Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris was in Japan for a couple of days recently to mark the – long overdue! – launch of the brand in Japan. We sat down with him and started by asking him about the five sources of bourbon flavour that contribute to the profile of Woodford Reserve.
Most great whiskeys of the world have been around for generations. Woodford Reserve – we are very proud – is a very recent, a contemporary release of classic bourbon-style whiskey from Kentucky. Woodford Reserve never existed until we created it. We created it because the world was changing and the world was changing because of Jack Daniel’s. Jack Daniel’s had really opened up an international market for American whiskey. Of course, we know it’s Tennessee whiskey and Brown-Forman is our parent company. So Owsley Brown II, the chairman of the board of Brown-Forman, who led the development of Jack Daniel’s around the world, said: “now it’s time to have a bourbon follow Jack Daniel’s”. We’ve learned a lot from Jack Daniel’s, so we now know we need a bourbon that is going to have flavor properties beyond bourbon. There’s a world out there where people drink different spirits - wine, beer, cognac, and malt whiskies - and the secret to success is to have a flavor that people recognize in this whiskey, so we just can’t do it the old-fashioned way.
We are able to extract the water from our deep-well system, and that means we don’t have to filter it, so it’s still natural mineral, rich water, and those minerals are micronutrients so they are going to develop floral notes. We actually learned a lot of this from Glenmorangie, where they use limestone water, so we felt, “let’s maintain the water in its natural state.”
So, we mash the grain and water together and we are a sour mash bourbon – every bourbon uses a sour mash process, it just doesn’t say that on our label – and we have reduced the amount of sour – at great risk – to no more than 6%, (where your typical bourbon has a 33 to 40 % sour level). We need a lot of fermentable sugar in our mash so we determined that long fermentation was the way to go. This was a set of experiments we actually did at the Brown-Forman Distillery in 1979. Your typical fermentation period is two-and-a-half to three days, for Scotch, Irish, Canadian, bourbon and Tennessee whiskies. But we did a series of five, seven and nine day fermentations and discovered that long fermentations develop esters, i.e. fruit character. And again, if you are trying to attract consumers around the world who are drinking beer, wine and spirits like cognac and port, they love fruit character. So we have very low sour, for loads of sugar so that we have enough fermentable resources for yeast to go long, and this also required us to develop a new strain of yeast, our own proprietary yeast, that does that, so now we have a six-day fermentation.
We get spice and nutty, malty notes from the grain, floral character from the water, and fruit from the fermentation. How does this come to life? How do you not leave any of that behind? Pot stills! Got to go back to pot stills. Got to go to the Irish style, or the Auchentoshan style. So, we had stills designed for us, for our unique process, by Forsyths [in Scotland]. We are the only distillery to this day that triple distills whiskey in the United States. We triple distill, and the spirit is just incredible. It’s fruity, spicy, buttery, and nutty. It’s grain driven - not grainy, but grain-forward.
We own the Brown-Forman cooperage. We used to make wine barrels in California when we were in the wine business. We learned a lot from making wine barrels, and that of course is toasting. Toasting delivers those really neat, rich vanilla notes. So we created a new style of barrel, that is toasted like a wine barrel, and then charred like a bourbon barrel, to make the Woodford Reserve barrel different to all the other whiskey barrels. Because if you toast for a long period of time, you can set flavor deep in the wood. Now, when you char a barrel – the traditional charring - you will get “toast effect”, but it’s going to be very brief because if you burn that barrel for more than 60 seconds, it’s going to start burning up – it’s going to fall apart – so you’re only going to get so much toast. But if you toast by itself – heat in the middle of the barrel without igniting the barrel – if you want to toast for 40 minutes, you can toast for 40 minutes - that’s cool. You can really get these flavors deep in the wood. So we created the most heavily toasted, charred whiskey barrel in history. And then we decided to have a relatively low barrel entry proof, where your typical bourbon is 125 proof or 62.5% (there are some exceptions). But we went in low for two reasons. If we add a little bit of water to the spirit, then we have to fill more barrels, so we have increased our barrel usage by 14%, so that’s 14% more oak exposure per bottle than if it was preserved at 125 proof, bringing us more vanilla, caramel, chocolate, butterscotch, all these great sweet aromatic notes. And when we leave the barrel years later to bottle, we have to add less water to the spirit. So we get more flavor and dilute it less.
