Dr. William Forester
(correct spelling: Forrester)
“A Surgeon in search of Purity”
Old Forester is the flagship brand of Brown-Forman, named after the Civil War surgeon Dr. William Forrester. It was the first bourbon to be bottled successfully and labeled as a medicinal bourbon by George Garvin Brown when he was a pharmaceutical salesman. It had always been sold at a 100 proof.
Dr. William Forrester, was born in August 1836, in Valley Station, Kentucky, he was the son of William Forrester who was a also Louisville physician. Forrester’s father died when he was nine years old in March of 1846. His will bequeathed one third of his estate to his wife Eliza and the balance to his children Louisa, John and William. Eliza died less than two years later, the cause of death is not known. Joshua Frye Speed was the executor of the estate. From that point on he lived and was raised by Mr. and Mrs. Joshua Speed, who had no children of their own.
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 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.
On September 20, 1863 his Brigade descended from Lookout Mountain into the valley to the rear of the Confederate Army. It would be weeks and cost thousands of lives. They were immediately attacked by a superior force under Confederate Major 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 used mostly to house Federal officers. It was frequently overcrowded, housing at times as many as 1200. The suffering and death rates were very high.
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. Although he narrowly avoided being hit many times he was never wounded.
On April 26, 1876 he was married to Fannie Armestead witnessed by Joshua F. Speed. The younger William Forrester became a prominent Louisville surgeon of the time and was also a very consistent buyer of George Brown’s whiskey.
George Brown spent time as a clerk at Henry Chambers & Company and later a salesman for them. Brown had been a pharmaceutical representative that actually called on the doctor’s office between 1867-1870. He and Dr. Forrester were neighbors and frequently dined at the Louisville Hotel. In those days there were very few medicines. Whiskey was still the major domestic anesthetic in the late 1800, but also served as a tonic, a pep pill and/or even a tranquilizer.
Another of Brown’s friends, Dr. James Holloway, complained of the inconsistency of batches of whiskey he received, some were excellent, some fair and some batches were very bad. He and Dr. Forrester believed a brand should be available which was always of the highest quality that could be prescribed to his patients. “Brown was determine to accomplish that goal and he was going to name it Old Forrester.” Brown blended every drop himself and all of it was sold in clear glass bottles so the customer could see what he was getting.
In about 1874, about four years after it was introduced on the market one the r’s was dropped. The reason was simple more people knew a Forester with one “r” and it would be easier to market. Also because he was so well known locally, other physicians may have been reluctant to prescribe a medicine which marketed the name of one of their friendly competitors. Perhaps even Forrester had second thoughts about the use of his name for a bourbon.
Old Forrester was not the very 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 hand blown bottles were way too expensive. Old Forrester in a bottle was an immediate success. Many unsolicited endorsements came from doctors. One advertisement in the Louisville Courier depicted a family doctor giving a patient a glass of Old Forester which was captioned “The Doctors Choice.”
Forrester continued to practice medicine however his health began failing and on December 29, 1892 he filed a “Declaration for Pension of a Soldier.” In late July of 1909 he became seriously ill. Three weeks later on August 15, 1909, he died of dysentery in his home on South Floyd Street. He was buried in the prominent Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville
Banner photo by Old Forester