CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5/10 ($10)
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Woodford Reserve distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
It’s a rainy second day of our Great 2015 Bourbon Crawl. Having blazed out of the Buffalo Trace parking lot, we make a quick sprint south through Frankfort, KY, via Route 60. Eventually turning off the highway, we find ourselves in over-the-top beautiful horse country, like in the movies or that one time of year that you watch horse racing on Derby Day. Kentucky horse breeder estates, rolling green grass, wooden fences, barns larger and nicer than most houses in our Seattle neighborhood, a private training track, and the occasional (no doubt irrationally expensive) thoroughbred horse. If we weren’t rushing to make the noon tour at Woodford Reserve, we’d have pulled over and gawked. But bourbon and copper pot stills beckon us toward the distillery. In the Cocktail Wonk book, a pot still trumps rolling hills any day.
Despites its high brand recognition, Woodford Reserve is relatively young in the annals of Bourbon history, having been created in 1996 by Brown-Forman. These days they are a major spirits conglomerate along the lines of Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Beam Suntory. Brown-Forman has a long history in the bourbon industry, going back to 1870, when they were the first company to sell whiskey in sealed glass bottles. Woodford Reserve is just a tiny part of their whiskey empire, which also includes the world’s bestselling whiskey, Jack Daniels, as well as Old Forester and Early Times. Non-whiskey brands owned by Brown-Forman include Chambord, Finlandia vodka, and Tuaca. Yes, the spirits world makes for strange bedfellows.
For many years since 1996, Woodford Reserve focused on a single product, their namesake Woodford Reserve bourbon. It’s a blend of spirits from their own pot stills, as well as column distilled spirits from another Brown-Forman distillery just outside of Louisville. In 2012, Woodford Reserved added a second product, “Double Oaked,” which starts out as standard Woodford Reserve and then (as the name implies) spends additional time in a barrel toasted and charred differently than their standard barrels. Woodford Reserve can easily do these sorts of things as they own their own cooperage, which also supplies Jack Daniels with barrels. Woodford Reserve also offers a series of small, limited edition releases, many of which are based on different barrel finishes. More on that later.
As we turn off the road into the distillery’s visitor parking lot, I immediately sense that Woodford Reserve is a bit more upscale than your typical distillery. Unlike many distilleries that play up their production process and history, at Woodford Reserve, it feels more about the idyllic Bourbon-and-horses lifestyle. The visitor’s center, with its leather chairs and plaid accents, could almost double as a Ralph Lauren furniture store. The newly remodeled facility is centered around a large double-sided stone fireplace, separating the main lounge and café area from the tasting room—and its idyllic views over the Kentucky countryside. The vibe is more Napa winery than hardscrabble distillery. This general feeling carried over to the rest of the tour as well — everything we saw was clean and organized, nothing out of place. No loose grain scattered about, no empty boxes in the corner, not even a hint of Angel’s share on the buildings. Everything appears hyper-organized and efficient.
This was our first bourbon tour where we encountered tour headphones. At the beginning of the tour, everyone is handed a small radio and earbuds, allowing the guide to speak in a conversational voice via a headset. This is a mixed blessing: On one hand, it lets you hear the guide even while wandering off to explore dark corners, as I’m prone to do, headset or not. On the other hand, it’s cumbersome and feels impersonal, like you’re being shuffled through an experience, and doesn’t allow for friendly chatter among other Bourbon travelers. After the umpteenth mash bill explanation, Mrs. Wonk and I had taken to tuning out and wandering off for more photos.
The tours starts as we clamber into a small tour bus for the possibly the world shortest ride to the distillery buildings—about 100 feet down a gentle grade. So much for that. And oh, what picturesque Scottish-style limestone buildings they are! As far as Kentucky bourbon distilleries go, the scale of the Woodford Reserve buildings and operations is quite a bit smaller and infinitely more charming than you’ll find at places like Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, which don’t do much to conceal the massive scale of their operations as Bourbon factories. The Woodford distillery was built in 1838, and has gone through multiple owner, names and bourbon’s produced since then. I’ll spare you the chronology here, other than to say it’s impressive. Walking around the ground and though the buildings, it’s not hard to imagine that you’ve stepped 180 years back in time. Minus the wireless headsets, of course.
