Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2018: A Conversation with Chris MorrisBy Tim Knittel
In 2006, Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve, introduced a new concept with a limited edition whiskey series dubbed the “Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection”. Each subsequent year, a new experimental whiskey—or paired whiskey set—has been released shortly before the holidays.
His inspiration came from the original whiskey masters of the distillery property in Versailles—Oscar Pepper and Dr. James C. Crow. This duo of whiskey makers is often credited with developing much of the techniques of modern bourbon production.
MASTER’S COLLECTION: THE CONCEPT
The philosophy behind the Master’s Collection is to change a single source of flavor—or do a two-step change in the case of the paired releases—to see how that isolated change in turn changes the flavor profile of the whiskey. Previous releases have changed the grain recipe (Four Grain), the fermentation (Sweet Mash) or introduced a barrel finish (Brandy Cask Finish). Last year’s release introduced smoking to the grains (Cherry Wood Smoked Barley).
Chris Morris / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
Twice previously the yearly Master’s Collection has included two different whiskeys, but those releases offered the same grain bill in both new and used cooperage maturation (New Cask Rye with Aged Cask Rye and Classic Malt Selection with Straight Malt Selection).
2018 MASTER’S COLLECTION RELEASES
Select American Oak presents the core Woodford Reserve grain bill as well as distillate matured in an exclusive terroir of oak, sourced from the Ozark region. Oat Grain Kentucky Bourbon introduces oats into the standard Woodford Reserve mash bill creating an unusual four-grain recipe.
Distiller sat down with Morris for an in-depth look at the process and flavors of these two new bourbons.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Distiller: Why two this year?
Morris: “We have a number of Master’s Collections that we were laying down in the same time frame. This year we had two that were ready. And if we didn’t do them at the same time and tried to do the ‘one-a-year’ release, then that bumps into more that will be ready next year. So now we’ve got this little logjam of whiskeys. So the decision was made to go ahead and release the two at the same time and have some fun with it.”
Oat Grain Bourbon / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
Distiller: Let’s talk about the Select American Oak first. How did you make this bourbon and what’s unique about it?
Morris: “The Brown-Forman Cooperage, when making the Woodford Reserve barrels, co-mingles [different oaks] within barrels…so we will find the three terroirs of American white oak. We’ll have Northern oak, Appalachian oak and Ozark oak. Just commingled in every bottle of Woodford Reserve through the batching process and/or the barrels themselves. And that’s how we maintain the consistent flavor profile, by having this random wood inflow.
“[With Select American Oak] we’ve isolated a particular terroir of oak—and it came from a single mill so it’s even from a certain region of the Ozark—and that specificity of that oak means it will have a special flavor profile. In this case it’s very nutty and soft. So that oak is out of the norm.”
Distiller: Did you have a flavor profile in mind, did you expect it to have that different nutty character at the end, or was that part of the happy experiment of let’s see what happens when this comes out?
Morris: “Yeah, this was more of a ‘let’s see how it turns out.’ It’s oak, it’s an American oak, [but] it’s not Quercus alba, it’s Quercus muehlenbergii, it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be an interesting adventure in flavor formation. Because we really don’t know what it’s going to taste like after 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years. It’s going to be what it’s going to be. And all we really know is it’s going to be good, it’s just going to be different.”
Select American Oak / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
Distiller: Was Bob Russell, Brown-Forman’s manager of mills and wood procurement, involved? How was the supply chain from the forest to the distillery handled?
Morris: “Yes! Bob and of course the Brown-Forman Cooperage [were involved]. We had set that up because everything had to be very coordinated. We have to verify the wood is what we’re saying it is. The cooperage plays a key role in this. That is where having your own cooperage is so important. They do things you couldn’t do if you’re selling to just anybody and everybody, which has just been a great resource for us.”
Distiller: Now let’s look at the Oat Grain Kentucky Bourbon. What is unique about this one?
Morris: “The Oat Grain is actually a four-grain recipe. But that’s not the story because we’ve done a four-grain before, but one was with traditional quote-unquote bourbon grains. The first Four Grain was corn, wheat, rye and malted barley.
“This release adds oats and it is 18% oats, 14% malt, 4% rye and 64% corn. The oats at 18% play a nice role in the flavor profile. And oats are a soft grain like a wheat but they do have an oat-y flavor.
“This whiskey, the taste of it, the taste notes don’t really describe it because we didn’t want to just say ‘it’s just an oatmeal cookie.’ It has the dried fruits, the raisin-y notes, lots of brown sugar, hint of cinnamon and its oat character. So it’s just a really delicious whiskey.”
Chris Morris / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
Distiller: Oat is traditionally very hard to work with for whiskey. Did you have experience walking into this or was this one of your experiments where you said, this is what we want to achieve, let’s figure it out as we go.
Morris: “We had done our small mashing and our micro-distillations at the Brown-Forman microplant/pilot plant in Louisville. Things are always easy there because it’s on a very small scale. You get a bag of oats, you literally put them in a Cuisinart—we got oat powder. So then we transfer that recipe and process to the distillery but benchtops are never replicable in life. Things change.
“At the distillery, we received whole oats. Whole oats are sort of flat and they’re flexible, they’re not real hard like a kernel of corn or a kernel of rye where you crack it and it’s powdery, they’re still sort of rubbery. And at Woodford Reserve all we have is a hammer mill, so the oats tended to slip through the hammer mill because they were flat and slippery, they didn’t want to grind very well. So, I’m like, okay, that’s the way it is—the way it is.
“So now for the grain we had to extend the cooking process a bit longer to get as much starch and flavor out of the oats as possible because they weren’t completely ground up. But we finally extracted enough. And then, of course, that makes a sticky mash which leads to some cleaning issues, so just a little more labor intensive. But the flavor, the end result, was this really nice flavor.”
Distiller: With the Four Wood, you had a flavor profile in mind at the beginning and you worked toward that. Was this in the same way? Or was it, let’s see what oats do and look at the flavor when we get to the end?
Morris: “This was inspired by looking into the history of distillation in Ireland. We’ve always talked about [how] triple-pot distillation is the Irish style…and that original pot still whiskeys in Ireland did have oats in them. That discontinued in the 1970s. Pot still whiskey had oats and barley. So let’s pay homage to this triple distillation—and homage to Thomas Mayhall who built the distillery for Oscar Pepper—by including oats in our recipe. It’s going to taste okay and the microdistillation told us it’s a nice flavor profile. And so it was all good to go. So that was the inspiration.”
Distiller: Is there any recommended way to best taste and drink these two whiskeys?
Morris: “They’re fun to try side-by-side, and of course since they’re both Kentucky straight bourbons—and one has the Woodford Reserve 72/18/10* recipe in it—try them with the core product neat, and then try the other two and see how similar and/or different they are. Then you’ll know exactly why they’re different. Which is the fun bit about our concept for the Master’s Collection. We make one change and see what it is.
“The Master’s Collection is: you might hate it, you might love it, but it’s always an experience in flavor—it’s different. It’s an adventure in flavor.”
* 72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley