Ep. 39 - Woodford Reserve's Master Distiller Chris Morris
BOURBON HISTORY // Join me as we celebrate 25 years of Woodford Reserve and talk history
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Today I have the honor of talking whisky and history with a first rate bourbon master distiller, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the brand he helped get to market Woodford Reserve.
Chris Morris has a long history working with Brown-Forman going all the way back to 1976 and he is a lover of history, so we've got a ton to talk about in this episode, from the historic grounds where Woodford Reserve now resides, the development of the Woodford Reserve brand and whiskey, and I'll even get a chance to taste a rare bottle from the Distillers series called Chocolate Malt Whisper.
This is an interview I've long wanted to do, not only because of Chris' deep knowledge of the distillery's history, but also because Woodford was really on the forefront of this revival of American bourbon.
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Here is some of what we will discuss:
- The Elijah Pepper Story
- The original distillery and log cabin
- Oscar Pepper
- Dr. James Crow the man of mystery
- The missing Old Crow recipe
- James E. Pepper and Colonel E.H. Taylor
- Labrot and Graham and commercial distilleries
- The distillery during and after Prohibition
- Was there a column still at the distillery?
- Chris Morris and The Lab
- The day they sold the distillery and grounds
- Lincoln Henderson and the creation of Woodford Reserve
- Triple distilled and pot distilled bourbon
- Innovation in bourbon
- The use of the third pot still
- Favorite distilleries when visiting Scotland
- Custom made barrels and cooperage
- Their unique single barrel product
- The bottle design and the Woodford Reserve image
- Highlighting other grains
- The Baccarat edition, Woodford, and the French connection
- Distillery Series: Chocolate Malted Whiskey (tasting sample provided by Woodford Reserve - opinions are my own)
- Cross Polination between Lincoln, Chris, and Elizabeth
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore: The Interviews." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
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Welcome to Whiskey Lore, the interviews. I'm your host, drew Hamish, the Amazon bestselling author of Whiskey Lord's Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon. And today I've got the honor of talking whiskey in history with a first rate master distiller who's celebrating his 25th anniversary with the brand that he helped to launch Woodford Reserve. And Chris Morris has got a long history of working with Brown Foreman that goes all the way back to 1976. He's a lover of history, and we have got a ton to talk about in this episode from the historic grounds where Woodford Reserve now resides to the development of Woodford Reserve as a brand and whiskey. And I'll even get a chance to taste a rare bottle from the distiller series called Chocolate Malt Whisper. This is an interview I have long wanted to do, not only because of Kris's deep knowledge of the Distiller's history, but also because Woodford was really on the forefront of this revival of American bourbon. So sit back, relax, and enjoy my discussion with Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve. Chris, thank you for joining us at Whiskey Lord today.
Well, thank you for having us, drew. It's good to be with you.
Yeah, this is great. This is your 25th anniversary of Woodford Reserve.
Yes. Hard to believe. October of 1996, this little brand got its official introduction to the world. And now look at it.
Let's jump right in and start talking a little bit about the history of that distillery. Now, originally, Elijah Pepper was the one who settled in that area before his son Oscar Pepper took it over. Do we know, was it in the exact same location that Elijah Pepper was distilling right in the same spot?
Well, we know a lot about Elijah Pepper and a lot's not known. He said he was, well, his grandson said he was born with Republican. That's been inferred that he was distilling in 1776 or 1780, and that's when he was born. He was born with the Republic, not distilling. So that just shows you how history becomes very convoluted.
Or else he was a very old man when he, he came to our site, which is not the case. He was a young man, so we know he was distilling in Versailles, our county seat in 1797. What about where the courthouse is now? That's established fact. He left with his partner who was a brother-in-law and sort of disappears for a while, shows up in 1810 and nearby Scott County. And then by 1812 he's on our site. And that's tracked through tax records, always tax records,
Yeah. Yeah, very loud.
And he was distilling in that year. Now they'd built a log cabin, which we still have on site. And the distillery was a typical farmer distiller type of operation. It was a small log cabin on a stone foundation, really a stride, what we call the pepper spring atop of spring next to Glen's Creek. We have the spring house from 1812, its ruins. So we have a lot of that architecture with the stone foundations of the original distillery, which on our 200th anniversary of distilling on site, not brown foreman, but certainly the history of the site. In 2012, we partnered with the University of Kentucky School of Archeology, Dr. Kim McBride, and they did an extensive excavation of the distillery site and around the pepper home and found all sorts of neat artifacts so we know exactly where the distillery was. And there's a letter existing that says the last beam or piece of wood standing from the old distillery was noted in 1901. So it lasted until then, but it was used as a storage house at that point. It was no longer a distillery.
Yeah. What were some of the artifacts that were found? Did you get a chance to see some of those?
Yes, we found interesting. We founded a positive coal, so they had gone from cord wood to coal. At some point in their heating process, we found some crushed because they've been buried under years of debris of metal bucket and some brass fittings from hydrometers and galls and things like that. So we found some very early metal remains from the distillery.
So what has happened to that cabin? Is that cabin something that you have a special tour that some or dignitaries can come by and see it or Correct. Will it ever make its way into your regular tour?