Entering the main distillery building, our guide explains the basics of bourbon grains and mash bills, with a particular emphasis on Woodford Reserve’s “five sources of flavor,”– grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. To the right is a phalanx of cookers and cypress wood fermentation tanks, much smaller than what you’ll see at the big boys but nonetheless impressive. At ground level you can stand next to the base of the tanks, for a sense of scale. Heading up a set of set of stairs leads to another level where you walk around and peer into the tanks, watching the mash furiously bubbling away or scooping out a bit to taste, if you so desire.
Normally I’m quite happy to hang out around the fermentation tanks, enjoying the scent of the distiller’s beer and watching the carbon dioxide bubble up through the mash. But just a few yards away in another large room, I’d spied the three copper pot stills. This is what I’d come to see! The guide finally finished with the fermentation tanks and I practically sprinted to the still room. I immediately thought back to our visit to the Auchentoshan distillery outside of Glasgow, Scotland, which also triple distills in pot stills. Unlike Scotch whisky, which must be made in pot stills, the use of pot stills in bourbon production is relatively rare, so seeing three in a row was a real treat. It’s almost as if a little slice of a Scotch whisky distillery was plunked down in the middle of rural Kentucky. And as it turns out, these stills were imported from Scotland.
The pot stills vary in size, and each batch goes through all three in sequence. The first “beer” still is 2,500 gallons, while the second and third stills are 1,650 gallons each. While not tiny by any stretch, they are relatively small in comparison to some big pot stills found in Scotland. After passing through all three stills, the white dog is close to 160 proof, the maximum legal proof to which bourbon can be distilled. High proof distillation means that fewer esters–the compounds that make up flavor–make it into the barrel. As such, more of the bourbon’s final flavor comes from the aging process.
Near the stills is the obligatory spirit safe, which we unfortunately weren’t allowed to get too close to, but I could make out the diverters which enable the separation of the heads and tails from the hearts during distillation. The spirit safe and stills are accessed via a wooden mezzanine, putting visitors at more accessible scale to the operations. From the main floor you can peer beneath the mezzanine and see the base of the stills and their steam heating plumbing.
On the other side of the room is a small barrel filling station – everything is done by hand, rather than a massive automated filling line the likes of Heaven Hill. A corner of the room is dedicated to plaques for people or institutions who’ve selected and purchased an entire barrel of Woodford Reserve.
Exiting the building, it’s a few yards to a stone rickhouse where some of the bourbon is aged. Along the way we step over what appear to be tracks for the world’s shortest railway. They’re actually used for rolling barrels by hand between buildings—full barrels from the filling area, empty barrels from the bottling line. Woodford’s rickhouse is alternately heated and left to cool, simulating seasons and hastening the aging process, as the heat induced expansion causes the bourbon to flow into and out of the wooden barrel walls.
The final stop in the distillation complex is the bottling line. Like everything else about Woodford Reserve, it’s a tiny operation compared to nearby distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. I suspect the bottling operation is dedicated to limited release bottlings and a fitting scale to the curated tour experience.
Before boarding the bus for the final sixty second drive back up to the visitor’s center, you spend some time learning about a stone house which used to be where government agents watched over production.
Back at the visitor’s center, we are shepherded to the tasting room! Everything has been prepared in advance of our group’s arrival. The back wall of the tasting room is the aforementioned fireplace, and long tables arranged in a rectangle give the impression of a culinary classroom! Taking a stool at a table, everyone has the requisite, Kentucky-allowed two 0.5 oz pours of bourbon in front of them. The highlight for many in the room seemed to be the piece of bourbon-chocolate candy for pairing with the bourbon—a nice touch.
The gift shop is a relatively restrained affair, with most of the space devoted to the various Woodford Reserve expressions as opposed to logoware t-shirts and golf tees. In addition to two generally available Woodford Reserve releases, you’ll also find the high-end Master’s Collection releases, which have unusual mash bills and/or different aging. A new release is done annually. If you want to taste a 100 percent pot still bourbon, rather than a blend of pot and column stilled, these releases are the way to go.
I quickly zeroed in and purchased the new Distillery Series bottlings of which there are two: Sweet Mash Redux and Double Double Oaked. Both are sold in 375 ML bottles for around $50 US. Although not true distillery exclusives, you’d be hard pressed to find them outside of Kentucky.
The standard $10 tour is run daily on the hour. They also have a few special, longer tours that must be booked in advance. I tried to book the “Corn to Cork” tour, but that tour wasn’t offered the week we were there because of the influx of highfalutin visitors for the Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland. Nonetheless, the standard tour covers most the expected stops and is full of highly photogenic moments. If you only have time for one distillery tour while you’re in the Louisville/Frankfort area, Woodford Reserve is a solid choice.