Review: Woodford Reserve Master’s Malt Whiskey

Woodford Malt Whiskey
Woodford Malt Whiskey

We are big fans of Chris Morris, who is not only the Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve, but he’s THE whiskey guru for Brown-Forman. Chris Morris has been responsible for some fantastic products including the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Whiskey, which is one of Brown-Forman’s best product innovations in years.  Each year Morris releases a special, limited edition series of experimental spirits under the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection. This collection is his sandbox, a place where he can test different barrel finishes, styles of whiskey, and innovations and share them with whiskey enthusiasts. Some years the results are stunning (including the Seasoned Oak and Maple Wood Finish) while some are not (including the Rare Rye and Four Wood), but the focus of the collection is more the investigation of boundaries of whiskey than the final product.

This year’s Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection finds Chris Morris turning his attention to malt with two parallel releases: 2013 Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Classic Malt, and 2013 Woodford Reserve Collection Straight Malt Whiskey. Both whiskeys are technically “single malts” and made exclusively from malted barley. The major difference (as it was with last year’s Rare Rye releases) is that the Classic Malt has been aged in ex-bourbon barrels while the Straight Malt has been aged in new American oak. Unlike last year where the pair of Rare Rye whiskeys were packaged together in 375ml bottles, this year’s Master’s Collection offerings are sold individually in 750ml bottles for $100 each.

2013 Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Classic Malt (45.2% ABV / 90.4 proof, $100) – if Chris Morris’ aim was to try to capture the aroma of green malt, he was successful. The nose of the Woodford Classic Malt is as close to unroasted malt as we’ve smelled in a whiskey. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good thing. Green malt has an interesting aroma, but it’s not very pleasant, and it’s far too green and grassy not to dominate a whiskey. The nose has some underlying caramel and vanilla but they are so overpowered by the malt, they’re hard to make out. The nose also has an unpleasant sour note like an unripe grape at the core that just doesn’t balance out with the malt or the sweet notes. The nose is one of the most unpleasant whiskey noses we’ve experienced this year. The entry for Woodford’s Classic Malt is all green malt – green, grassy and wholly unpleasant with a thin mouthfeel that’s equally unsatisfying. Things quickly move to unripe citrus and cardboard. There’s a touch of caramel in the mix but it is unable to balance with the other notes in any way.  There’s a touch of oak that comes out just before the finish, but like the caramel note it’s much too little, much too late. The finish is harsh, dry, and equally unpleasant, like you’ve just had a glass of liquid straw.

2013 Woodford Reserve Collection Straight Malt Whiskey  (45.2% ABV / 90.4 proof, $100) – using the same base spirit as the Classic Malt, the Straight Malt is aged in a new American oak barrel rather than an ex-bourbon barrel. As you’d expect, there’s more impact from the barrel here and so the nose is a better balance between the green malt and the barrel oak. The result is more of a dried grain or straw than with the classic malt.  There are more cereal grains in the nose of the Straight Malt as well as light caramel, but there’s also a dusty concrete note that’s unpleasant. In the core there’s still a sharp, unripe, sour grape note that is absolutely uninviting. The entry for Woodford Straight Malt Whiskey is like Wheaties cereal but quickly moves from the cereal to cardboard box. In the midpalate there’s an interesting confluence of flavors including sour grape, light citrus, caramel, and oak. It’s interesting, but not enjoyable, and like the Classic Malt the mouthfeel is thin. Things spice up a bit for the finish which is sharp, sour, acidic, and unpleasant.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Classic Malts are one of the most unpleasant and ill-conceived whiskeys we’ve had in a long time.  It’s great that this series provides Chris Morris with a sandbox to play in, but sometimes an experiment goes so wrong that you need to toss it in the bin, not package it and sell it at $100 a bottle.