Sometimes an older star makes such a comeback you are astonished she ever went out of fashion.
Brown-Forman's Old Forester might be the Betty White of bourbons: as smart and entertaining as ever and remarkably hip again.
In the last 12 months, the 144-year-old brand has found new life. Adjusted sales jumped 16 percent, according to figures the company released in its year-end earnings report last month.
For the first time in 45 years, Old Forester is growing, with depletions — orders from distributors — up 7 percent at the close of fiscal year 2014.
In Louisville, Old Forester never really went away. But for the last four decades, the market outside of Kentucky where you could consistently find people drinking Old Forester was Alabama.
"Bear Bryant drank it, or that's the lore," Brown-Forman's Tim DeLong said of the football icon who coached at Kentucky before apparently taking his favorite whiskey to Birmingham.
"Everybody here loved it to death, and drank it. But we didn't have a whole lot of faith it would become a major brand again," DeLong, global managing director for North American Whiskies, said. "If you ask most people at the company, especially in Louisville, Old Forester is their favorite brand. There's always been a soft spot here for Old Forester."
But with the boom in bourbon and particularly cocktails like the Old Fashioned, bartenders are searching out the genuine article.
And it doesn't get much more authentic than Old Forester, which is the oldest bourbon continuously made and sold by the same company, with roots deep in the earliest days of liquor sales.
Originally "Old Forrester" with two Rs, allegedly named for a Louisville doctor, it was the first bourbon sold exclusively in a bottle to ensure purity, rather than out of a barrel, according to Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, by Michael Veach.
It became such a significant brand that the water tower over Brown-Forman headquarters is a giant Old Forester bottle.
Brown-Forman's successful premium bourbon Woodford Reserve was built upon the Old Forester yeast strain, according to Morris.
Suddenly, in New York and London, drinkers are prepared to pay a premium for that kind of authenticity. Particularly a brand that weathered the "dry" years.
"Old Forester is the only bourbon still in existence today that was produced before, during and after Prohibition by its original distiller," Morris has said. "No other bourbon brand sold in the U.S. today can make that claim."
At The Flatiron Room in New York, owner Tommy Tardie said the high-rye Old Forester is featured in one of the bar's signature drinks, the $15 Blood Orange Sour. The drink is made with Old Forester Bourbon shaken with blood orange, Campari and Aperole reduction, lemon and simple syrup, organic egg white and bitters.
Lately, Tardie has noticed that Old Forester's annual Birthday Bourbon is flying off the shelf.
"Our whiskey list is about 1,000-plus so when I'm able to see one particular thing moving well, that's a big sign," Tardie said. "My take on it is that there are so many new distilleries. As people become more passionate and bourbon becomes more of a hobby, they like looking at ones that have been around, have history and heritage behind it."
Old Forester "is not the brand doing the big ads, but people are calling it (asking for it by name)," Tardie said.
Brown-Forman kickstarted the renaissance by hand-selling the brand to bartenders, emphasizing the backstory, all that history.
But they say they've been "caught a little bit off guard" by the surge in demand.
Usually the majority of business has been in the 86-proof version, DeLong said, but the majority of the growth has been in bars with the 100-proof version, called Old Forester Signature.
"That's where the growth has been phenomenal, although both are doing well," he said.
To capitalize on this new momentum, Brown-Forman plans to increase focus on the brand.
"We've upped the priority tremendously on this brand, and we're upping the marketing quite a bit," DeLong said.
And sometime later this year the company may bring out a special version: an Old Forester Small Batch.
"We'll probably have some news shortly," DeLong said on possible special releases.
Either way, he said, the company now hopes to grow Old Forester to "multiples of its current size over the next 10 years. ... We want this to be a substantive brand in the next few years."
The brand was introduced in the United Kingdom this year, where bottles are selling at about $84, well above the U.S. price.
Are they concerned that Old Forester will grow too fast, that demand will outstrip supply, since Brown-Forman is running pretty much at capacity?
"There's always a lot of people talking about shortages," DeLong said. "We think, knock on wood, we have plenty to support the growth we anticipate."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.