In the heart of bourbon country, Woodford Reserve has produced bourbon whiskey since the 1800’s. Its high-proof liquor has won medals in spirits competitions and scored highly with taste testing experts. Affiliations with the Kentucky Derby and promotional programs American Whiskey Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the company holds space within the market and the community.
Its reputation as a high-level bourbon with a rich local history and family-oriented values have helped the brand succeed in both national and international markets. From its humble roots in Kentucky to its domination of global spirits sales, Woodford Reserve is a famous name in the industry.
What is Woodford Reserve?
The brand produces small-batch bourbon whiskeys that come from a distillery in Woodford County, Kentucky. Five lines of products range from bourbon to rye whiskey to a distillery series, with creative spins on flavoring as well as special labels for seasons and holidays.
Although it hasn’t actively produced bourbon since its inception, the Kentucky distillery is the oldest of nine bourbon distilleries in the state. It’s a National Historic Landmark as of 2000, due to its historical relevance as the birthplace of bourbon as we know it. There is even lore surrounding the name of the spirit since one county in Kentucky bears the name Bourbon County.
What’s in a Name
The term bourbon differentiates whiskeys from elsewhere in the United States from those that come from Kentucky, but the distilling processes for each type of liquor also vary. One historian reasons that Kentucky whiskey earned its title as bourbon because it sold well on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Brown-Forman, Beverage Masters
Beginning with distiller Elijah Pepper, the company moved from father to son two times, then fell into the hands of Leopold Labrot and James Graham before the two sold the brand to the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1941.
Up until 1968, Brown-Forman operated the distillery, but then sold it in 1971. Later, the corporation repurchased the property and introduced Woodford Reserve in 1996. The brand joined the global spirit market with a powerhouse beverage company, as Brown-Forman surpassed four million dollars in net sales in 2016.
History of Bourbon
While the origin of bourbon is often a point of contention in the distillation industry, a Baptist minister earns credit for not only the first charred oak barrel maturation process but also other historical Kentucky inventions. However, because the distilling of whiskey had been going on for centuries across the states and in Europe, it’s difficult to pin down a specific date of creation.
The practice of distilling alcohol probably originated with Scots and other settlers, and the term bourbon came from the name of a geographical area. Prohibition stinted the growth of many distilleries, but today, the United States bars the import of bourbon whiskey from other countries, making it a product unique to America.
According to the federal mandates on bourbon made for consumption in the United States, distilled spirits with the label “bourbon” must:
- Come from the United States
- Have a grain mixture that is 51 percent or more corn
- Use charred oak containers for aging
- Be no higher than 160 proof
- Enter the barrel at 125 proof or less
- Remain at 80 proof or higher in the bottle
However, with all these regulations on what is true “bourbon,” there is no rule on how long the maturation period lasts. This means that bourbon can age for as little as three months and still be in accordance with the law.
Still, some types of bourbon have minimum aging restrictions, and bottles containing bourbon younger than four years old must carry appropriate labeling. At the same time, the “ripeness” of a bourbon depends on more than solely its age.
Making Woodford Reserve
Following the same process that historical distillers Elijah Pepper and James Christopher Crow pioneered, Woodford Reserve uses time-proven methods of producing flavorful and bold whiskey bourbon.
The Woodford Reserve Distillery
It’s an odd part of the landscape of Kentucky, among horse farms and bluegrass fields, but the small distillery supports the entire brand and multiple variations of bourbon. In the facility is a 500-foot-long barrel run fed by gravity, copper stills, and cypress wood fermenters. One barrel house even uses heat cycling, one of few in the entire world.
Formerly the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, then later the Labrot & Graham Distillery, the current facility is just outside Versailles in Northern Kentucky. The original building is from 1838, but distilling started before the building’s creation. It’s rumored that distilling began in 1780, but it’s difficult to pin down precise dates.
The Master Distiller
As the second-ever Master Distiller, Chris Morris rolled out the Double Oaked, Rye, and Master’s Collection products at Woodford Reserve. He says that his focus is creating new products while ensuring the preservation of the “essence” of the brand.
