When they started distilling it some two decades ago, the folks at Woodford Reserve had a simple goal: craft a bourbon with a flavor profile every bit as complex and sophisticated as the world’s finest scotches and cognacs. In other words, they were trying to do something that had never been done before.
“We were going to have what I would call a global or international flavor appeal,” says Chris Morris, the master distiller behind Woodford Reserve, one of the most award-winning bourbons and one widely regarded to be responsible for kicking off the bourbon revolution we are currently lucky to be living through. “That meant it had to have flavors in it that would appeal to this diverse palate of appreciation. It had to be complex—it had to have a certain persnicketiness to it.”
The process of making whiskey is essentially the same whether it’s made in Ireland, Canada, or Woodford County, Kentucky, where bourbon was first distilled in 1812: take water, add a grain (majority corn in the case of bourbon), ferment, distill and then age. So, in order to craft a bourbon with the sophistication and complexity Woodford was after, Morris and his team had to rethink and reimagine nearly every step of that process, from the yeast used in fermentation to the barrels used in aging.
Persnickety? You don’t know the half of it.
Here is a visual look at every step of the often unique and singular process that makes Woodford Reserve one of the most deliciously complex and voraciously celebrated bourbons out there.
Water: Does any resource have quite the legend attached to it as the limestone-filtered water of Kentucky? It is the key ingredient in both raising thoroughbred Derby champs and crafting the state’s singular spirit. The key to the Bluegrass State’s mythic water lies in the minerals it contains—a multivitamin-like combination of magnesium, zinc, and potassium, as well as the one it filters out, iron (a bourbon no-no).
“Those naturally occurring compounds serve as micronutrients in the fermentation process for your yeast,” explains Morris. “That is what allows the yeast to go about its work of making compounds that are flavors. The rich mineralogy of the water is going to aid in the formation of flavor.”
Wood: In using white oak to age their bourbon, Woodford Reserve is in keeping with the industry standard. But by having their own cooperage to craft their own barrels to their own exacting specifications, they stand alone.
The only U.S. spirit-maker using its own cooperage to make its own barrels, Woodford owns something like a laboratory as a result. The company can experiment with barrels, toasting and charring them to the Master Distiller’s specifications. It’s a big win: the barrel can be responsible for up to 70% of the bourbon’s flavor, and is what gives the spirit its amber color.
Grains: Wonder where Woodford Reserve’s clove, anise, pepper and other spice flavors come from? Credit the grain profile of the mash, which, at 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley, has a higher percentage of rye than industry standard, giving it unique flavor notes.
Fermentation: The industry standard process is to ferment the mash with the yeast for two days. Woodford Reserve ferments for five to six. The longer fermentation brings forth more fruit and ester notes, and is the result of a proprietary yeast strain specifically developed for Woodford Reserve and based on the heirloom strains that have been helping to ferment bourbon in Kentucky for centuries.
“If this yeast were to publish an autobiography, it would be called The New Kid on the Block,” says Morris. “This is a brand new strain of yeast, developed for this unique project of creating a bourbon whiskey that people around the world would find something they like in. I like to compare it to the horse country we’re in: the Kentucky Derby champion is the result of siring a champion with a champion mare. That is what our microbiologists did with this yeast strain.”
Distillation: Another distinguishing factor: part of Woodford’s distillation process occurs in Scotland-made copper-pot stills. And, just like the yeast, they are unique to Woodford Reserve, the only bourbon made in copper-pot stills with a triple distillation process. Triple-distillation isn’t the most efficient process—heating the liquid three times means it has more opportunities to evaporate—but it’s worth the price, creating richer alcohol vapors.
Maturation: That said, the liquid that results from distillation is crystal clear. It is during maturation that it really takes on the qualities that we think of when we think of bourbon. Here, Woodford again does things a little differently, maturing their bourbon in a heat-cycled, brick and stone warehouse.
“The industry has abandoned the process of heat cycling,” says Chris Morris. “We still do it, because over the years we have identified the advantages of it. We are not knocking anyone for not doing it that way—heating a large building filled with whiskey in the winter is expensive, and because we do it our angel’s share—the lost spirit—is more dramatic. But what results from heat cycling is a more concentrated, elegant and complex flavor.”
And if Woodford’s reputation has anything to say, Morris is doing something right.