Well, currently it's up in our warehouse complex between the distillery and our new warehouse complex on what we call track two. So it's inaccessible to the public. But yes, we'll take VIPs up there to show them around and everything. And we've done some restoration work on it, some preservation work on it because the log cabin expert, we had verify and analyze, it was so excited. It looks like when the peppers moved house, they moved house. The log cabin had been erected years earlier, somewhere dismantled and moved and built word sil sits today. So it's wow, a very early log cabin two story, and it's made out of American chestnut, which of course is extinct now.
Yeah. Wow. Yeah, that'd be a sight to see. So then we transitioned to Oscar Pepper, his son. So yes, when he died, Oscar inherited the site. Is that when he initially started the new distillery right away after his father died?
No, that's a good question. Elijah died in 1831. So Oscar, in his obituary Oscar is Farmer Dash distiller, so he still considered himself a farmer. And distilling occurred usually at the end of the fall harvest when the corn and the other grains are coming in, moving into winter when you don't have a lot of farming activity going on, you have the livestock, but obviously you're not harvesting grain planting grains. So distilling occurred in a brief period of time during the year, and then by spring you're back into the farming mode. So it wasn't a full-time occupation.
And so from 1831 till about 1837, Oscar is running that distillery. And of course by then, Dr. James Christopher Crow has showed up, the man of mystery has shown up and is working for Pepper. And he's unemployed for about a year or so because apparently they're building our current distillery between 18 37, 18 38. And now we see that transition from part-time distiller to, hey, this is a business now. Because of course, that is the general time of the transition from farmer distiller to commercial distilling in Kentucky. So now he's a distiller and with Crow as his master distiller and the distillery, the original distillery, the 1838 distillery is in the middle of the distillery because it had a series of expansions on it in the 1870s, eighties, and then in the early 19 hundreds, and you can really watch or see those expansions where doors and windows were blocked up or new doors and windows were cut into the limestone walls, the erection of a brick chimney, and then it's demolition. So it was a living building as changed over the years.
Yeah. So what is housed in the area where the original distillery was?
That is where the pot stills are today.
Okay. That's my favorite room. We'll talk about those pot stills in a little bit because very picturesque and very much a reflection of the old country. So get the chance to talk about that. But I love that you called James Searo, the man of mystery, because I actually did an episode around him and trying to research him is absolutely one of the most difficult things I've had to do because there doesn't seem to be any books on him.
There is a local author writing a somewhat fictional book on his life and
He and others have been doing a lot of research, obviously talking to us, and we just haven't been much help. We have very little on Crow, even though he spent most of his work and career between those four stone walls on our property. There's just not a whole lot about him in existence.
I think what I find fascinating is I was doing the research, is that he left Scotland in 1822, and it was 1823 when the Excise Act went through opening up the distilling to the Highlands and really one of the main catalysts for the scotch whiskey industry. Yes. If he had stayed one year longer in Scotland, would he have ever come over here?
Yes. It's a
Really interesting question.
Or maybe he was leaving for a reason.
And what would bourbon be like today if he had not come in at that time?
Yeah, very, very true. We'll never know. But as we do know, bourbon was an evolutionary story and he was part of its evolution. But the things he perfected and noted, importantly wrote them down and trained others he didn't invent. He never claimed to have given us new oak barrels or the mash process. He just helped move them along. Maybe someone else would've brought those into the standards or the requirements. Who knows who would've brought the thermometer and the hydrometer into the distillery to help gauge proof. Surely somebody would've, but he was certainly the right guy at the right time apparently.
And to think how much history we would wipe away if there wasn't an old crow hell. So then it went through an interesting transition because we don't know whether he left. There's read some things that say he did leave and he went over to a little farm distillery that was near where the old Crow ruins are now, some say he stayed there, some say he held onto the or he passed the recipe on to his assistant. Some say that he never wrote down his recipe, and that recipe's gone forever. Do you have any clarification on any of that stuff?
Well, certainly one thing to remember, a recipe is just maybe instructions, but certainly it's just numbers on a piece of paper. You have to have the exact same facility, the exact same everything to make that recipe the same. And we know that never happens. But also he's gone. And James e Pepper still has and sells off the old Crow trademark as he's divesting of his property. So I don't know what Crow is doing because Old Crow is still being made at the old Oscar Pepper distillery.
Yeah, it's very interesting. And then we tie into James e Pepper and a little time with Taylor was, Taylor was with Gaines and Company, so he may have even spent a little bit of time within those walls.
Who really knows The famous Colonel Taylor had his fingers in 14 or so distilleries. He was an investor. He wasn't a, he's called a distiller. He was the owner, but I doubt he was ever getting his hands dirty. He seems like quite the refined gentleman, quite the wealthy individual. And he was mainly a money man in supporting James E Pepper. As typical little distilleries got into financial trouble, apparently James e Pepper played the horses. He became quite a horseman and needed money and also had his legal problems with his mother and his family. The family had a falling out and say a divorce who got the distillery because James C Pepper did not originally inherit the distillery, his mother and another brother did, and he sued and won the distillery from them. So I'm sure that went over well at Thanksgiving dinner. But James e Pepper probably worked in the distillery as a young man, but that didn't seem to be his early avocation, and that's why he left. He sold out and got out and went on.
