and the Good Lord and Old Forester saved him.”

          The brand however caused problems within the company and may have been a factor causing change in ownership of J.T.S. Brown and Bro.  George continued his practice of placing aside the quality batches to be blended for his Old Forrester while his brother wanted to sell all the whiskey at once to increase their working capital.  Over a period of years the name of the firm changed a number of times – Brown, Chambers, and Company, Chambers and Brown, Brown-Thompson and Company, Brown, Forman and Company (James Thompson sold his stock and founded Glenmore Distillers), and then Brown-Forman and Company.  A brand called Old Forman was marketed but failed to survive.  Brown-Forman Distillery Co., Inc. was established in 1902.

          Who was William Forrester?  He was born on August 12, 1836, near Valley Station, Kentucky, the son of William Forrester who was a Louisville physician.

          “When the subject of our memorial was nine years old his parents died and from that time until he reached manhood he was under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Joshua F. Speed.”  Kincaid’s biography of Joshua Frye Speed fails to mention the rearing of this orphan.  He states “they were not blessed with children of their own and they were destined live only for each other and for the scores of nephews and nieces who often came to play and romp in their house.”  Abraham Lincoln makes no mention of the Forrester child in his letters to Speed.

          Forrester’s father died March 2, 1846. His will bequeathed one third of his estate to his wife Eliza and the balance to his children Louisa, Cora, John and William.  Joshua F. Speed and William Q. Johnson were executors.  The date Eliza died is not known.  She is not listed in the 1850 census however the 1860 census lists an Elizabeth Forrester of 60 years old living with a Stewart Family.

          The census of 1850 lists a William Forrester, age 13, born in Kentucky, as a member of the Joshua Frye Speed household.  This would appear to confirm the relationship of Forrester and Speed.  It seems unbelievable that such a noble and commendable act has previously gone unmentioned.

          The census of 1860 lists Forrester in the fifth ward, 22 years of age and a school teacher thus no longer living with the Speeds.  That of 1880 lists him as a physician.

         After attending the public schools of Louisville and graduating with honors from Male High School he enrolled at the University of Louisville to study medicine.  He graduated at the head of his class in 1862 and entered private practice here in Louisville.

          In March of 1862 he entered the Union Army as Assistant-Surgeon of the Fifth Kentucky Cavalry.  On April 22, 1863 he was promoted to Surgeon.  Records at the Filson Club credit him with service only ’62-’63.  This error is due to an “officers casualty sheet” showing him to have been mustered out on April 22, 1863 however the cause of casualty was promotion.

         On September 20, 1863 his Brigade descended from Lookout Mountain into the valley to the rear of the Confederate Army.  It would be many days and cost thousands of lives before a Yankee would stand on that mountain and look down on Moccasin Bend again.  They were immediately attacked by a superior force under General Jo Wheeler.  During the disorderly retreat in Battle of  Chickamauga he and his six officers were captured at McLemores Cave.

          All were placed in Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia.  Libby was a tobacco warehouse and ship-chandlary (built by Luther Libby in 1845) used chiefly to house Federal officers.  Frequently it was terribly overcrowded, housing at times as many as 1200 and the suffering and death rates were high.  (In 1888 – 1889 Libby was moved to Chicago to be used as a war museum.)

         The seven officers messed together on the way to and in prison.  One of them wrote:  “We arrived October 1 and immediately began to share the hardships and deprivations of all the prisoners who had the misfortune to be incarcerated therein.  While in the prison the Doctor was noted for the even serenity of his temper and for his general good humor, not withstanding the many trying situations incident to our daily lives as prisoners of war.”

          He was released from the prison on November 24, 1863 when an exchange of non-combatants was made with the Confederate Army.  He returned to his Regiment on December 27, 1863.  He was with his Regiment in many engagements caring for the wounded on the field and while he had a good many narrow escapes he was never wounded.

          Following his discharge May 3, 1865 he went to New York for Post Graduate Study.  The length of his stay there is not clear since it was stated by Bailey, etc.  “spending several years in that work” however it is documented he was one of the six who met in November of ’66 to organize the Louisville Obstetrical Society and he was a Charter Member of the Louisville Medical-Surgical Society in 1868 and it’s Recording Secretary in 1870.

          It is not known who was the first President of the Louisville Obstetrical Society.  It would seem unlikely that since he was one of the six who gathered to organize the Society he came away “empty handed” and did not hold this position until he was elected President in 1875.  John A. Octerlone (an emigrant from Sweden), Samuel Brandeis (a Jewish refugee from Bohemia, the uncle of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and the father of Florence Brandeis, one of the first female physicians in Louisville.), and William Newman were elected to the office at later dates.  It must be recalled he was only thirty years old at that time however his previous academic achievements and meritorious war record may have caused him to be so honored.  His documented election in 1875 might be an argument against this speculation however the membership and perhaps interest in the Society was decreasing at that time and as a matter of fact the Society faded away some time in the late 70’s and was not reorganized until 1923.

