It’s easy to write things off, whether it’s because of bad experience, ancillary influences or even just outright familiarity. I haven’t always been as even tempered as I am these days, and there was definitely a time in my career where if I was 10 people deep at the bar and you asked for a big name product I sure as hell didn’t want to sell you that product because haven’t you seen everything else on the bar?! There are so many options and that’s what you’re going with? And because the bar was 10 people deep, and 90% of people don’t care about obscure spirit education, I just stopped carrying those products in an effort to force you to buy what I thought you should be drinking. Woodford somehow ended up in that category.
I’m not quite sure how it ended up there either. Woodford isn’t an old brand name by bourbon standards. It was first released in 1996 by Brown-Forman after they repurchased the mothballed Labrot and Graham Distillery (formally the Old Oscar Pot Distillery) in 1993. Brown-Forman had previously sold off this distillery in 1971 at the beginning of the great bourbon drought where national interest in spirits veered sharply away from what is now so hip. This makes it a brand a good 10 years younger than Blanton’s, Elijah Craig, or even Evan William’s Single Barrel so it doesn’t feel like an issue of over familiarity. If anything it’s just more visible marketing.
For a while I thought it was the rumors that Old Forester and Woodford were the same product. And on a personal level I prefer Old Forester Signature to the Woodford Distillers Select. Both share the same mashbill (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley) and Brown-Forman is open about the fact that a portion of Woodford is made up of honey barrels from the Shively distillery batched with the 100% pot stilled distillate from the Woodford Distillery, though how much each distillate contributes is unknown. Tasting Old Forester and Woodford side by side there is a clear difference in taste. Old Forester has more of a corn sweetness while there is a metallic quality to Woodford that I’ve always associated, right or wrong, with their pot stills. But this doesn’t hold weight because despite my personal preference for Elmer T. Lee and Rock Hill Farm I’ve never tried to cut Blanton’s out of the line up. I’ve recently come to suspect that the thing I thought was turning me off of Woodford might actually be the thing I actually enjoy: the pot stills.
Let me explain. Despite not carrying standard Woodford I’ve always been interested in the Master’s Collection (and the rye but that’s a story for another time). The Master’s Collection is an ongoing series that first began in 2005. It is a once a year release that is always something experimental. It doesn’t always qualify as a bourbon, the mashbill might not meet the required limits or the barrel finishes might be outside the strict bourbon law, but they are always ambitious. And more interestingly they are supposedly whiskey produced only from the pot stills at the prime Woodford Distillery in Versailles, KY.
They might not be everyday whiskies but here has always been some
thing that makes them interesting. This year’s was a brandy cask finish that dialed up the dried fruit. Last year’s was more interesting. Dubbed the 1838 Style White Corn it rather obviously subs in white corn for the more standard yellow corn which ends up creating a softer shortbread cookie, layered under a light lemon with that distinctive metallic Woodford note underneath. And the year before that was a Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrel finish that grants a massive tannic, cherry, earthy note.
I’m in love with the idea of all of these yet on the actual liquid hasn’t always lived up to those expectations. But those expectations aren’t always fair. The Woodford name can sometimes influence what you expect to be tasting. For instance, Brown-Forman used to distill the Rittenhouse Rye for Heaven Hill while their production was limited due to a distillery fire in the 90’s. Yet once Heaven Hill moved production back to their own distillery and Woodford released a rye that is pretty obviously a continuation of that Rittenhouse heritage I judged it more harshly simply because of that Woodford name.
So what are we drinking tonight? The standard Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. It sits very heavy on the tongue with a rich sense of dry leather, a bit of dark cocoa, definitely vanilla and a hint of cherry. The oak also plays a massive roll lingering on the finish. We’ll stack it up next to a few of the Master’s Collection and see if we can pick out those pot still notes.
Yet if we take all of these experiments side by side with the standard Woodford we can see a distillery, and a whiskey, in a state of constant internal reflection. Despite at one time being the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby Woodford is not stagnant. And while I might have forgotten about it for a time, it is certainly not something to write off. Rather a piece of the puzzle, another tool that leads to what I truly want from any patron at my bar: genuine curiosity and a desire to explore.