Well, then we go to Labro and Graham. That's the next step in the story. So this would've been what, 1880?
Is the year of Labro and Graham acquiring the property. And again, they're a little bit of a mystery. We now know more about them. It was James Graham and Leopold Labro, the French of French origin, and he was from Cincinnati. His father had immigrated, and his father was a wine merchant and apparently also sold spirits imported and sold domestic spirits. And so Leopold was in the business. And at that time, again, we see that transition. You have our parent company, of course, brown Foreman being founded in 1870, Taylor Williams, 1874, old Fitzgerald 18. All these companies are being formed at this time. So now we see the rise of commercial houses. So when you go from a distillery making whiskey and selling it to now companies owning the distillery and now starting to control their whiskey and bottling and selling it as a brand. And so LeBron Graham is formed to do that. And James Graham was called a Frankfurt banker, but he is from Louisville. And he had made his money, typical of the day, banking and tobacco, very involved in the tobacco business. And it's interesting that his wife was a cousin of the Brown family. So, oh,
A connection by marriage that we never knew for many, many years. Emily Graham was a member of the Brown family. So LeBron and Graham get together, and James Graham sells out his share in 1898. And the Lareau family now controls Labro and Graham. And Mr. Lareau seems he only had female children. So all of his heirs don't have the last name of Lareau. They have Bixler and Baker as last names, and they stay on with the company giving us great brand names like Old Tom Baker and old Tom Bixler. The two brother-in-laws have their own brand names.
Nice. Have you seen bottles of those?
Have you nice. Any of those lingering around the distillery?
Oh, we have seen a few locked up in our archives. They're all
No whiskey. So what happened to the distillery during prohibition? Was it just a storage facility basically, or?
Yes. Yes. You think about Prohibition, which begins basically and starts in 1916, full enforced in 1918 in terms of production, the distilleries were all closed at that point. Now you can buy a trade, sell, drink whiskey legally until 20, but the operations work are tailed. And you have 210 distilleries in Kentucky. Boom, lots of barrels of whiskey sitting in warehouses. So the warehousing operations continue on. Of course, bottling continues on until 1920. And then you have vast amounts of capital tied up, fortunes tied up in these warehouses and warehouse complex, like LeBron Graham would've had one legal avenue to get their money back, and that's to sell their stock to one of the six Kentucky distilleries that had medicinal licenses. So yes, it was a concentration or a storage facility and would ship its barrels into Frankfurt where there was bottling or Louisville. But Frankfurt, the neighbor. So you had the two bottling centers, Louisville and Frankfurt. And so the bro family was able to sell their whiskey. Eventually it was exhausted. And then in 1933 with repeal, the family decides to fire things back up and spend a lot of money building new warehouses or brick warehouses and that are in the west side of the property, restoring the distillery. And they're open in 1935.
And they held onto it for how long before the Brown family came in
Six years. So Brown Foreman Wow. Acquires the distillery and its inventory in 1941. And again, things are, you're just starting to recover and here comes the war, or the war hadn't been declared yet, but it's coming. And wars were never good for distillers in Kentucky. And I guess they figured it's time to get out while they're getting out's. Good and sold to Brown Foreman, who certainly liked to have the distillery. But more importantly, LeBron Graham had now laid down a good amount of stock. And Brown Foreman needed that for its blended whiskeys, which we had at the time, not for Old Forester, not for early times or straight whiskeys, but certainly for our blends. And of course, brown Foreman acquires it. And by August of 42, it has to be converted into alcohol production for the war effort. So you have those next three years of not making any bourbon, but off you go again in late 1945. And the distillery was used and we had little brands then that we no longer have. So it was feeding the old Tuckers and the old pokes of the world. And Brown Foreman closed at 1959,
The first Okay. Closed.
Yeah, it's been closed many times, but to close in 59.
So I think of industrial alcohol as coming out of column stills. There's never been a column still on site at that distillery has there. It doesn't seem there's
Room for it. Yes, that's That's a good point, drew. When LeBron Graham reopens after Prohibition, it had been a pot still distillery. That's two story stone brick building. Le bro family raised the roof, add the grainery, add the silo for a column still, so they invest in a column still, because that's the way the industry returns, make large volume of whiskey efficiently. And so the entire industry had abandoned the pot stills. Now we're columns still. And of course, ironically, when Brown Foreman closes in 1959, it removes that column still, and it's still in use today at the Brown Form Distillery in Shively. Oh, wow. Where we have two column stills and that all that part of the building was left empty, allowing us jumping ahead to the story to bring Potstills back. But all that super structure remains because the building is a historic landmark and you just don't lock the roof from the top off historic landmark. So it's still there, and most of that space is empty because there's no column still.
That's interesting. And we'll get into mash bills in your process in a little bit, but that kind of speaks to the idea that some of your whiskey comes from Shively, and so are they bringing that whiskey in off of that column still?
Yes, yes. We never had the fact that with Reserve is a batching of our pot still and our wood reserve specific column still distillate to make the flavor profile that we think is the finest bourbon there is. So yes, that there's that net historic touchstone going
On there. Yeah. So when you joined the company, when were you first with Brown Foreman?
