January 9, 2013
Woodford Reserve: The Best Stop on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail
What’s the key to Kentucky’s award-winning bourbon? Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller spills secrets about his master blends
- By Katie Kelly Bell for her Forbes "Adventures in Taste" blog, reprinted with permission from Forbes magazine
Which bespoke bourbon should you bag now? Try Woodford Reserve’s new small batch Master’s Collection: Maple Wood Finish, featuring intoxicating notes of cognac, maple, dark chocolate and apricot. Read on for Katie Kelly Bell’s exclusive interview with Woodford Reserve’s master distiller Chris Morris.
Who makes the best Kentucky Bourbon? That question is apt to start fights, so it’s best left unanswered. But what’s less controversial is why Kentucky is the center of the universe when it comes to bourbon. The obvious answer might be easy access to corn. But states such as Missouri and Iowa have tremendous amounts of corn and you never hear anyone wax poetic about fine Iowa bourbon. It’s a Kentucky thing to be sure and it’s because of the limestone-laced water. Some even theorize that this same minerally water is also what makes Kentucky good for raising horses, giving them strong bones for racing. Corn and horses aside, the limestone influences in Kentucky water yield a bourbon with clean pure flavors--case in point: Woodford Reserve.
Woodford Reserve’s 200 year-old distillery is actually built upon a swath of limestone. The original settlers wisely located it adjacent to a rushing stream for easy access to water. Yet quality water is really just the beginning of good bourbon. Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve, Chris Morris, adds a few painstaking touches of his own to make this brand sing.
For starters, Morris notes he loses 50% of his spirit (over a whiskey barrel’s lifetime) to evaporation--or as some like to call it, “the Angel’s Share.” That’s a lot of whiskey and those are some pretty happy angels. Morris is quick to point out that this very evaporation is exactly what makes Woodford so lip-smacking delicious. “We heat the warehouse off and on during the winter, intentionally creating temperature fluctuations. This does a few things; the hot temperatures extract color, aroma and flavor. The spirit gets darker and richer as well. The wood absorbs about three gallons of spirit, now we have headspace in the barrel and air gets pulled in, which we love. Air reacts with the acids and esters [organic compounds] in the spirit, hence more flavor, fruit and spice is formed more quickly. In six or seven year’s time we net the effect of 18 to 20 years of esterification and aging.”
This rather scientific summary explains why Woodford drinks like a silk sheet. Keeping Woodford Reserve consistent is Morris’ first job, but he does like to play with his recipe each year-- tweaking one of the five sources of flavor unique to bourbon whiskey such as grain, water, fermentation, distillation, or maturation.
“This is the fun part for me. altering just one of the five sources creates a totally new flavor profile.” The result of Morris’ experimentation is a diverse and compelling line-up referred to as The Master’s Collection. To date, he has created seven: Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, Sweet Mash, Seasoned Oak, Maple Wood Finish and Rare Rye. Each one is made in very small amounts. His newest riff on Woodford (released this past November 2012) , Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish, features a finish in maple barrels and old barrels used to age sherry and port. The result yields a bourbon with the posture of a rich cognac with notes of dark chocolate, nuts, maple sugar, caramel and apricot. My advice—get a bottle now before it’s gone.