The Legacy and Future of Bourbon

Images: Woodford Reserve / Brown-Forman

When the Senate made their declaration in 2007, it was as if the whiskey gods themselves reached down from the heavens and anointed America’s native spirit.

We all know bourbon is a supreme spirit—it’s never been up for debate. But the creation of National Bourbon Heritage Month made it official. Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) has also made it clear that people love bourbon. Not only do they love it, they’re interested in high-end premium and super-premium expressions. The two categories have seen revenue increases of 46 percent and 148 percent, respectively.

That growth coupled with September being National Bourbon Heritage Month got us thinking: What would someone in the trenches have to tell us about bourbon and its future? So, we reached out to Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall (one of the youngest female distillers in the United States), Master Distiller and Assistant Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve, producers of small batch premium and super-premium whiskeys.

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Read on for Morris’ and McCall’s thoughts on the bourbon category, legacy and innovation, a sophisticated suggestion for operators and bartenders to introduce the uninitiated to bourbon, and even advice for those interested in trying their hand in distilling.

Cheers!

Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris and Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall

To what do you attribute DISCUS finding that American interest in high-end premium bourbons has increased by 46 percent?

Any bartender will tell you that Bourbon is "hot." A look at the numbers of people visiting the Woodford Reserve Distillery will tell you Bourbon is "hot." A look at the back bar will tell you Bourbon is "hot."

The reason DISCUS found that interest in [high-end premium] Bourbon has increased by 46 percent is because it is true! Evidence of this fact is all around us. Why is Bourbon "hot"? The versatility of the spirit allows it to be a very mixable ingredient, adding depth and robust flavor profiles to any cocktails.

Read this: Celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month with Extra-Aged Bourbons

Yes, Vodka is very mixable, but it doesn't add flavor, complexity or degrees to finish the potential drink profile. Bourbon, on the other hand, does. Bourbon can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, with a splash of water or in any number of classic cocktails and mixed drinks.

Interest in super-premium bourbons in America has increased by a staggering 148 percent. To what do you attribute this increase? It may seem obvious but how do you define super-premium bourbons?

We use the International Wine and Spirits Record's (IWSR) definition of “super-remium."1 Their positionings are based on global price points. Therefore, it is no determination of quality.

However, those brands that inhabit this price position have implied high quality as a feature. That is certainly the case of Woodford Reserve. When you look at the growth of Woodford Reserve you can see that we are responsible for a large part of the increase in the super-premium segment of the category.

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, neat

How do consumer feedback, consumer behavior and spirit trends factor into your role as a distiller?

Since each member of the Woodford Reserve Family we are enjoying today was barreled many years ago, current marketplace feedback and spirit trends don't play a factor in what we do as distillers. We were making Rye whiskey before the return of Rye to popularity began. The same with the new trend of Malt Whiskey and Single Malt Whiskey production in the U.S.

Read this: [Video] Woodford Reserve Debuts Straight Kentucky Malt Whiskey

We first made a Single Malt at Woodford Reserve for our Master's Collection over 12 years ago. At Woodford Reserve we don't chase trends or fads because we have to have a very long-term outlook. Therefore, we chase flavor. We are constantly exploring where flavor comes from in the whiskey production process and how to make that happen within the Woodford Reserve philosophy. So what governs everything we do is our own curiosity and palates.

What are some of the bourbon trends you and other distillers are talking about?

Elizabeth and I discuss the increasing popularity of high-proof and highly aged Bourbon. Again, we don't follow trends for the sake of doing something—especially if it would entail going against our production philosophy. If we are going to make a change or craft a new expression of Woodford Reserve, it must deliver to the consumer an exciting flavor opportunity.

Does it taste good neat? That means it also must be of interest and use to a bartender. Will it make a great cocktail? Will folks order it at the bar by the drink?

How do you as a distiller and Woodford Reserve as a brand balance heritage, history and keeping up with current shifts in consumer expectations?

We believe that as the producer of Kentucky Straight whiskies in a National Landmark distillery where modern Bourbon's defining standards were established in the 1840s (the sour mash process and new, charred oak barrels), we have an obligation to honor and protect that heritage. However, one of the ways we honor the innovative spirit of historic distillery owner Oscar Pepper and his Master Distiller James Christopher Crow is by continuing to innovate.