I started in 1976 in what is now called the r and d department. But back then it was called the Lab. You worked in the lab. And in the lab conveniently was located next to the second old Forester Distillery on Brown Foreman campus. So I also had some duties in the Old Forester Distillery. And then a year or two, I had a lot of responsibilities out in the Brown Floor distillery, which at that time was called the Early Times Distillery.
And was the building that you're using now for Woodford Reserve, was that being used at all at that point?
No. So distillery closed in 59. Warehousing continues on the grounds, were over 500 acres stretched down to the Kentucky River, and a lot of it was farm. And w l nines Brown senior who had been chairman, he's the grandson of the founder and was retired. And they came back because his younger brother who was head of the company, unfortunately, died at an early age. Mr. Brown raised cattle on the farm, and as long as Mr. Brown had cattle, we retained the property. So eventually barrels were gone, distilleries closed, and then Mr. Brown passed away. And when that occurred, the family and the company said, okay, we're closed the farm. And we sold the property to a neighboring farmer. Cause he wanted the acreage of course. And that saved the distillery, that little seven acre strip along Glen's Creek where the distillery operations are located. He just left it alone. He can't farm with all those buildings. And it was, of course a little tight hollered. So that saved the building, saved the buildings. And then we came back in the early nineties and bought it back from the same farmer's family. Not all the acreage, we had to buy different parcels, but we bought the core site, which we call track one in that period. And a few years later, we brought track two where the pepper house is, and then we brought more. So we bought all we could.
Nice. So you were working with Lincoln Henderson at the lab at that time When the purchase went up,
He was my first boss. And who, this old guy, of course, he was like 36, but he was a lot of fun and we grew quite close. He was a character.
So how did the transition into creating Woodford Reserve out of that old distillery? How did that process go?
Well, it was a lot going on, obviously with decisions being made, such as bringing copper pot stills back to Kentucky, I won't say back to America, because there were brandy producers who had pot stills on the west coast, for example, and making some whiskey out there, some malt whiskeys. But bringing pot stills back to Kentucky, introducing triple pot stills to America, period. Never had triple distilled whiskey distillery in the history of our nation. And we were had, at that time, brown Foreman represented some wonderful single malt whiskeys, Irish whiskey, armac, cognac. We had a lot of pot, still connections, networking. None of those products we owned. We were the US distributor, but we had good relationships. And that helped with the decision on pot, still distillation. But to be honest, no one had made Kentucky bourbon in a pot still since 1960. No one had made Kentucky bourbon and triple distillation ever. So there was a lot of assumptions, and this should work and that should work. And they didn't work. So there was that break in period as the distillery was, the whiskey was good, but it wasn't what it was intended to be. And it took quite a while to figure out how to run everything. And once that occurred, that was terrific. So it was a lot of sort of the wild West, I guess.
Yeah. So where do you learn the skills of doing triple pot distilling when there's nobody else in the country that's doing it?
Yeah, well, you spend time in Scotland, but still it's such a different, such the proverbial apples and oranges. Scotch whiskey is a hundred percent, well, single malts, a hundred percent malt. The grain residue, the grist, the husks, the are filtered away from was basically sugar water, the wart, and off you go. And we're putting grain solids, all the grain, all the, in the distillation process, the traditional Kentucky style. So again, just learning
And working with corn rather than malt. Yeah, so
Much oilier, oh gosh, the analysis bourbon whiskey on a pot still is much more lipid full, more oily. More viscous, heavier than a malt. So again, there were significant differences in everything, and that just took some learning.
So what were some of the crazy experiments when you started out? Were you trying to always stick with straight bourbon and have that 51% corn, or were you trying different things?
No, the early concept was just bourbon, bourbon, bourbon. And after a few years, ley Brown ii, our beloved late chairman, one of the sons of W Lines, brown Sr. I was looking again at his comments on the opening day, and we're playing a film of his comments right now in the distillery gift shop, which is really wonderful. And not that he meant, I don't know what he meant because I never asked him because he's passed away that Woodford Reserve, well, LeBron Graham was called initially would be the home of innovative whiskeys. How many whiskeys didn't say innovative bourbon. He said whiskeys. And then it dawned on me one of those eureka moments, because this is about the time when we start getting some nice coverage of the industry. As you know with your research, there were no books, there were no magazines. No one wrote about whiskey until Michael Jackson's encyclopedia, and then Way Mac and Harris and Marty and Gary Riggin.
And all of a sudden, and the people start writing in the early nineties about our industry. It's been from the sixties, a 30 year gap in anybody doing anything about our industry. And writers are saying Bourbon can't innovate. Scotch is innovation, bourbon can't innovate. Why was scotch innovation? Well, they can blend and they can reuse barrels and they can use port barrels. And that's innovation. What it was it, because they've been doing it for 200 years and Bourbon can't. Bourbon is handcuffed by new Charo barreling on. And I said, wait a minute, who says we can't innovate? Who says, because our distillery is in Kentucky, that it can only make bourbon? We can make whatever we want. You think about it, by definition, a scotch distillery makes scotch, a Kentucky distillery can make whatever it wants to. Now your bourbon distillery, maybe that's all you can make.
