Ep. 89 - The Next Generation Stepping Up As Master Distiller

ELIZABETH McCALL // Woodford Reserve

Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve and we talked about his rise and the process of going from assistant under the legendary Lincoln Henderson to the Master Distiller role. 

Two weeks ago, my email box held a message that another assistant was getting that honor of moving up to the Master Distiller role and today, its my honor of chatting with the new face of distilling at Woodford Reserve, Elizabeth McCall. Join me as we find out about her journey to this position and where her focus will be going forward.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore: The Interviews." The full transcript and resources talked about in this episode are available on the tab(s) above.

For More Information:


Drew (00:09):
Welcome to Whiskey Lore, the interviews. I'm your host, Drew Hannush, the Amazon bestselling author of Whiskey LO's Travel Guide to Experiencing Irish Whiskey and Whiskey Lore's Travel Guide to Experience in Kentucky Bourbon. And not too long ago I had an opportunity to have a chat with Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, and we went through their history and talked a lot about the distillery itself. And then as I was checking my email the other day, I saw that Chris has decided to step aside to an emeritus role and Elizabeth McCall is now stepping up from the assistant master distiller role to the main seat. And so I am very happy to have her here as a guest today to talk a little bit about her journey and also what is going on now at Woodford Reserve. So welcome to the show, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth (00:59):
Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Drew (01:01):
Yeah, this is so have you had the opportunity yet to, because I know you're probably dealing with a lot of press and trying to get everything else up. Have you realized yet that you are in that master distiller position? Has it sunk in

Elizabeth (01:17):
It? It hasn't quite sunk in yet, <laugh>. It's still something I'm getting comfortable with, I should say.

Drew (01:26):
Yeah. This is something that's been a long time coming though. You've kind of known this for some time. When did you know that you would have an opportunity potentially to step into this role?

Elizabeth (01:39):
It's interesting. Somebody was asking me that the other night and I said, when I started to train for this role, I knew that I was going to eventually, I mean, the goal was to be master distiller, so it wasn't like that. I never thought the day would come, but I just couldn't believe the day has come, if that makes sense. You know what I mean? Yeah. I had planned for this and this is what we, Chris and I both planned for, but, and then it's here and it's kind of crazy.

Drew (02:10):
So this wasn't something that weeks ago you had any inkling of it just all of a sudden, like us, we got an email that said, Hey, change.

Elizabeth (02:18):
No, we've been planning for it. I mean, we knew ki kind of just months ago that okay, because Chris started talking, when do I want to retire? And then how much overlap would I want to have with you taking on this role and still be there on a day-to-day basis? So we kind of knew a few for a months, but then it wasn't until, I mean, I sat down in the room, I thought we were just telling one of my other, now new bosses like, oh, this is the plan. And then it was like, oh no, you're going to assume this title and this is all happening. And it was like, oh God, yeah, this is really happening.

Drew (02:59):
Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about your background. When I talked with Chris, he talked about you and he talked about the transition that he made when he was assistant master distiller under Lincoln Henderson, who was the first distiller at Woodford Reserve and how the trade off was going between him and Lincoln. Lincoln had his things to do, but he learned things from Chris. And Chris said that he kind of had that same role with you, that there's this ability to, you know, have your own direction you want to go, but then you also kind of pull in fresh ideas from the next generation that's coming in. Talk a little about your role as assistant manager or as assistant manager. I'm going back to my old record store days as assistant master distiller and what you were learning along the line, where did you place your focus and where did you feel like you had input?

Elizabeth (04:03):
So it evolved over time. I felt like originally it was, I was there to listen, learn, absorb, see how Chris presents on the brand, see what kind of things does he talk about, what does he share? And then when it came to innovation, really learning, how does he innovate, what is his mind, where does he gravitate towards? And you've spoken to him. He's a huge history buff, so a lot of times he's pulling from history and that's sort of his inspiration. And so I've kind of learned how to mingle that with some of the things I'm more passionate about. I love history as well, but I think that I like thinking about just I'm in the sustainability space in flavor space. And not that he isn't, but it just is my own take on it. So I've learned how I can take what he has taught me and he's taught me so much, even from the sales and the marketing side of it and how to really organize a brand and keep to the focus of the brand because it's easy to lose that and get excited about all the things going on. And then you lose what does this brand stand for and what's at the heart and soul of it. So he really taught me a lot about that and that's been really valuable. I think that'll carry this continue. I mean it's grown wood for to it is today and it'll continue its growth.

