Saturday, March 26, 2011

Whiskey Seminar: Woodford Reserve

A tasting seminar with Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris raised the big question about branded spirits: where's the fine line between branded marketing and artisanal quality? Whisk(e)y producers from both Kentucky and Scotland love to cloak themselves in the aura of old traditional products, produced back in the hills for generation on generation. In truth, the modern distilleries in both countries have their roots firmly planted in the industrial revolution.

Mr. Morris was very up front with the issue. While there over 300 brands of Kentucky whiskey on the market, there are only 10 distilleries, a fact that is at odds with the current fascination with local and authentic sourcing. Mr. Miller emphasizes this fact since Woodford Reserve is a single brand that comes from a single distillery, leaving over 299 brands to come out of the remaining 9.

But Woodford is a young brand. It was the vision of Owsley Brown, chairman of Brown-Forman, the large (but family held) diversified producer of wines and spirits who saw the need for a super-premium Kentucky Bourbon. It was released in Kentucky in 1996. After four years, the market was expanded into neighboring states, then was released nationwide. Not exactly your grand-daddy's mythic whiskey.

So, when the clouds of marketing are swept away, how's the product? Pretty tasty. And for solid reasons that will ring true with artisanal authenticity.

Grain:  72% food grade #1 dimple yellow corn grown in Shelby County, Ky.,18% Dakota grown rye, 10% Milwaukee Malted Barley. Most Bourbon recipes use 5%. Malted Barley provides enzymes that help release the sugars.

Water:  unfiltered limestone well water. No surface water which is required to be treated by the FDA.

Yeast:  like most distilleries, they grow their own. However they only used a small amount of the sour mash and ferment twice as long as most distilleries to give a rich, flowery, fruity character to the beer. 

Pot still:  triple distillation utilizing three copper pot stills. The lower temperature of the pot stills brings more flavors through the distillation.

Maturation: Barrels are wine toasted before charring. The whiskey is proofed to 110 before barrel entry. Barrels are selected by flavor in lots of 100 for bottling. The last batch Chris bottled had dates ranging from Nov 2002 to March 2003 making the whiskey 8-9 years old.

They did their homework and made all the right-sounding decisions about putting a product together. How does it taste?

Complex aromas of vanilla wafers, butter, butterscotch, pralines, burnt orange and cinnamon are framed by floral perfumes. The whiskey is smooth and luxurious on the palate with notes of vanilla, honey, and butterscotch followed by spicy orange peel and caramel with anise highlights and a long finish with vanilla and white chocolate. Delicious by itself,  dry enough to use for cocktails. 

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