So that led to let's make other types of whiskey, the rye, the malt, the wheat, the various unique recipes in our master's collection and distillery series. So it was a real freeing moment, a real redefining moment. And having the potstills were very much a part of that with our small fermenters and the potstills, since they're batch, the batch, as you know, if you turn up a column still we're talking to column stills that were in the industry at the time. Not these new little micro distillery column stills, but the traditional big column stills. You have to have a lot of liquid going through though as you're making a lot of spirit. And it takes lots of grain, lots of everything, those pot stills, we can make a very small, a unique little recipe, run it through the Potstills and have a nice unique product without spending days, months, weeks, years, getting that through the process. So that gave us flexibility as well to start making these unique whiskey types.
So when you start working with three stills and you're using that intermediate still, how did you determine how to get it through the process without taking out too much of the personality of the whiskey?
Well, that takes the gauging, and we have just done this again. We did it a few years ago. So we have gone through the process of, we have our spirit safes with the low wine, which is the beer stills, distillate, the high wine still, which is the middle still, which distills the low wine and the high wine. And then we have the spirit still that takes the high wine and does our final distillation, the third distillation. And so you have your spirit stills, you have your heads and tails, cuts, and we're taking samples of that spirit flow every 10 minutes, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, in 200 or 375 mill samples all logged in grease pencil. And those time proof temperature on that written on the bottle. And those go to r and d for analysis to see if the cuts are right, if everything's going right, if the temperature range is right. So we always recalibrate the stills to make sure the flavor is what we want. And as a result, we've been making the spirit better and better and better as we go through this long process of perfecting how to run these stills. And so that's been a fun process. And now with three new stills and other set coming in, we've got all this learning and we'll have to start all over again and do it for the new set.
So they'll be in a different area of the distill.
They will mirror the original three. So when you really walk into the still floor beginning in January of this year, you'll see two arches of potstills.
You get to be like Glen Finnick with their, I don't know if you've seen their setup, but they have this room you walk into and all you see are these pot stills, yes. Lined up. Yeah,
We were over there back in 2019, visited and saw all that.
Did you have any favorite distilleries you went to while you were over there?
Oh, they're also wonderful favorites. Obviously the distilleries on Iowa are wonderful. Our own distilleries and Glen Glass one's on the sea, one's in the middle of the high point of the space side are just beautiful. We saw the ultra-modern Macallan, the new Macallan with
The, that thing's crazy,
The turf roof and everything on it. Just amazing. Just such a relationship of architecture and the history.
Yeah. So one of the things that is interesting about your distillery, when I did the tour, I didn't get to see the Cooperage, but you do have an onsite cooperage?
No, that seems to be translated that way. We have our own cooperage, but it is in Louisville. It is the brown foreman Cooperage. Okay. It is not on site.
So we have a custom made wood reserve barrel. We have a barrel made for each of our distilleries and products. So that's a wonderful reason to have your own distillery. You can have secrets because they're within your own four walls. So we use on an everyday basis the Woodford Reserve Barrel and the double Oaked barrel. Those are two completely different barrels that are made to our unique specifications. And then you get into special barrels for, say, a master's collection or distillery series that again, have variations on how the wood is dried, maybe point of origin. It's all from one rah, a species of oak. We use different species of oak in general American white oak. Corba is our core. But again, we get into other species how we toast if we toast the interior of the barrel, like a cognac cast, and then our char level, how long we char the barrel. So we have a lot of different flavor levels that we pull. And what I like to do, and our cient, mass distiller, Elizabeth, Elizabeth McCall, we want to be at the Cooperage quite often, especially when they're making our special barrels. We want to be there with them to see how it's going to talk, answer questions, talk, debate, make an onsite decision like, oh, well, let's make this change. And also, they're part of our team, so we like to be with them as well. And everybody is all pumped up for something exciting from Winford Deserve.
Yeah. How do they fire those barrels? They using the gas? Yes. Flames through there. Okay. Yes.
We use natural gas for the charring process.
And then on something like double oak, do you use two different types of char for one barrel to the next?
Well, again, when you have a product like double oaked or Woodford bourbon rhyme, mal and wheated, an everyday product, you have to have a standard. So every double oak barrel has the same char. Every one of our distiller select barrels has the same char level and it, that's by time the length of time. But because every barrel's unique, the wood, different trees, different terras, which are co-mingled for our core products, if you burn one barrel, well, whoops, 25 second char, the next barrel has a 25 second char. But the result is different because this wood was denser. This wood was more porous, combination of dense and every barrel is unique. And that's why single barrels have so much of their own personality is that wood source that reacts differently with heat.
Yeah. How do you go about choosing your single barrel product? Is it you walking through the finding some barrels you're really interested in and then saying, yes, let's set this one aside, kind of a situation.
Now, our single barrel program, and that's what everybody seems to call it in the marketplace, is quite unique. It is our personal selection program. We will taste several barrels with the customer, and then we will combine those barrels in twos, two barrel batches. And that allows the customer to create their own flavor profile. A single barrel tastes like it does. Yeah, you can't change that. But when you combine two barrels, now you're creating your own flavor profile. So it is the smallest batch possible. It's a two barrel combination. Now the barrels that go into that program come right out of our standard batch selection. We're not going, Ooh, those are really good. Those are really special.
