In the Brown Forman family, a lot of time and attention is paid to Jack Daniels, and for good reason: it’s one of the best selling spirits in America. Although Jack Daniels gets a ton of attention, it’s Brown Forman’s Woodford Reserve that is the real crown jewel in their portfolio. Located in Woodford County just outside of Frankfort, Kentucky, in the little town of Versailles, Woodford Reserve is one of the most pastoral distilleries in America. Run by master distiller Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve focuses on producing small batch bourbon.
One of the key benefits of being portfolio partners with Jack Daniels is that Woodford Reserve has the capability to make their own barrels. The Woodford Reserve barrels are made side by side Jack’s at the Brown Forman Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. This gives Chris Morris an immense amount of control over the barrel he ages Woodford in, and has enabled him to do a Master’s Collection of whiskey with unique barreling techniques.
The Woodford Reserve distillery enhabits the old Labrot & Graham’s Distillery where distilling began as early as the late 1700’s. Originally operated as Oscar Pepper Distillery, the distillery plays an extremely important historical role in the evolution of bourbon. Dr. James Crow, who worked at the distillery, was key in refining the concept of sour mash fermentation (where you use a part of your previous batch to help ferment your next batch of whiskey, like a sourdough starter), pot still distillation for bourbon, and the impact of different char on barrel aging.
The distillery was sold to Brown Forman in 1941 and they used it to produce their Early Times whiskey. In 1973 the distillery was abandoned and sold off to a local farmer. In 1993 Brown Forman went looking for a new location to produce a new small batch bourbon and decided to repurchase the Labrot & Graham distillery. They named this bourbon after the county where the distillery was located and in 1996 launched Woodford Reserve.
To understand Woodford Reserve, it’s important to understand their fundamental philosophy of making spirits. Master Distiller Chris Morris breaks down five sources of flavor in whiskey to grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and aging. To make Woodford Reserve, Morris uses a locally grown corn from Shelby County, Kentucky (which is non GMO). This corn is mixed with rye and malt to make up their mashbill, which is 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malt. Bourbon whiskey must be at least 51% corn, and many bourbons are as high as 80%. A bourbon mashbill with 18% Rye is fairly high and helps distinguish Woodford Reserve’s slightly spicy character.
The grains are mixed with water from Glenn’s Creek, naturally filtered limestone creek water which runs right next to the distillery. Limestone pulls iron out of the water, which is essential to making good bourbon. It also imparts a variety of minerals which help provide nutrients for the yeast in the fermentation process. The grains and water are combined and then cooked to help break down some of the starches so the yeast can more easily convert them into alcohol. The mash is put into small open fermenters where a small amount of the previous batch is added, in very much the same way that you use a starter for sourdough bread. Making whiskey at this stage is a lot like making bread, and at the distillery we actually had the opportunity to bake bread with Chris Morris. As with most bourbon producers, Woodford uses its own unique yeast strain which is added to the mix to start the fermentation process.
The average fermentation time for bourbon is three days, but Woodford Reserve ferments for a full 6 days, one of the longest fermentations in the industry. After fermentation, Woodford Reserve is distilled three times in pot stills. The first still is a low wine still, the second a high wine, and the third creates the spirit which is put into the barrel and becomes Woodford Reserve. All the whiskey from the Master’s Collection comes out of Woodford’s pot stills. The base Woodford release blends the pot stilled whiskey with column distilled whiskey that is made at the Brown Forman Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.
After Woodford has been distilled, it’s mixed with filtered water from Glenn’s Creek and brought down to 110 proof for barreling. To be considered a bourbon, a whiskey must be barreled no higher than 125 proof, and Woodford’s 110 proof is the lowest barrel proofing in the industry. Woodford toasts their barrels before they are charred, which helps break down some of the key elements that, when charred, bring in the key flavors for Woodford’s flavor profile.
Woodford ages their whiskey in brick stone rackhouses that date back to 1870. They use a process called cycling which involves heating and cooling the warehouse to manage the maturation. Woodford is aged for an average of 7 years before it’s blended and bottled.
The crown jewel of Woodford Reserve is the Woodford Master’s Collection. Each year Chris Morris experiments with modifying one of his five ‘sources of flavor’ to see what will happen. “The Master’s Collection is an experiment and meant to be innovative. These whiskeys aren’t anything that people have tasted before and become a sip of history,” explains Chris Morris. All the Woodford Master Collection releases are a one time only release and when they are gone, they are gone. Some of the releases in this space have included Seasoned Oak Finish, Maple Wood Finish, Sweet Mash, 4 Grain, Sonoma Cutrer Wine Barrel Finish, and 100% Rare Rye. Master’s Collection Releases are typically announced in October, so we’ll know what the 2012 release is soon.
Although the Master’s Collection never repeats, it was the wellspring from which Woodford drew inspiration for their Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Whiskey which was released in March of 2012. This whiskey takes classically aged Woodford Reserve and then ages it in a special second aging barrel. This second barrel is toasted twice as long as the standard toast that Woodford traditionally does with their barrels and then flash charred to get the lightest char possible. The result is a whiskey that is lush, rich, and slightly spicy – an absolute dream for any fan of Woodford Reserve.
Woodford Reserve may not get the same level of attention that other great bourbons get, but it deserves it. With clear intention, strong attention to detail, and a high quality product, Woodford Reserve is a superbly made whiskey and the distillery is one of the most majestic we’ve visited.