(Note: The following post was originally published in Sept. 2016 and updated in Oct. 2017)
You probably won’t find too many parents who settle on “Garvin” when naming their children, but that name has a long history and a deep connection with bourbon lore. If you’ve ever enjoyed a single drop of straight bourbon whiskey in your life, you likely owe a bit of gratitude to George Garvin Brown – the man who is credited with revolutionizing the way Americans bought and consumed bourbon in the 1870s.
A bourbon innovation that was clear as glass
George Garvin Brown celebrated a milestone birthday this past Friday – The big 170. Born in 1846, he was contemporaries with other notable historic figures born that year such as Buffalo Bill Cody, George Westinghouse and, ironically, radical temperance movement champion Carrie Nation. Of course, Brown is long gone, but whiskey aficionados celebrate his birthday every year. Before Brown came along, distillers sold their whiskey exclusively by the barrel. And since most weren’t keen on the idea of buying upwards of 40 gallons of alcohol at once, many consumers brought their own jugs from home to fill directly from retailer’s barrels.
In order to extend supply, less-than-scrupulous saloons and bars were known to add everything from prune juice to tobacco spit to rattlesnake heads to help fill up the jugs. “Rectifying” barrels in this manner was a common practice that allowed retailers to achieve the ideal coloring and consistency without the cost of adding more bourbon.
At the time, George Garvin Brown was a young Louisville-based pharmaceutical salesman. Glass bottles for packaging were a recent innovation and Brown saw potential for whiskey to be sold in pharmacies across the nation next to other medicines. George had a novel idea. A forward thinking idea that would turn the world of whiskey on its head: Put bourbon exclusively into glass bottles. Sealed bottles would assure quality and, 35 years before Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, it was among the first steps in making sure consumers knew exactly what they were taking home. With this innovation, Old Forester bourbon was born, and an iconic brand was launched.
The beginnings of the Louisville based distillery that’s still growing today
Soon after Brown’s innovation, he partnered with another George – his accountant George Forman – and established “Brown-Forman and Company” in 1870, just five years before the first running of The Kentucky Derby. Fast forward 146 years to today and Brown’s company is among the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies in the world- an incredibly impressive feat since the list of failed Kentucky bourbon distilleries over that time period reads like a laundry list of long lost whiskey brands.
Fred Noe, Master Distiller of Jim Beam Brands, likes to joke that Kentucky is the land of four million people and ten last names. So it comes as no surprise that today you’ll find Brown’s descendants everywhere in the Bluegrass. Louisville’s Frazier History Museum was founded by Owsley Brown Frazier in 2004. And, just two blocks down Main Street, you’ll find the 21c Museum Hotel which is co-owned by Laura Lee Brown. In fact, the current Chairman of the Board of Directors at Brown-Forman is none other than George Garvin Brown IV – George’s great-great grandson.
Break out the cake, candles and rock glasses!
We celebrate Brown’s birthday in September pretty much the same way we celebrate a lot of things in Kentucky: with bourbon. For the last 15 years, Brown-Forman has released a beloved special edition of their flagship brand known as “Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.” The oddly shaped bottle has become a “must have” for whiskey lovers who sample, collect, and trade limited edition releases. Each batch is different, each year brings a unique offering, and each release has earned a reputation as being among the most elusive whiskey for those seeking to find it on liquor store shelves.
This year’s Old Forester Birthday Bourbon release was patiently aged for 12 years (three times as long as the standard Old Forester product) entirely on the 5th floor of a single warehouse. These barrels were filled and then placed near the windows of the warehouse allowing them to soak up the heat of the sun. Master Distiller Chris Morris expects roughly 14,500 bottles to be released. While this year’s release is a smidge larger than years past, The Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is relatively minuscule. It takes timing and luck to stumble across a bottle. Considering most of us are lucky to end up with a cupcake and an off-key serenading of “Happy Birthday”, that is one great way to celebrate a man’s birthday.
And, beyond limited bourbon releases, Brown-Forman continues to grow. Projected to open in late 2017 will be the newest edition to The Kentucky Bourbon Trail: A $45 million Old Forester Distillery located right on Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row steps from where George Garvin Brown began the company. And Brown-Forman, makers of Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniels, Early Times and several other liquor brands, is already planning a celebration for their 150th anniversary in 2020. Now, that looks to be a party that George Garvin Brown would approve of.
Cheers to George Garvin Brown!
So, next time you find yourself near a glass of bourbon, raise it high for a well-deserved toast to the man who had the wherewithal to put all that pure bourbon into a convenient, glass bottle. And we also ask you to consider extending some overdue thanks by considering naming your next offspring “Garvin.”
Mint Julep Tours can arrange visits to Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve Distillery or Brown-Forman’s cooperage as part of any custom tour. Call 502-583-1433 or visit us online today to begin planning your adventure!