We constantly search old records in the courthouse, newspaper and university archives, state and local historical societies, for distilling information dating back to those formative years. Significant discoveries will be adapted to fit into our unique Woodford Reserve production philosophy to create unique whiskey offerings. These we release in our Master’s Collection and Distillery Series offerings. So, we use the past to create for the future. As a result of this innovative spirit, consumers have come to expect something new and special from us each year. Now that is a challenge!

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked on barrel at warehouse

What are some changes or deviations to traditional bourbon production you find exciting?

I find changes in grain recipe and maturation to be the most interesting to explore. We will not change our water or use any other yeast strain other than our proprietary WR78B, so grain recipe, distillation cuts, and maturation are our only options for change.

For example, we created the first "four grain" bourbon recipe in 1999. Since then we have been the first to use an heirloom corn variety, Sweet or White Corn, multiple malt types, and more to create exciting new flavors within the context of the traditional "Bourbon Standards."

Read this: Cult of Mash: 6 Limited Edition American Whiskeys

When it comes to maturation changes we again have been in the forefront of innovation. We have created the first ever 100-percent hard sugar maple barrels for finishing Woodford Reserve in. The first barrels to be crafted from oak that air dried for 5 years made our Master’s Collection "Seasoned Oak" [released in 2009] a hit. And, of course, we created the world's first and only "Four Wood" whiskey [released in 2012] of any type. These and many other maturation changes—past, present and future—make for an interesting time of it at the distillery.

I like the idea of offering first-time Bourbon drinkers a "flavor flight." Present them with a half-ounce neat sample, a 2-ounce Manhattan and a 2-ounce Old Fashioned using the same brand in each.

What’s a bourbon trend bar operators need to know about and leverage today?

We learn of new Bourbon trends from the bar trade—not the other way around! We trust that bartenders are creating the new trends and hope that Woodford Reserve fits in with them.

What are the top two or three bourbon misconceptions you’d like to dispel?

The issue of "age" actually leads to possibly two misconceptions on its own. First, the new misconception that one can accelerate age to mimic the flavor profile of a traditionally matured Bourbon. Some elements of the Bourbon maturation process are time-in-barrel dependent; they just can't be shortcut.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some believe that the older a Bourbon is, the better it is. Sometimes that might be the case, and sometimes it’s not. For these reasons we have always batched barrels of Woodford Reserve according to their flavor profile rather than by how "old" they are. Some barrels may be mature at five-and-a-half years while others hit their peak at 7 or 8 years of age. This might be due to the wood the barrel was crafted from or where in a warehouse it was located. These and many other subtle factors can result in the creation of a range of flavor in our inventory. So, by batching barrels from many different production dates and warehouse locations, we can craft a complex flavor profile on a consistent basis.

Are you experimenting with anything unexpected or unusual?

Yes, we are. Of course, the unexpected and unusual Master’s Collection and Distillery Series expressions coming out over the next few years were made years ago. We are actively experimenting and developing new products for the future at present. Suffice to say, you will be impressed!

Are there upcoming Woodford Reserve releases you can share with our readers?

Just in time for the holiday season, we will be releasing Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Holiday bottle. The holiday bottle will still have the perfectly balanced taste of Woodford’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, comprised of more than 200 detectable flavor notes, from bold grain and wood to sweet aromatics, spice, and fruit and floral notes. The holiday artwork was created from the scale house at the Woodford distillery.

As a taster and as the Assistant Master Distiller, quality is the one thing we really work for, which seamlessly coincides with hospitality. Making sure that everyone is having a good time and being there for our customers, family and friends is very important to me and the Woodford Reserve Family.

New bourbon drinkers have to start somewhere. How would you advise bar owners and operators to move first-time bourbon drinkers into America’s native spirit?

