Posted on | October 22, 2015
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
Woodford Reserve continues to innovate, two decades after jumpstarting bourbon’s turnaround.
When Owsley Brown II, the late Brown-Forman Chairman, conceived Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Bourbon, he envisioned a Kentucky spirit that would defy existing conventions, with a recipe that reduced the typical amount of the corn, and whose stylish bottle could claim a place alongside Scotch and Cognac. Today, nearly 20 years later, another man is charged with maintaining Woodford’s hard-won leadership position, and his signature adorns every bottle.
Chris Morris, Brown-Forman Master Distiller and a respected whiskey historian, says it’s easy to forget just how ambitious Woodford Reserve was upon release in 1996. “Bourbon was still in decline. Bourbon distilleries were not being opened, but closed. Then, along comes Brown-Forman to restore an old distillery, adding a visitor’s center. The bottle was totally disruptive because most bourbons were still trying to look burlap and blue jeans. It all seemed the height of craziness,” recalls Morris. Within a few years, however, more bourbon distilleries were welcoming visitors and courting sophisticated drinkers.
Woodford is especially popular. For the year ending 2014, sales increased 25% to 275,000 9-liter cases, landing it firmly in the super-premium bourbon elite. Ironically, this groundbreaking whiskey originates in a historic place, the site of the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, where distilling dates to 1780. With the visitor’s center’s recent renovation and the addition of warehouses to hold 165,000 barrels, this idyllic site with its 1838 distillery building is poised to satisfy Woodford Reserve fans for the future.
A philosophy of forward-thinking
Morris grew up around bourbon, yet his work at a major Scotch brand en route to becoming the seventh Brown-Forman master distiller also influences his thinking. “It dawned on me early on that Kentucky once made more than just bourbon. That moment freed me mentally. A lot of that was driven by my observations that Scotch was able to be creative and bourbon was not,” says Morris, who is piloting Woodford on a trajectory of innovation that would merit a pat on the back from Owsley himself.
This philosophy is most apparent in the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection—limited-editions that push the boundaries of the spirit in new directions. “The idea is to change just one thing. The stills, the water, the yeast never change,” explains Morris, noting that even diehard Woodford fans, initially skeptical of tinkering with their beloved bourbon, have come to embrace the special projects.
For the Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, Morris gave Woodford Reserve additional aging in Chardonnay barrels. He recently did the same using Pinot Noir barrels. Morris has overseen 10 of these limited releases over the years, with perhaps the most exciting aspect being that they can lead to permanent additions to the line. The Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish of 2009, a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey finished with a second maturation in new charred barrels, ultimately resulted in Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, added in 2012. A third permanent offering, Woodford Reserve Rye, introduced in February, can also be traced to a project dating back to 2006.
With 120,000 visitors a year, the Woodford Reserve Distillery itself is the newest stage for Morris’s creativity. The recently launched Distillery Series (available at select Kentucky retailers as well as at the distillery) includes Double Double Oaked, the result of finishing mature Woodford Reserve Double Oaked for an extra year in heavily toasted, lightly charred new oak barrels ($49.99/375ml).
Tucked deep within the surrounding warehouses, Morris has planted more boldly creative ideas, the best of which will be bottled to advance Woodford’s trailblazing reputation. “The current generation [of whiskey drinkers] is growing up in a different world, full of flavor opportunities. I am creating whiskies today that won’t appear for years. We are planning for success and that means never underestimating the marketplace,” says Morris.