Have a batch that's ready. A batch will be, depending on how the flavor profile runs, 120 to 140 barrels. They've been pull pulled, they've been identified, they're on the dump floor, they're lined up on the concrete apron. And we got a personal selection. Just take those, pull those off. Those are going to go into the batching program with our consumer. The barrels, they don't choose. They go back in that batch, and then we adjust from there. So we like to be very even and not hold any, this is, we think they're all special. Of
Course. Yeah. So one of the things that I love about Woodford Reserve is that there's a big scotch fan. So I love the fruity character, and there seems to be this little fruity character in a lot of the whiskeys that you produced. Does that come from how you're fermenting? Is it coming from the triple pot stills? Is it coming from use of malt? What would you say?
A lot of everything, yes. Our yeast strain is a live culture proprietary yeast strain developed by brown foreman for wood reserve, but she only used for the wood reserve family. It's used in all of our products and our yeast makes a lot of Esthers during its fermentation. And the fact that we ferment for 5, 6, 7 days, depending on the time of year twice, as long as your typical fermentation also creates a great degree of Esthers. The fact that we dry our wood, a minimum of nine months out of doors in the open at the cooperage before it's moved into the manufacturing process, also helps develop some Esther as microorganisms are starting to be the decompose. Sounds scary, but they're starting to propose the wood and they're making fruit notes in the wood. And obviously those copper pot stills legendary for, as you note, single malt scotch or Irish whiskey as well, are going to help shape and bring those fruit notes, because fruit notes are usually very delicate, and you sort of sacrifice those with a column still. You have to, if you're going to be efficient and economical and large volume production, you have to have a little bit of a sacrifice. Pot stills are inefficient, expensive to run, so what's the benefit? You can really get some really delicate flavors out of them. So that's the trade off between the two. And we get to bring a lot of those Esthers forward, and then they're enhanced once they hit the barrel. And in the maturation process.
And what was really the goal with Woodford Reserve it, it's in a very unique bottle bottles now you're seeing all these new distilleries coming in and bottles are becoming works of art. But in those days, in the late nineties, there wasn't a bourbon boom going on. And when you looked on the shelf, you didn't see a lot of fancy bottles. You saw basically, here's your standard bottle with a little work on the label. So where were you trying to position Woodford Reserve in and in coming out with that bottle shape and the rest?
Yes, the bottle was a deliberate, obviously it was chosen was a deliberate concept. As you note bourbon. Not only was it not a bourbon boom, there was bourbon decline. Bourbon was in bad shape. And what was hot at the time, single malt scotch was really starting to come to its own. Of course, cognac was very strong, and that's not only within the United States, but globally. And the thought was, let's be another whiskey in a square bottle, the black and white label that everybody seemed to be going to. Yeah, let's look different. Let's break out of the mold of the typical bourbon, which had a bad reputation in many parts of the country, much less the world as a harsh cowboy western type of whiskey. And if we were going to go anywhere, we had to compete with malts and cognac, especially on a global basis.
So the bottle reflected that concept of breaking the image, raising the image, looking stylish, being a bit androgynous. Is that malt whiskey? Is that a cognac? What is that? Whiskey? And then, oh, it's a bourbon. Wow. So we knew people, our former CEO of Paul Vaga, Paul always said, people drink with their eyes pretty package. Ooh, I'm going to buy that. So yeah, that's step one, attract the consumer. But then the second part of the equation is, of course, if it doesn't taste good, no matter how pretty the bottle is, they're not black. So the whiskey concept was to be a great bourbon, but I began to refine that concept over time. And about 2004 had subtly changed the flavor profile to where it is today. It had been very, very heavy early on, and it sort of lightened it it up. So you could pick up the fruit notes, you could pick up the delicate spice notes. It don't have to be hit over the head with a box of chocolates anymore. Let's get the subtleties and the nuances and the balance of those flavors coming forward. And that, boy, that's when Woodford really started to take off.
When I was there in 2018, I got there a week before you released the Kentucky Straight Malt. And again, being a Scotch fan, I'm going, I heard about it while I was on the tour. I guess somebody got a little insider information and said, oh, that's coming out next week. And I'm like, why am I here this week? Because I really want to try that. But I love that because it showed stretching outside the box and trying to do other things with a bourbon recipe or to alter and still make a corn whiskey, but to highlight another grain. So how did you come to this idea of starting to do malt whiskey, wheat whiskey, and so on?
Yeah, once we had redefined the wood reserve concept to be a balance of the five areas of American whiskey flavor. So you could find sweet aromatics, which had dominated up to that point, sweet aromatics fruit, floral spice, wood and grain character. And you can find all these wonderful flavors in wood reserve. Then that leads to, well, why don't we highlight those areas of flavor by changing grain recipe, which we were doing starting to do in the master's collection, but on an everyday basis, obviously, and what the barrel brings. So double oak was born to give us that tool and the four grain recipes now allow us to, how do you make a fruity, real fruity expression of Woodford make it a wheat whiskey? How do you make a real spicy version of wood reserve, make it a rye whiskey? How do you make it a real grain forward, but not corn?