Drew (05:30):
I think that's what a lot of people don't understand about the master distiller role is that in a way there are different facets to it from being an ambassador position to being somebody who's maybe more of a production director or somebody who's trying to innovate with new ideas. And where does this whiskey go? Where do you feel like your main focus out of those different areas will likely evolve into?

Elizabeth (05:59):
I come from quality control, so my love and passion and all that sits in quality. So I love connecting with the production teams and seeing well, what is the data telling us about how the distillery's doing the sensory ratings on our new whiskey to the mature whiskey. So I really love that. So I'll definitely be tied in closely with that. And then just maintaining the integrity of the brand. I mean that is something that I think is in the role of master distiller here at Brown Foreman and Woodford Reserve. It's maintaining that integrity of the brand, the liquid integrity, the quality of it, and then of course innovation. And then you get to do all the fun stuff like brand ambassadorship. But that's really where I will be quality and liquid focused.

Drew (06:47):
Okay. All right. And so talk a little bit about your background now you're actually second generation in your family in terms of being in the whiskey industry, from what I understand.

Elizabeth (07:00):
Yes. So my mother, she worked for Seagrams and she was in quality control, but in the bottling aspect. So she dealt with labels and packaging and all the stuff. That is probably my least favorite area of quality.

Drew (07:17):

Elizabeth (07:18):
I'm being honest,

Drew (07:20):
That's more just having an eye on making sure every letter on the label is correct and that the information on it is correct, rather than actually getting in and saying, okay, let's taste this product and see where it's going. So were you working in Louisville initially and then you sooner or later came out to Woodford Reserve?

Elizabeth (07:46):
So I started with at headquarters, so Brown Foreman corporate is in Louisville and I started out in that quality control lab. So I worked on all of our brands at Brown Foreman from a quality aspect and was going out to all of our global production facilities. So I started by working in the lab, but then eventually I was going to France to Shor and working on Shor, like Laure to Finland to down to Casa Dura on Tequila's Jack and Canadian Mist. And I was out at Woodford. And so the first few times I went out to Woodford, it was just to train people on how to properly nose and taste our whiskey. And of course you just fall in love with it when you go out there. I knew it was a special brand from the moment you lay eyes on the package, but then you go there and it's just amazing. So yeah, I started in Louisville and then eventually I was sent to go work in production out at Woodford Reserve, which was a great experience. I think everybody should have to work in production at some point, <laugh>, cause it's just very demanding in a totally different way.

Drew (08:51):
Well, and then you got to get to know the warehouses and understand all of that as well. And I mean Woodford, we think about Kentucky and we think about Seven Story, but everything's a little bit more subtle at Woodford Reserve in terms of that. But are there differences? Do you have warehouses that have a certain sweet spot versus others?

Elizabeth (09:17):
Well, it's interesting because as this brand has evolved we have our historic warehouse C on site that's very where we put all of our master's collections and kind of weird one-offs in there and track it. So I know that warehouse very, very well. And then since 2016, so very recent future built new warehouses on site. So we're still getting to know the personalities of those warehouses and we're still building more. So I feel like I don't have as much of a like, oh, this warehouse is going to be give us this character and this one's not. And they're newer, so they're a little different. But things were coming, we had previously been storing out at Shively, but with the growth of Old Forester and Woodford, we had to separate 'em. Now Old Forester is all there and Woodford's all out at Woodford. So that's been a great blessing, but we're still learning.

Drew (10:11):
Yeah. Were you a Woodford Reserve drinker before you started? Came out there?