Whereas maintaining consistency is obviously very important to the standard expressions of Woodford Reserve, innovation is a huge part of what you do at the distillery. What’s the inspiration for the Master’s Collection?
I’m glad you ask that, because the Master’s Collection has been a lot of fun. And one: the Master’s Collection is not about me. We are honoring the masters of the past, their early innovations: coming up with the sour mash process, using new barrels etc. So this is our modern homage to masters of the past. You know, growing up in the industry, I always asked “why don’t we do it this way?” and the answers would be “because you can’t, this is the way we do it.” But who says? So finally, now that I’m in charge, I started thinking I’d like to kick the tires, be a myth buster. But I don’t want to go crazy. Crazy would be: let’s change the grain recipe, let’s change the yeast, let’s change the fermentation, let’s change the distillation… My approach is: let’s change one thing. Let’s change the grain recipe, but not change anything else, so we will know exactly what happened.
The history aspect has been a great inspiration for our new range of whiskies - the Master’s Collection and the Distilleries Series. Woodford Reserve is entirely based on flavor. To get those flavors we often look to the past. For example, making sweet mash. Why do we have to use sour mash? Well, that’s the way we do it. But, at some point in history, there was no sour mash; there was sweet mash. And I found a 1903 four-grain recipe in an old file cabinet in an old, abandoned distillery. I didn’t use the exact same grain ratio, but a four-rain recipe, that’s interesting. We’ve used different styles of corn, because in 1838, our distillery when it was the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, they used a certain style of corn that we don't use today. “Oh, let’s see what that corn does.” It still exists – but it’s not prevalent, it’s very expensive and you can’t make a lot of whiskey with it, because there’s not much of it. And I’ve done low barrel proof entry - much lower than our 110. I’ve entered as low as 86 proof (43%) because I found someone who was doing that in the past, and I thought, “let’s just see what that’s all about.”
First of all, we never bottle experiments. An experiment is an experiment. If it works out and it’s good enough to make, we’ll make it. So here’s an example of an experiment. Let’s get fully matured Woodford Reserve and let’s try it in some varietal wine barrels, which we did. Let’s get Chardonnay barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Merlot barrels, … - get all these different wine barrels from different vineyards – and the experimentation now is: let’s find what works the best. So with the Chardonnay barrels, we’re going to fill some barrels half and some full, some at 110 proof, some lower… so we have variations within that variation. And we start tasting and keep a diary to track our experiment all way until it runs into the wall and is undrinkable. Then you have a history of timeline of the flavor formation. So you run your experiments to the wall and when you can’t drink them, then they are sold to an alcohol reclamation company who completely strips them into alcohol and sells it to a different customer as alcohol. So you never bottle an experiment and you never throw anything away, because it’s valuable. You sell it! And across the entire spectrum, some never work out or they don’t work out according to what I am looking for. For example, one is: we put Woodford Reserve in tequila barrels. I didn’t like it. Another example is our maple wood finish. I had the cooperage make barrels 100% out of maple trees, which was not an easy thing to do, and finished Woodford in those. We had this and another series of other woods - pecan, beech, birch, ash etc. - and that maple worked out, others not.
