Pleasure / October 2016

Straight Out Of Louisville: Woodford Reserve

As The Rake celebrates ‘America The Beautiful’, it’s only apt that we focus our attention on one of the nation’s most illustrious examples of a true Kentucky straight bourbon, Woodford…
Woodford Reserve's iconic copper pot stills.

One of America’s greatest products is undeniably bourbon whiskey. It’s a core component of their DNA, or as Chris Morris, Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve, tells me: “If you are from Louisville, Kentucky, it’s your world.” Drinks conglomerate Brown-Forman, who created Woodford Reserve in 1996, have somehow mastered the intrepid balancing act of maintaining an integral sense of heritage, yet at the same time prevailed through a storm that threatened the entire bourbon industry – the outcome of which is a Kentucky straight bourbon that’s critically acclaimed worldwide, totally unique and incomparable to other bourbons through the intricate details of its “five sources of flavour”.

I was largely unaware of the history behind bourbon until I recently met Morris who ran me through it over a couple Woodfords. Bourbon is certainly inextricably linked with Kentucky — much the same with scotch and Scotland — and their symbiosis goes far beyond simple appreciation. Morris, a Louisville native, excitedly tells me that both his parents worked in the industry (he was more hesitant to add that he tasted his first bourbon aged seven): “It’s a point of pride, you know? We are making bourbon! That’s what your family does, what your ancestors do, this is what you brag about! Overall, it helped my overall impression of how important the industry was to our local economy. It’s our pride, our culture.”

"Your palate is presented with a heavy dose of butterscotch, toffee and caramel, that’s followed by apples, berries and cherries, finished by a mulling of spices, dry oak and cinnamon."

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, American whiskey distilleries converted from the traditional pot stills to more commercially viable column stills. Fast forward to the 1990s and the whole bourbon industry was under threat due to the surge in popularity of other spirits like vodka, gin and tequila – the trade was simply dying with a large amount of Kentucky distilleries closing down. Yet Brown-Forman, cognisant of the declining industry, decided to go completely against the grain. Morris tells me: “We had this crazy idea of doing the complete opposite. So we built a new brand and a new distillery. This is why a lot of people give us credit, as we helped the resurgence of bourbon popularity. We wrote a new chapter.”

Woodford Reserve is situated in Woodford Country, north central Kentucky. Although the brand itself was founded in 1996, the new distillery is built on the foundations of a distillery from 1812, when its founder, Elijah Pepper, a farmer-come-distiller, started producing bourbon during the winter months. Deciding to turn the bourbon game on its head, Brown-Forman reverted back to the old school of copper pot stills and then developed a new school recipe and production format, the headmaster being Chris Morris. At first your palate is presented with a heavy dose of butterscotch, toffee and caramel, that’s followed by apples, berries and cherries, finished by a mulling of spices, dry oak and cinnamon. In all, Woodford Reserve is a matrix of flavours with over 200 flavour notes.

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Benedict Browne

Benedict is The Rake's Associate Style Editor.