Don't want to do that. Rise already rye forward spice. Yeah. So how do you make a grain forward? Go crazy on the malt? So now we start to highlight areas of flavor. So everything we're doing is based on the concept of flavor presentation. How do you present flavor to the palette in a very rational, controlled way? And I think we've done a really good job of it. And again, everything though is in the Woodford style. Our water doesn't change the distillation, the fermentation with our unique strand of yeast, the wood reserve barrel. So all we're changing is the grain recipe across the distiller select range, and then of course, double oakes and the barrel finished select range. So that means the barrel is the story there.
And all of these triple distilled, or at least a portion of them, yes, yes,
Yes. Every one of our great products is a combination of column and pots still in a ratio that makes the flavor come to life.
Has anybody ever done a rye triple distill that you know of
When No, that, that's one of the fun things about our master's collection, drew. Each one is history. And no one seems to recognize that when we released a hundred percent rye whiskey in the Master's collection in the 2375 Potstill bottles many, many years ago, that was number one, the first 100% rye whiskey made in the history of Kentucky. Number two, the first triple distilled rye whiskey in the history of the world. And yawn, no one pays attention.
Neither publicist. Yeah. Well,
The whiskey world was at a bit of a different place then the consumer still, I think were scratching their head that a distiller in Kentucky is making ri, even though some distillers were making raw whiskeys, but this wolf reserve is making rye whiskeys and malt whiskey. What's going on. They should be making bourbon and they were just not focusing. And to be fair, we didn't do a good job telling our story because no one seemed to care. We didn't have these wonderful whiskey efficient autos that we have today. No one really cared.
So when I was looking at your website, I saw I'm a big James Bond fan, so I saw the BK edition, I learned how to play BK because I'm a James Bond fan. And so what was the inspiration for that? And talk about that whiskey? Well,
As the history buff as yourself, I've long been fascinated by Kentucky history and the fact that Kentucky was the western district of Virginia. We were part of the Virginia Colony, and then the Commonwealth of Virginia after the revolution. So Kentucky as it was being administered after the revolution, after 1783 begins to form counties in this Kentucky district and the first three counties, or Jefferson, Fayette County in Lincoln County, not Abraham Lincoln because he's not born yet. General, general Benjamin Lincoln, it was named after. And Fayette is named after the Marquita Lafayette, the young French nobleman major general served under George Washington and served alongside General William Woodford. They were comrades wounded together at the Battle of Brandy Wine, both served under General Washington general. Woodford did not survive the revolution. And so the next round of county formation gives us Bourbon County and also gives us Woodford County. Woodford County is cut off from Fayette County. So I think it's just wonderful that Woodford and Fayette serve together. And now their counties still today are side by side. And Woodford came from Fayette County, and our county seat is Versailles,
Our Versa conversation of Versai, which was the home of the Marquita Lafayette. So let's play up this connection bourbon, the House of Verone, Virginia. Sam, thanks King Louis for supporting us. So you have the French connection, Fayette, and you have the Kentucky connection, Woodford and that history wanted to tie that history together. And how do we tie it? We take the finest of Kentucky spirits, Woodford Reserve, and the finest of French spirits, the king of French spirits, cognac, and let's marry the two in a finish. So we take fully mature Woodford Reserve and finish it for up to five years in exo cognac casks. Wow. And a beautiful, elegant product. Very expensive. And these cognac casts cost a fortune and five year finishing, we lose a lot of whiskey through the angel share process. And anyway, it was going to go in a handsome bottle, and we were looking at names like Wood Reserve, marquee Wood Reserve, Lafayette names like that.
And some things just happen funny. And an executive from BK was on a tour at Woodford Reserve, and we had one of the cognac casts on display, and our tour guide explains this story. And so upon his return, he tells the company, number one, wood reserve. He loved Wood reserve. He said, it's a prestigious brand, highly regarded, got the cognac cast. Here's the story. And they actually contacted us. Bacarra contacted us, said, would you be the first American whiskey to have a unique Bacarra presentation? And those of you who know some of the most elegant cognacs in single malt SCOs are presented in their bacarra presentations like Louis Tray, for example, from Remi Mar. We said, absolutely. How brilliant is that? So they're able to produce a couple thousand bottles a year because they're all hand blown handmade, the finest French crystal, and very expensive of course. But that's how we came up with, and they allowed us to use the name Bonk. So nice. The card. Sorry, Lafayette, your name's gone. It's bonk because right around the world when you say that name, if people notice, because they just recognize the quality of the crystal and the product in it. So if you want to sell in China and Russia to these millionaires who travel around the world, that was a big boost.
Yeah. Now I have a whiskey behind me that I have been watching back there for a while, and I guess it's time for it to reach my lips.
So this is the Chocolate Malt Whisper, and this is part of the distillery series?
The distillery series is sold only at the Distillery Gift Shop with the caveat that Kentucky State law requires a small amount to be sold at local retailer. So you might find it in Lexington, Louisville, maybe at a bar or in a package store, but most is reserved for the distillery because it's our thank you for those people who travel to Woodford County and pay us a visit so they have a chance to get something special if it's still available and it's all gone, of course, it is sold out so quickly, which seems to be typically the case. And yes, chocolate Malt Whisperer, it is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. But we use, as we do in the master's collection, what's different if it's a bourbon, what's different? ODed, ODed Grain, for example, that was bourbon that had oats as a component of the grain recipe. So the different was ODed grain chocolate malt whisper. We've got some of the remnants from the Chocolate Malted rye, which was a bourbon, but had chocolate malted rye in it as a carryover flavor profile.