          On April 26, 1876 he was married to Fannie Armestead.  One of the witnesses was Joshua F. Speed.

          He continued to practice medicine however his health began failing and on December 29, 1892 he filed a “Declaration for Pension of a Soldier.”  He stated his disabilities were “piles, rheumatism, sciatica, injury to right ankle and side and general debility.”  A general affidavit was entered by James Speed (Joshua’s brother and Attorney General with the administration of President Abraham Lincoln) stating “the disabilities under which he is suffering are not due to vicious habits” – thus not due to partaking of too much of Old Forester.

         In 1904 he again applied for a pension and again in February 1907.  That declaration noted he was 5 feet 8 and a half inches, had blue eyes, of light complexion and had light hair.  Charles Speed (son of James Speed) attested this document.

          In late July of 1909 he became seriously ill.  Three weeks later, August 15, 1909, he died of dysentery in his home at 653 South Floyd Street (currently the site of Methodist Evangelical Hospital.)  He was buried in Cave Hill by J. Maus and Bro.  Neither his nor his wife’s graves in Section O, Lot 242, bear markers at the present time.

          He was survived by his wife and three children:  Richard Armestead Forrester of Louisville, Joshua Speed Forrester of Los Angeles, California, and Mrs. L. Shively of Newburg, Kentucky, and Mrs. Cora Stratton of Worthville, Kentucky; and two grandchildren, Marion (Dumpy) Forrester and Richard Ham.  His oldest son Williams Canning Forrester had died in 1906.

          The Old Forester that we enjoy to-day is not the same as that named for Dr. Forrester:  I’m sure the firm would probably truthfully say it is even better.  It must be remembered the Browns did not make one drop of whiskey until 1902.  The browns bought whiskey to make the 90 proof Old Forrester first marketed in 1873.  Some of the whiskey was said to be seven years old.  It continued to be blended and 90 proof until prohibition.  During the “dry years” the firm was one of ten permitted to produce whiskey to be sold on prescription.  Regulations required the product to be bottled in bond and 100 proof.  Old Forester became such and its sales saved Brown-Forman.  To-day an Old Forester of 100 proof is available in most lounges but the watered down version of 86 proof is the one preferred by many.

          This 100 proof is still aged four years however the process is a bit different.  During the hot summer the liquid expands and is forced into the charred oak and in the cold season contracts out of this surface.  Winters and summers vary thus for consistent aging the temperature in the storage building is controlled – all summers and winters are the same.

          The label was written by George Brown and another unnamed person.  Federal regulations frowned on certain words and “for its’ purity and fine quality” was changed to “for its’ richness and fine quality” and the words “developed with age” to “developed with care.”

          Pearce writes that the yeast is the same as used prior to prohibition.  Manuel Ice developed a particular strain and is said to have stored it in a copper jug in icehouse of Emil Porter during the three years the distillery was shut down.  In any case the yeast used for Old Forester is unique and used only for making that brand.

          Frank Shipman joined the company in 1936.  In spite of resistance of employees who wished to continue making whiskey the “old fashioned way” modern scientific methods have been introduced.  The corn from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio is carefully monitored for moisture and carbohydrate content.  Also the rye which is imported from Southern Canada.  Thus every batch is the same superior product.  Unique low temperature fermentation and careful distillation insures the consistent presence of the fifty distinct congeries which contribute to the exceptional taste, color, and bouquet.

          Old Forester comes in bigger bottles – not really.  The giant landmark bottle seen on Dixie Highway contains only water however there have been rumors that it was filled with 100,000 gallons “would afford 8,500,000 generous portions or about three tall drinks for every Kentuckian.”  The Old Forester label is currently being restored on the huge bottle.  It has said Early Times for the past seven years.

          In Conclusion,

          Regarding the medicine, Old Forester – as said by John Ed Pearce – “Nothing Better In The Market”

          Regarding the man – William Forester

          The doctor was a member of an organization called the Army Corps.  No information is available concerning the history of this group however the committee appointed to write a memorial and resolution at the time of his death consisted of Alfred Pirtle, an attorney, Robert M. Kelly who was in the insurance business and William Bailey, a physician.  All had been officers in the Union Army thus it was probably a society of Civil War veterans.

          The Committee’s concluding paragraph reads, “In Dr. Forrester’s death the medical profession lost one of its’ ornaments; his country, a noble and patriotic citizen; his family, a loving and exemplary husband and father; and the Army Corps, one of its’ most esteemed members.”