Old Forester: A storied brand attempts a comeback.

Old Forrester bourbonA half century ago, Old Forester bourbon was the big brand name in the spirits business.  As the flagship brand of the Brown-Forman Corporation, it routinely sold in quantities approaching one million cases each year.

Back in the day, Old Forester was marketed as “America’s Guest Whiskey” – the one to bring out when company came to visit.  (I remember finding an ancient bottle of Old Forrester when cleaning out my late mother-in-law’s liquor cabinet.)

Forward to today.  Despite a recent rise in bourbon sales, Old Forester is a near-forgotten brand entry.  Shipments barely topped 100,000 cases last year, and nearly half of all sales came from just two states:  Alabama and Kentucky.

What the heck happened?

In broad terms, American tastes in distilled beverages shifted away from scotch and bourbon to vodka and gin.  Wine became more popular, too.

But those changes affected the entire market for bourbon, scotch and other whiskeys.  What made Old Forrester sink so low in a category that’s actually been on an upward trend since 2000?

Two words:  “Jack Daniels.”

BF logoIn 1956, Louisville-based Brown-Forman, the makers of Old Forrester, acquired the iconic Jack Daniels brand, and promptly started marketing it big-time.

Jack Daniels advertising has been pretty constant in the decades since.

Then in the mid-1990s, Brown-Forman introduced Woodford Reserve, which it marketed as premium bourbon — much as Old Forester had been a half-century before.

With all of the attention lavished on these two brands, Old Forester got squeezed out of the action.

But as it turns, out, there may be a second act for Old Forrester after all.  Starting in 2001, bourbon shipments have been on a pretty steady upward trend, with total shipments now topping 1 billion liters annually.

Mad-Men-Season-6Some have attributed the growth in bourbon consumption to the success of the Mad Men TV series, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it than just that.

Besides, even with Mad Men going off the air, market forecast firm Cowen & Company predicts American whiskey growth rates will clock in at nearly 10% per year until 2020 at least.

Because of those dynamics, it comes as little surprise that brands like Bulleit Bourbon have been so very aggressive in the market.

New entrants abound, too, as there are now more than 26 distillery licenses issued by the state of Kentucky (up from just ten in 2011).

Evidently, the key managers at Brown-Forman must have decided that they weren’t going to let the market pass them by, and so they’ve committed to a major initiative to resuscitate the Old Forester brand name.  Major commitments and goals include:

  • Building a new distillery in Louisville that will open next year
  • Expanding the geographic reach of brand sales
  • Undertaking a $20 million marketing effort including digital advertising, point-of-sale promotion and bar promotions
  • Increasing annual shipments to 500,000+ cases within five years

What are the chances that Old Forester can regain its lost luster and once again become one of America’s esteemed bourbon brands?

Brown-Forman's Campbell Brown, a fifth-generation family member, heads up the Old Forrester branding initiative.
Brown-Forman’s Campbell Brown, a fifth-generation family member, heads up the Old Forrester branding initiative.

There are no guarantees, of course.  But starting with a venerable brand name … and then appointing a seasoned industry veteran — and fifth generation Brown family member as well — to head the effort may give this initiative pretty decent odds of success.

We’ll check back in four or five years and see how it all turns out.

No froth in the beer industry …

Can it be possible? The Beer Institute trade association is reporting that U.S. beer sales are actually declining.

Chalk up one more piece of evidence showing that this economic downturn is a vastly different animal. In previous periods of recession, beer sales did not really suffer. Perhaps that’s because it’s been a relatively inexpensive discretionary item. If you’re feeling down about the economy or your personal finances, why not drown your sorrows in a nice cold one?

Not so this time around. The Beer Institute reports that domestic brew sales have declined 4% in the first two months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, while import beer sales are off a whopping 19%. Not only that, foreign beer sales registered a decline for the entire year of 2008 as well.

Shipments from Mexico have fallen nearly 14% so far this year compared to last, led by Corona. But Corona is still America’s top-selling foreign brew, beating Heineken by a long shot. Speaking of which … beer sales from Holland have declined by an even bigger percentage (more than 25%).

What should we make of these statistics? Are Americans now tightening their belts on absolutely everything?

Or maybe we’re doing for our health what we’re also doing for our personal savings rate. Perhaps switching to something better than brewskies – like heart-healthy red wine? We’ll have to wait for the latest statistics from the National Association of American Wineries to find out.