Morris started out in the company’s lab in 1976, but now he earns accolades for innovative methods of finishing bourbon in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrels, plus developing the first ever maple barrels.
Because of its small size, the Woodford Reserve Distillery already succeeds at keeping a small footprint. However, the distillery works toward preserving the natural surroundings of the property in collaboration with the Kentucky Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Measures of the sustainability plan include planting native vegetation to prevent erosion, building gardens to attract wildlife, adding trees to the property, tending to water quality via reintroduction of native species, and developing walking trails for visitors to utilize.
According to Brown-Forman’s 2017 Annual Report, enhancements to the packaging of the Double Oaked product helps separate that brand in comparison with other high-end bourbons. The package changes may have helped sales; the Woodford Reserve product line achieved sales above the half-million-case rank, with nearly 590 thousand cases sold in fiscal 2017.
Woodford Reserve Product Line
Five categories of beverages offer flavors for every palate, and the various spirits offer up cocktail inspiration like the signature Kentucky Derby Mint Julep.
- Kentucky Straight Bourbon, with over 200 flavor notes ranging from grain and wood to fruit and floral
- Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, with 53 percent rye and a bold, spicy finish
- Double Oaked, which matures in two successive charred oak barrels for a soft and sweet oak flavor
- Master’s Collection, the current offering, Cherry Wood Smoked Barley, with 30 percent malt
- Distillery Series, select creative endeavors of the Master Distiller, including French Oak Cask Finished Rye, Toasted Oak Rye, Blended Rye, Five Malt, Frosty Four Wood, Double Double Oaked, and Sweet Mash Redux
According to the company, their 212 flavors and aromas come from five sources of flavor; water, grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.
18 percent rye in each recipe gives the whiskey spice, and it’s a higher level than most bourbon uses.
Water filters through limestone and is free of iron, yet contains minerals that contribute to the fermentation process.
An exceptionally long fermentation period helps deepen flavors.
Two batching processes, one in pot stills and one in column stills, create unique flavor combinations.
Whiskey becomes bourbon through maturation in charred white oak barrels in a heat-cycled warehouse.
The Flavor Wheel
Each spirit has its own flavor scorecard, and the brand offers up a flavor wheel that encompasses each combination of flavors of Woodford Reserve collections. The five flavor sections on the tasting wheel include:
- Sweet Aromatics: vanilla, caramel, maple syrup, butterscotch, marzipan, honey, chocolate,
- Spice: black pepper, clove, cinnamon, coffee, tobacco, nutmeg, mint, anise, herbal
- Fruit and Floral: rose petal, honeysuckle, cherry, cognac, apricot, peach, green grape, pear, apple, cranberry, blueberry, blackberry, lemon, orange
- Wood: almond, pecan, hazelnut, walnut, cedar, oak
- Grain: malt, rye
While it routinely earns solid scores from multiple spirit and liquor rating organizations, Woodford Reserve also received awards from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2005 and 2013. Each time, the spirit won double gold medals, plus additional awards in 2006-2007, 2011-2012, 2008, and 2010.
An award from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition involves recognition in The Tasting Panel Magazine, with a reach of over 65,000 industry professionals, plus award stickers for in-store products, award imagery for online use, and attendance at media and trade tasting events across the country.
Within its parent company, the Woodford Reserve line received acknowledgment as a “Hot Brand,” meaning it is one of the company’s principal brands with high market impact. The brand’s net sales grew by 14 percent over 2016’s numbers.
In the fiscal 2017 report, Brown-Forman notes that both Woodford Reserve and Old Forester have both experienced rapid growth in the last few years. Most of that growth happened in the United States, but increasing advertising efforts internationally also helped the brand along.
Overall, the most successful line of the brand is the Double Oaked extension, with that and the Rye variant leading the way. Due to this expansion, the company increased the size of its bottling facility and built five new warehouses, with another one in progress.