The first one coming to the Japanese market will be Double Oaked, which is awesome. It’s doing so well back home. We launched it in 2012, and we’ve introduced it in France and UK, and it’s getting rave reviews. Double Oaked is a finished whiskey. We take Woodford Reserve and this is how we do it: we batch together 135 barrels. So our entry proof is 110, and our angels’s share… every barrel gains proof, so the abv goes up. As we empty the barrels, we put a gallon of limestone rinse water into every barrel that’s emptied and roll it around cause we’re going to reduce the bottle proof anyway. So now that batch of 135 barrels will range – with the rinse water – between 95 and 98 proof. So whatever that batch is, we just go right into a second barrel. And we know from our sensory experience research that a variation of 2 or 3% abv is not discernable to the palate. In essence, it’s all the same. So we enter the second barrel for finishing. The second barrel is made at our cooperage specifically for Double Oaked. It’s not a Woodford barrel. It’s a new barrel – it’s called the Double Oaked Barrel. This barrel is different – we designed a specific barrel for this finishing, again after years of experimentation. This barrel is toasted four times longer than the Woodford barrel, which was the most heavily toasted whiskey barrel in the world. Now we’ve exceeded that by four times and we char for the briefest period physically possible, a mere five seconds. We want that toast character to shine through. We fill the barrels with that batch of Woodford barrels and it will stay in the second barrel for approximately one year. We batch together for consistency, and we have an expression of Woodford Reserve that is noticeably (40%) darker. And it is just so sweet aromatic-forward, with caramel, vanilla, butterscotch. It’s like maple syrup, and it’s more textural and more heavily bodied but with the same abv. So what you’re getting is all these natural wood components, no artificial color or flavor added to it. It’s become a huge hit for us. It will be in Japan early next year.
Being at the forefront of innovation, how do you feel about voices in certain parts of the bourbon industry advocating a loosening of the definition of “bourbon”?
Even though Woodford Reserve is a contemporary expression of bourbon, everything we do rests in the past, honors the masters of the past. All of our processes for the Master’s Collection are historic whiskey processes. I can’t dictate what other people want to do, but for us the reason bourbon is popular today, and the reason Woodford Reserve is popular today, is because we are following the traditional historic ways of making bourbon. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do. Even if definitions change, we won’t change.
When I joined Brown-Forman in 1976, it was the very beginning of bourbon’s long-term decline. Times were not great. There were no whiskey tours either in Scotland or in Kentucky. Now every distillery has a visitor center, and tens of thousands of people coming through the doors, wanting new expressions and experiences. We’ve become a destination and people are excited about our product. Also, we have seen the return of classic cocktails based on American whiskey. Cocktails tend to come and go in waves. Growing up, you didn’t see a lot of old-fashioneds and manhattans… and mint juleps were sort of laughed at. And now they’re the rage, they’re cool… so that’s a welcome new development – well, an old development that’s been reborn. That’s real exciting. And then there’s finishing, and again we’ve done a lot of pioneering here. We’ve finished in Chardonnay barrels, in Pinot Noir barrels, in maple wood barrels… We’ve made our “Four Wood”, which is the first and only whiskey that I’ve ever seen that’s touched four barrels: original oak, maple, oloroso sherry and ruby port barrels. So, there’s innovation going on out there, but within the old traditions of our industry.
What, in your view, are the challenges currently facing the bourbon industry at large, and Woodford Reserve specifically… besides making enough?
Again, maybe this new wave of people who want to change things… There are people joining the industry because we have made it great and now they want to change our standards. The challenge is to sustain this great new appreciation of our products. That means we will maintain the highest standards and highest quality, and at some levels, that might be a challenge for others… to take short cuts, or reduce quality because of inventory or volume demands. We don’t plan on doing that. That’s why we’re being very judicious. That's why we are just now approaching the Japanese market. Because, you know, back home for years Japan has had this image of bourbon heaven. So people were saying “you must be really doing good there!?” And well, we’re not even in Japan yet. Why? Because we want to make sure we have the proper inventory to supply high quality products or we’re just going to go slow, take our time and make sure we have a product for geographic expansion around the world. Next year is our twentieth anniversary of having Woodford Reserve in the marketplace, and we’re just getting into Japan!