Elizabeth (10:21):
But it's funny, I was thinking back to when I first started and how I would drink. And it was the first time I ever drink Woodford on the rocks. I was actually in Canada on a quality audit of our Canadian MIS facility, which is so weird. And I was like, is that right? And it would've been, I think it was double, but so that was the first that I ever drank just on the rocks. And so that was probably 2012, 13, it was very early on and it was 13 because it was now. But before that I was like, what was I drinking? And I guess it was mixing and in a different, I don't know, it was so such a different space. And when growing up you in college, I was like, what was the cheapest thing you could drink Cheap beer <laugh>, right? And so I didn't grow up in this culture of now young people are having old fashions at the bar. I'm like, really? That's so weird. Which is awesome. I'm a fan of it. But yeah, so it was an evolution of drinking and then I fell in love with it. Now I don't drink anything else.

Drew (11:26):
Yeah. Well I heard an interview with you where you were talking about that you like to drink your whiskey on ice. Yes. And I think that sort of surprises some whiskey people who would say, oh wait, well somebody who's going to be a master distiller, they probably get so used to drinking at Neat that that'd be the only way that they like to drink it. But you also get into a very interesting conversation about proofs and there's been this push towards higher proof, higher proof, higher proof. And yet Woodford Reserve really isn't known for coming out with whiskeys at those higher proofs. How do you see that evolving in Woodford Reserve and do you see a need for having a focus in those directions or as I like to say, I like to taste what the master distiller thinks is the right proof for it?

Elizabeth (12:21):
Yeah, it's interesting that whole space. So when I'm working, I'm drinking neat. And then when I'm just drinking for pleasure, I do like it on the rocks. And Chris Morris does too, and he's had a great career. So I think I'm okay, I'm in good company. But one thing I've learned, and I know from our sensory practices, basically you can hide a lot of defects and whiskey with higher proof. Just when we're tasting for quality, we cut down to 40 proof, 20% A B V, and that's going to allow any kind of little nuances to show up. So I think that high proof is fun. I think that it has its place and its moment to try something like this is how it came out of the barrel and in its natural, most natural state and I have an appreciation for that, but the sessionability of that not good.

You have your one drink and you're good for a while, you should not have it anymore. Yeah, I do this professionally. I know I've tampered with having more than one of those and doesn't, not a good situation. But then the lower proof Chris would talk about his mother when she would cook would have whiskey watered down because she was just wanting a long drink. And so there's that, the length of it and whiskey should stand up with the more dilution it gets, you should still be cut. It still tastes so good just minus that ethanol burn because sometimes the ethanol can almost kill your taste buds too, and you're really not tasting it. So there is a fine line. And I think when distillers presented at a certain proof, it's because the proof that they're setting is what's going to give you the full complexity of that whiskey. And that's where 90.4 comes in. We do have a batch proof and it's like Woodford on steroids, but you miss some of the subtle characteristics because it's so high proof, but it's still delicious whiskey. So it's kind of like you have to have something for everybody and everybody's a little different.

Drew (14:25):
I think the trouble I have with it is that I'm of the opinion that if I'm going to get a high proof like that, I may test it out and tasted it at that high proof first to see what it's like, but ultimately I'm going to water it down and if I'm watering it down, I'm not watering. I mean, I can go buy some reverse osmosis water, but I mean I'm not going to be able to really let it set for as long as it probably needs to set to let that water work in and be even. And so it just seems like a waste to me to do it that way.

Elizabeth (15:00):
Yeah, I just think so it's interesting because the high proof sort of thing, it's only really been around and really been people excited about probably the last five, six years maybe. We didn't really talk about it that much and now it's kind of everywhere. So I do feel like it's a trend in talking to people who are out in the marketplace, you just wonder is it going to last that long or will it kind of be this novelty thing that will hang out a little bit and then kind of go away because it's not something that's practical for your day-to-day. Just certain I'm a day-to-day whiskey, enjoyer <laugh>, not at the moment because I'm expecting, but my whiskey.

Drew (15:42):
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, and I mean some whiskeys to me have a sweet spot. I'm probably look for whiskeys on the shelf that are between 95 and a hundred proof. I think that's a great spot in terms of getting flavor, the 80 proofs, I look at them on the shelf and I go, I feel like I'm going to be missing something with those. But I have had some 80 proof whiskeys that are very flavorful and that maybe that is where best.