I like the idea of offering first-time Bourbon drinkers a "flavor flight." Present them with a half-ounce neat sample, a 2-ounce Manhattan and a 2-ounce Old Fashioned using the same brand in each. When offering the flight, batch up the two cocktails without ice and pour when ready over ice. This sophisticated sampling presentation should impress the newbies! Charge the price for the flight equal to the price of a standard cocktail using the brand included.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and bourbon Old Fashioned cocktail

How connected do you feel to the hospitality industry and bar operators as the Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve?

Chris: We do feel very connected to the culinary and bartending disciplines because we were one of the founders of the renewed interest in classic cocktails and cooking with bourbon whiskey. During a trip to Scotland in 1991 I was exposed to a whiskey dinner. It was a memorable occasion that I thought we needed back home.

So, I brought the concept back to Kentucky with me, and by 2000 Woodford Reserve had sponsored the first culinary and cocktail competition in the industry. This was a program in which we paired James Beard nominated and awarded chefs with their bartenders to create a signature Woodford Reserve dish with a complementary Woodford Reserve cocktail. That had never been done before. That led to our championship of the Manhattan cocktail with the longest running Manhattan competition in America.

At the Woodford Reserve Distillery, we have hosted bartending groups for years, including Camp Runamok and our own Grain to Glass program. We not only look forward to teaching chefs and bartenders about the Woodford Reserve brand but learning from them how they use it and the current trends in their profession. We never stop learning.

Elizabeth: I feel very connected to the hospitality industry, not just because of my previous roles, but because Woodford Reserve and the Brown-Forman Family have been so inviting and definitely make you feel welcome from the start.

As a taster and as the Assistant Master Distiller, quality is the one thing we really work for, which seamlessly coincides with hospitality. Making sure that everyone is having a good time and being there for our customers, family and friends is very important to me and the Woodford Reserve Family.

What was it about bourbon specifically and whiskey in general that inspired you to pursue your career?

Chris: I was inspired to enter the bourbon industry long before bourbon was cool. In fact, I joined the industry at the beginning of its long-term decline in the late 1970s. So why join? It’s because my mother and father had worked in the industry. My father, in fact, was a 41-year veteran of the bourbon industry. Since I grew up in a bourbon household, that’s pretty much what I look forward to doing.

Elizabeth: I would say I kinda fell into the bourbon and whiskey world, however I grew up with two very supportive parents who encouraged each of their kids to pursue their passions. I was brought up knowing that I needed to get a job to be able to support myself. I have a very strong horseback riding passion that I needed and still need to support, so a stable job with decent pay was important to me.

I found out about the job opportunity with Brown-Forman completely by chance. I was attending my younger brother’s graduation party and discussing my upcoming graduation. There was man there who worked for Brown-Forman and overheard me discussing my future career plans. He informed me that the Sensory Department had a technician that was leaving and would have a spot open. I sent in my resume ASAP and a few months later I got the job!

My mom has also been a big inspiration for me. She was the bottling operations manager at the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is now MGP, from the late ’70s through the early ’80s and managed a team of union workers for years, and she never made a big deal about it. I just try to be a strong and badass woman and try to follow in her footsteps within the greater liquor and spirits industry.

Elizabeth, you went from pursuing a psychology major in college to becoming a second-generation bourbon industry tastemaker. What inspired your career trajectory change?

I originally went to school to become a therapist. I got my undergrad degree in psychology and I got my graduate degree in counseling psychology. I never thought that I would be working in the beverage alcohol industry. It was happenstance that brought me here. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to work in the alcohol industry, I just wasn’t aware of the opportunities that are present and that I would find the work so fascinating. It is an unexpected love affair.

Chris Morris signature on Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon label

Chris, what advice do you have for the future distillers among our readers?

My advice for future distillers is to follow your own path. Do not try to emulate trends or embrace gimmicks. You need to have a rationale for what you are doing and an objective or goal that you were pointing to. Above all, be concerned with quality and you must have the patience for that to be obtained.

Any parting words?

Please visit our historic distillery when you visit Kentucky and experience our Five sources of Flavor philosophy for yourself. We look forward to seeing you in Woodford County.

Read this: A Tour of the Woodford Reserve Distillery

1 The IWSR categorizes spirit and wine quality segments based on the positioning of certain key brands and product pricing in different markets. The super-premium bracket for the United States is the $35.00 to $74.99 price range.