WOODFORD RESERVE: TOUR & TASTING

A few people have asked me, “How did you get so into bourbon?”  To be truthful, I never really gave much thought to the distilled spirits. It all started one Valentine’s Day.  

Our oldest daughter attended college just outside of Lexington, KY. As my wife and I discussed what to do on a winter visit, I suggested “There are all these distilleries; everyone talks about; we should go check one out and see what it’s like.”  

Steeped in History

Woodford Reserve brand is a relative newcomer to the bourbon industry. While it’s produced at a location that has been a distilling site since 1812, the brand is owned by global spirits giant Brown-Forman and is recognized as a premium small batch Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.

The facility in Versailles, Kentucky – just 15 miles from Lexington – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has received the National Historic Landmark designation. Woodford Reserve sits on the original site of the Oscar Pepper Distillery, and later the Labrot and Graham Distillery in the late 1870s. The smokestacks on the boilers still carry the L&G labels, as did the bottles and barrels of Woodford for several years.

Brown-Forman came into possession of the property in 1941, sold it in the 1960’s as whiskeys began to fall out of favor, and reclaimed the property in 1993. Three years later, the Woodford Reserve brand was introduced and has received numerous accolades since.

Many Visits – Same Results

We’ve had the opportunity to tour Woodford several times and each time it remains one of our favorite spots to visit. The historic facilities are gorgeous, starting with the 100-year-old cypress fermentation tanks, to its iconic copper stills used in an expensive twice-distilled process, to the heavenly scents emanating from the stone rickhouses. It is truly a fun and beautiful spot to tour.  

Now, to be honest, while I still envision the bourbon in my Woodford bottles to come from the several brick rickhouses on the tour, it’s probably aged in the modern rickhouses on the hillside tucked out of sight of the main tour area. Beginning in 2015, three new rickhouses allowed onsite storage to increase from 8,000 barrels to 165,000 barrels – a testament to the strong growth of the brand and the bourbon industry.   

What you’ll see   

The tour leaves the modern visitor’s center and gift shop. If time allows, be sure to grab lunch or a dessert item from the onsite Glenn’s Creek Cafe. It features Chef-in-Residence Ouita Michel. Ouita is a local celebrity and operates a number of restaurants, including nearby Wallace Station which was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”.  

On our first visit, we arrived on a Saturday afternoon just after lunch and were able to catch the 1 PM tour. It was a busy Valentine’s Day – apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the idea of touring the distillery that day. You’ll want to dress comfortably in clothing and footwear suitable for walking around a working distillery – complete with stairs, hot liquids, barrels, and bottles.

The 50-minute tour and tasting began by boarding a comfortable bus for a short drive to the bottom of the hill to visit the mash house. We learned the 5 sources of flavor for bourbon: water, grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. A short flight of stairs took us to an area overlooking the fermentation tanks to gather in the sweet smell of cooked grains.  Our tour guide even allowed us to indulge in a quick sample of the warm mash.

Around the corner a trifecta of two-story copper stills provided a quick photo op. That was followed by a glimpse at the barreling operation, and a rail system used to move the 500-pound barrels around the plant.

Copper stills at Woodford Reserve

Just steps away was one of several stone rickhouses with bourbon stacked to the ceiling. Close your eyes. Open your mouth. Breathe slowly. Enjoy. The scents of brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, and oak are in abundance, compliments of Master Distiller, Chris Morris. Woodford is unique in that they heat the rickhouses during the winter, continuing the shrinkage and expansion of barrel and bourbon allowing the bourbon and barrel to marry.

All too soon, we boarded the bus again for the trip back to the visitors center.  There, we were greeted with a welcomingly warm room length-fireplace as we entered our private tasting room.  A large U-shaped table was set with pours Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, as well as a complimentary bourbon ball from Ruth Hunt Candies. Our hostess stood next to a Woodford Reserve barrel, topped off with our pairing and chocolates, as she shared how to sip and explore this delicious marriage of oak, grains, and water.

Distiller’s Select, Double Oaked & a bourbon ball

The Tasting

Woodford is one of my favorites and is always present in the cabinet. Woodford Reserve Select and Double Oaked share a common mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% barley. Both are placed in a #4 charred white oak barrel and allowed to age. The WR Select matures in the 6-8 year range. The Double Oaked takes the same product and duration as the Select, but then spends several more months in a second, deeply toasted and lightly charred white oak barrel. When mature, both are bottled at 90.4 proof.  Each bottle of WR Select still carries the batch and bottle number from the final batching.

Color

Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked each share a common medium copper color, with Double Oaked having just a slightly deeper palate from the extra aging in a second barrel. Gently swirled in a glass, you’ll observe long, thin legs of this rich spirit.

Nose

Both products immediately take me back to the rickhouse in Versailles, KY. While both share a common and traditional bourbon profile, with loads of caramel, vanilla, and hint of light wood, the Double Oaked ratchets it up with a heaping extra scoop of vanilla and a butterscotch richness.

Palate

Select starts off with slight hints of vanilla, caramel and light fruits. As it glides down, you’ll feel the spiciness of the rye, but not in an overpowering manner. The Doubled Oaked carries forward those strong caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch notes, and includes a slight whiff of campfire smoke.

Finish

The Distillers Select carries a long, slightly spicy and leathery finish. The Double Oaked carries a similar long finish as the Select, but with toned down spicy notes.

And the candy? To die for! Made with a Woodford Reserve creamy filling, you’ll find these along with some of Ruth Hunt’s other candies, such as Blue Mondays, in my fridge at all times for a perfect bourbon-chocolate dessert.

At around $35 a bottle for the Distiller’s Select and $50 for the Double Oaked, you’ll find a bourbon that’s easy to pair with food and friends, and makes a great gift. Find out more at www.woodfordreserve.com.

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