September of 2007 marks the first annual National Bourbon Heritage Month, approved by the United States Senate in August. The significance of this designation to the distilled spirit industry, in particular bourbon whiskey, is an important recognition of the social, industrial and economical impact that these fine Kentucky whiskeys have made on the country. Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey, although a new brand in the span of bourbon's history, is distilled in the oldest operating distillery in Kentucky and honors the spirit's heritage by employing traditional techniques with a modern style of bourbon. I spoke with Chris Morris, Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve, regarding his thoughts on the history of the spirit, the significance of the national designation and the taste of the bourbon he personally produces.
Woodford Reserve and Chris Morris, Master Distiller
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey was launched in 1996, however the history of the distillery itself and it's impact on the distilled spirits industry dates back to 1812. It was that year that the first log cabin distillery was built on the site by Elijah Pepper in Versailles, Kentucky (Woodford County). In 1838 the Pepper Distillery was taken over by Elijah's son, Oscar, who would go on to produce Old Oscar Pepper Bourbon and the original Old Crow Bourbon with Master Distiller Dr. James Crow. As is customary with bourbon distilleries, the brands produced there changed often (on average 4 brands in a distillery's lifetime) and what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery was no different. Today's resident brand of the historical distillery pays homage to this heritage with the name Labrot & Graham (another bourbon produced just before Woodford Reserve) on every bottle.
Brown-Forman purchased the distillery in 1940 and still own it today. The now spirit giant began with Labrot & Graham and in the last part of the century decided to modernize the bourbon distilled there, leading to the development of the Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Master Distiller, Chris Morris, is not a generational distiller like many of his counterparts, but he grew up in the industry as both his mother and father were distillery employees. Morris himself has worked with Woodford Reserve for 10 years, over four of which he has served as the Master Distiller. A conversation with Morris immediately conveys his passion and knowledge of his craft, complete with bourbon facts and history rolling out, one after another.
Morris describes Woodford Reserve as a full-bodied, "very, very smooth" bourbon with a balance of characteristics that span the flavor spectrum...
- caramel, butter, chocolate, maple
- cinnamon, spice, clove, mint
- apple, cherry, orange
- cedar, oak, pecan
- grain, spicy rye
You are not likely to find two bourbons that taste alike. "Bourbon should strive to portray a unique character, and the good ones do," says Morris. He notes that the majority of bourbons have a strong lead, usually pepper, oak or spice, but this is one characteristic that Woodford Reserve is missing. That's not a bad thing because Woodford replaces that dominant lead with its complex and well-balanced character that deserves appreciation and air. Morris best describes this attribute by saying that the bourbon "needs to breath like a great wine" to fully appreciate its complexity.
Mixing with Woodford Reserve
With such a complex flavor one would think mixing with Woodford Reserve would be a little challenging, not so according to Chris Morris. He mentions a recent punch he had a party made from fresh, organic watermelon juice, mint and Woodford Reserve and notes having seen more cocktails recently which mix ginger with Woodford Reserve. Other flavors he recommends for mixing with the bourbon are any fruits that are in its character like apple, orange and cherry, but also date, peach, apricot and pear. Morris also suggests that cinnamon, clove, thyme and sage are also making an appearance in Woodford cocktails and that sours build a pleasant mix of competing flavors.
When asked his preferred drinks made with the spirit he produces, Morris could not narrow it to one. Like many of us what he likes to drink depends on the mood and atmosphere, but he was able to narrow it down to five. For the average drink at home, with friends or casual social occasions Morris goes with most distillers' favorite, Woodford Reserve on the rocks, and as one would expect of a devout Kentuckian, his springtime drink of choice is the Mint Julep. Morris orders Manhattans (sweet vermouth and bitters, up or on the rocks) when out for dinner and as a bar patron he likes to order "whatever the Woodford Reserve special is at the bar I'm in." He continues on that point, citing some unique cocktails he's had recently created by talented mixologists.
One other drink that made Morris' top five is a bourbon classic, the Old-fashioned, a drink which has historical ties to Woodford Reserve Distillery's history. The muddled drink was created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, a one-time gentleman's club that is still in operation. Elijah Pepper's grandson, James Pepper, liked the drink so much that he promoted it and introduced it to New York.
Woodford Reserve Cocktails:
- some from The Woodford Reserve Culinary Cocktail Tour drink and cookbook