Elizabeth (16:11):
Yeah, I know. It's just an interesting, I mean it's where does your palate go then? But I do think you, you're right to me that 90 to a hundred is so spot on. It's a very happy place for whiskey to hang out. So I like it.

Drew (16:27):
So what's it like working with stills and how much hands-on do you actually do at this point? And will you be doing? I I think of, I mentioned assistant manager before, and I think at my job at any store that I worked at when I was the assistant manager was that the manager was off shaking hands with people. I was the one doing all the work behind the scenes trying to keep everything going. Is it kind of that same experience in the distillery?

Elizabeth (17:00):
It's interesting because I say the art operators take the credit for the day-to-day, running the stills, making sure everything's going the way it should. I'm not out there every day doing that and wasn't in my assistant master distiller role either. I have always taken more of the quality approach. So I meet with them, I talk with them, but I'm not moving the valves and opening and closing them and doing that side of the production. But it's on the, okay, well what were our numbers during fermentation? What was our yield in the fermenters? And oh, okay, well why are they lower? How's our yeast going and checking in on the yeast? So I feel like that's where I hang out more in that space. And I let the operators do the art of running the stills and kind of <laugh> hitting the buttons on the computer. I'm there next to 'em and I'm like, thank God you're doing this.

And we have beautiful work instructions and SOPs and, but part of what I do is I try to be there because I want to know it. But I think for me, I would have to be out there day in, day out doing an operator's job to really feel like, okay, I can do this because it's a tough job. And there's so many little things that are just, it takes being there for a 12 hour shift to know how when to go over here and move it. Because Woodford is not a fully automated production. It is. We have computers that we're using, but it's also a lot of like, okay, this needs to run. We've got 30 seconds, we open that valve and then I'm going to run up here, close this valve, then I'm going to run back downstairs, close the other valve, and then we're going to go, yeah, you got to be very on it. So I've been there with them for that, but I, they're the professionals and I give them all the credit.

Drew (18:47):
I was going to say that's the real trick with running with Potstills that a lot of Kentucky distillers don't have to deal with in that you have to figure out your cut points and you've got to be a lot more hands on, I think, in terms of making sure you're grabbing that whiskey at the perfect point.

Elizabeth (19:06):
Exactly. It's like, you know, got to take your samples. And when we were recalibrating the stills after we got the three new ones put in and we changed up some things got some automated DMAs, so running the alcohol on the other original pot stills. And so we just need to make sure that those are right. Are the alcohols, are they capturing this correctly? So it's fine tuning and calibrating all of that all over again to make sure that the quality parameters we put in place with when we make the cuts and all that is be hitting the right analytical and sensory profile that we have set So far everything looks good. I'm really, really actually, I mean it's amazing. The whiskey is like there's no difference between the original potstills and the three new ones. And God, that is an achievement and that's just our engineers who help design them. I mean the entire team, it's amazing. So it truly is amazing.

Drew (20:06):
So there's all this lore in traveling through Scotland about how your next pot still better be the exact same shape as the old one and it better have all the dents in it that the old one has you to that point of looking at those going, okay, we have to be 100% exact.

Elizabeth (20:25):
Yes that is, we use foresight and sun, that's who they made built our original pot stills. So they had the original blueprints for building those pot stills. So we utilized them again. And I mean they are mirror images and that it's true if anything is different. So it's like I was worried because we don't have the years of crud, if you will. I mean just all the things in the nooks and crannies that the original pot stills had, and we didn't know how that shifted it so you can build it, right. But then all the little how do I say this without making it sound like our distillery's dirty, but <laugh> distilleries, there's a lot of natural occurring flora in there and just things in there that you rely on, you don't realize it's part of the character of the place that goes into the whiskey. And when you put in brand new squeaky clean things, you're like, oh, I think it needs to dirty up a bit. But so far the squeaky clean stills have been running really well and we deal really all of our due diligence to make sure that they were as similar to the original as possible. So it's been good so far.

Drew (21:44):
So there is, for people that don't know, Woodford marries together column still whiskey with the triple distilled whiskey that's coming out of those pot stills. Ha. I would be fascinated to know what that triple distilled whiskey tastes like coming out of there. Has Woodford ever considered releasing that as its own thing? So

Elizabeth (22:09):
We yes and no. In our master's collection, when it's a grain recipe change, it is a hundred percent pot still.