That was a really nice, I got some interesting notes out of this, and my mind's been on banana lately. For some reason. I get that kind of ripe fruit out of it.
Well, that's a typical Woodford note. Yes.
Yes. And then I was getting cherry out of this also. And then with the vanillas and that little cocoa comes in on the finish. I love
That Toco. Yes, that's the result of the chocolate malted rise. So normally when we make a unique whiskey for a master's collection, we will make it at the end of the calendar year because we'll close last week of December and the first week of January, people take vacation and we clean everything out, and then you start up again. Well, production schedules have, and that was easy to do in the early days, but now we're making so much whiskey, the schedule might not be that set. So we made the chocolate malt to arrive not during that traditional period. And again, it was bourbon, 60% corn, and it had 15% rye, 15% malted rye, and 10% traditional malt. And that chocolate malted rye was malted rye that had been roasted to give it that chocolate character. And it was a brilliant whiskey. It was just absolutely crazy.
Well, we're not going to shut down next week, so we're going to continue with production. And because that was bourbon, we could start making our traditional wood reserve bourbon, because we're not going to lose a standard of identity by the two flowing into each other. And for that first day of distillation, those little remnants of the distillate from the chocolate malted rye gave us this whisper of chocolate. Now, we were okay with that, knowing that's going to happen because what those barrels with reserve has a note of chocolate and cocoa in it anyway, as part of our standard flavor profile, say, take one barrel and put it in the next batch of 120, 140. It's just going to be part of the batching process. But by isolating those barrels together, it was very pronounced. And Elizabeth caught it as she was checking the new spirit and said, this doesn't smell right. It smells great, but it doesn't smell. I'm like, oh, wow. Well, this is what's happened. Let's put it on reserve. Let's keep it, let's put it into the general body of inventory and so isolated. And we check it periodically over the years. It's nine years, and wow, this is really good. So
One of those happy accidents.
You got to love that. Yeah, I was going to say, have you had any other of your distillery series that you went, oh, this is just so good. We need to put it in the main collection of whiskeys.
There's been a few gems, and you might see some other things in the future, but we try to be both creative and flexible at the same time. Yeah.
So what did Elizabeth bring when she came in and started working as the assistant master distiller? What was your, I mean, because it feels like you probably learned some from, you learned from Lincoln Henderson certain things, and then you get to pass on, but you also get to learn maybe some new concepts to try
When one of my jobs working for Lincoln in the seventies was in the sensory lab. And as a young person, I set up all the taste panels for the sensory team, and you're there with them and like, Ooh, this barrel has this or this, and that's that. That's that. So you're learning by just participating and listening and having fun discussions. So Elizabeth was or is a sensory science, so she, she's in r and d as well, and that she's doing the same job. I was doing well, 30 something years ago. And so I felt that kinship, that was her entry, and then seeing as a good talent, a good taster to start getting. And she was literally traveling around the world to all the brown floor production facilities from Finland to France to Mexico, et cetera, teaching those teams how to nose and taste their spirits and analyze and grade.
So she was very, very well versed and professional, but now she needs to get into the distillery and start learning the mechanics, the techniques, the processes. And so we moved her into the Wood Reserve distillery and with a set of defined jobs that will help her learn. And she did so well at that promoted her assistant Master skiller, which of course gives her more responsibility. And off we go. So still a lot of learning to do. And as you point out, I learn as well because as a young person, she might be eating different, going to different restaurants and foods and reading different things and watching different shows and learning different things. Because what we do is really is obviously a reflection of our culture. We're not going to make a fruit for wheat whiskey if people hate fruit or what fruit do they prefer versus another. So all those kind of things come together and it makes for a fun, fun back and forth, back and forth. What's happening? How did we do this?
So what is the stamp you want to leave on the bourbon industry?
Oh, I've seen enough over the years to know that old distillers, they just fade away. I don't believe in a legacy. When you're gone, you're gone. So I just hope for the sake of the Brown Foreman family in all of its employees and retirees, that Wood Reserve continues to grow and benefit the company, which benefits the community and the communities we're in.
Well, I really appreciate you taking time today, and congratulations on the 25th anniversary, and you're glad you liked. Yeah, and this is fantastic. And so I know I can't go find a bottle, so I'm going to have to nurse my little bottle of that stuff as long as I can. But once again, thanks for all the great whiskey you provide to the world and for being a part of the show today.
Thank you. Do you really appreciate it?
And if you want to learn more about Woodford Reserve, head to woodford reserve.com. If you want to hear more of my story of Dr. James Sea Crow, then check out season two, episode one of the original Whiskey Lore podcast. Available on your favorite podcast app firstname.lastname@example.org. There you'll also find show notes, transcripts, hoodies, tasting kits, and links to whiskey, lores, social media, and so much more. That's whiskey lore.com. In my next interview, I'll be heading to Isla to talk about the world's pious whiskey. Make sure you're subscribed so you don't miss it. I'm your host, drew Hamish. Have a great week, and until next time, cheers and Slah Whiskey Lores of production of Travel Fuel's Life, L L C.