Drew (22:19):

Elizabeth (22:20):
If it's a grain recipe change. Now if it's a finish, we're usually taking our usual pot, still call 'em still batching whiskey and putting that into the finishing barrel. But when it's a grain recipe change, it is a hundred percent pot still. And what you will notice, so with the release that we have out now, finally release the hundred proof entry. So the historic batch, it is a hundred percent pot still, it's our it's bourbon grain recipe. And so this will be a wonderful comparison for people to actually see that pot. This is pots still whiskey bourbon, and it's pots still whiskey bourbon at its finest. It's so delicious. But one thing that I feel like is the signature of what the pots stills bring is that multi nutty note that you'll find at the finish of Woodford Reserve. I mean, because if you look at Woodford and Old Forester, they're the same grain recipe.

The column still portion of Woodford is made at the same facility that wood, old Forester's made. They are very different tasting whiskeys when you mm-hmm <affirmative> sit down and taste them side by side, it's like, oh, I've had people say I prefer Old Forester because it has a CRISPR finish and then Woodford has too much of that multi nutty note and it's a little softer. And I'm like, that's fine. Exactly why we have both of them in our portfolio as Brown Foreman and I appreciate both of them, but that pot still is what it is. So when you do a personal selection with us and you're tasting individual barrel samples, people will be like, which one's the pot still? And I'm like, if you can tell me which one you think is different and has some of these characteristics, and I'll talk like I just described and I'll tell you. And then a lot of people, people can pick it out. I mean, it's a very distinctive note and it's one that I know years ago they had talked about, oh, it'll all be a hundred percent pot still all the time. And then as we were evolving the brand, putting the pot still in the column still together was really what was favor like became the favorable profile. That was what made Woodford Reserve. Woodford Reserve. So that's where we went with it, and that's what it is today. And it wouldn't be Woodford without both components.

Drew (24:32):
So 10 years from now, what do you think Elizabeth McCall's stamp on Woodford Reserve will end up being?

Elizabeth (24:42):
I think right now it's a lot more Kentucky grown grains in our whiskey. So obviously all the corn is from here, but we're working on bringing rye production back to Kentucky for commercial use. Obviously small scale is one thing, but commercially on a larger scale is really challenging with our climate. So that's been an encouraging good project. And then also to get barley barley's, like what I'm really passionate about and learning more, I'm trying to learn a lot more about the barley space and Lo work with local just to diversify our suppliers, which would be really fantastic I think. So yeah, stay tuned,

Drew (25:20):
<laugh>. Fantastic. Fantastic. Well, thank you for, I know you're on a busy schedule right now and I thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us and have the audience get to know who you are. And when they see that Woodford Reserve bottle now on the shelf, they'll have a face to relate to it. So congratulations on your step up and best of luck to you down the road.

Elizabeth (25:44):
Thank you so much. Thank you. I appreciate the time this morning and we can chat again when I get as we go along, <laugh>

Drew (25:51):
Settled in. Very good cheer. Cheers.

Elizabeth (25:54):
Cheers. Thank you.

Drew (25:55):
If you'd like to learn more about Woodford Reserve, make sure to head over to woodford reserve.com for show notes, transcripts, and more, head to whiskey lord.com. And while you're there, you can find quick links to my bestselling whiskey travel Guides and an archive of all of my whiskey lore stories, episodes, and tasting videos. Plus, while you're waiting for my next episode of Whiskey Lore, the interviews or whiskey lore stories, why don't you join me on patreon.com/whiskey lore where once a month you'll have a chance to get in on a live chat during our premiere of these interviews. Plus you get all sorts of additional members-only content, including my Irish whiskey audiobook historical finds that I only post there and additional educational videos. Find it at patreon.com/whiskey lore and help to support whiskey research at the same time. I'm yours, drew Hamish, thanks for listening and until next time, cheers and SL JVA Whiskey, lores of Production of Travel Fuel's Life, L L C.


Listen To More Interviews