Woodford Reserve tasting of epic proportions, Shirt Bar, Sydney
Ah Woodford Reserve. You bring back some vivid memories for me.
We enjoyed each other’s company a little too much on our last encounter though. It was great while it lasted – I had an absolute blast – though I spent much of the following day cursing your name and I wasn’t in a hurry to see you again.
That was unfair of me though. It wasn’t your fault, it was mine, so I’m really glad we had the chance to make up. And what better way to make up than with a bourbon tasting bonanza at Sydney’s Shirt Bar hosted by the incredibly knowledgeable, Mr Stuart Reeves.
A bit of a forewarning here – If you’re not one for the details and a bit of a story, feel free to skip the wordy bits and start reading again when you get to the pretty pictures – this post’s a bit long.
Woodford Reserve: The distillery
I’m a bit of a sucker for details. So it was a good thing that our host for the evening, Stuart, had a wealth of knowledge to impart. As told by Stuart, here’s a bit of info you’re probably not going to find on Woodford’s website:
- For a brief period of time in the early 1870’s, Colonel EH Taylor (a name Rye whiskey fans might recognise) took over the distillery and patented a heat cycling process that’s still used in Woodford’s warehouses today (more on this in a sec)
- Woodford’s current owners, Brown Forman, have actually had two bites of the cherry – purchasing the distillery for the first time in 1941 and again around 1993/ 1994. Reason for the first sale? The bourbon slump of the 1960’s.
- During the above period, the distillery actually lay dormant from around from around 1970 until 1993 while under the ownership of someone who had intentions of turning it into a chemical plant of some description
As an aside, while absorbing these details like a fresh shamwow, we were all treated to a classic Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned – well executed by Shirt Bar’s crack team of bar tenders.
Creating Woodford Reserve
At one point in time, I thought bourbon was just bourbon. But just like the Scotch whisky industry, the differences in production from distillery to distillery can be truly fascinating and they all factor into creating a unique product.
The first thing to note about Woodford Reserve is their standard grain bill, which is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley. That’s a decent proportion of rye as far as bourbons go and Stuart brought along this neat visual representation.
Here’s a few other interesting things that make Woodford, well, Woodford!
- As opposed to using column stills (which are standard in the bourbon industry), Woodford use copper pot stills imported from Scotland (the same kind of still used in the production of Scotch whisky)
- Woodford Reserve is the first and only triple distilled, copper-pot bourbon available in the US.
- Woodford Reserve use only 6% sour in their mash, which means 94% of each distillation comes from fresh grain (industry standard for sour is around the 30% mark). Not sure what I mean by sour mash? Check this out.
- Brown Forman own their own cooperage and make their own barrels – a whopping 2,900 of them a day! The number of those earmarked for Woodford Reserve? Around 100.
- Those 100 barrels are special though – they’re the only barrels out there in the bourbon world where the heads of the barrel are toasted and charred as well as the barrel itself (I wonder if Ardbeg got this idea from them?)
- Maturation warehouses are made of limestone rock and are heated in the winter with steam coils (enter EH Taylor). Why? To speed up maturation and keep it going at a constant rate, right throughout the year.
- This takes its toll on cask volumes though. A staggering 50% of volume is lost to the Angels over seven to eight years.
- One last one for the Scotch fans – some of Woodford’s barrels end up cradling the nectar of Balvenie and Glenfiddich.
What we tasted
If there’s a definition of a bourbon bonanza, then this is probably it. The line up for the evening included no less than six of Woodford Reserve’s finest, plus a few extras.
New make spirit
First up was Woodford Reserve new make spirit, also known as ‘White Dog’.
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you, the label was misprinted and had you seeing double, before you even tasted it. Perhaps if you finish the bottle is become clearer?
On the nose, I got some sweet spirit notes, spice, some nutty herbal notes and a young grappa/ white rum kind of effect. There weren’t really any surprises on the palate, with the new make tasting clean, dry and spicy with some faint herbal flavours on the finish.
After being triple distilled, I expected their new make to have a really high alcohol content (ABV) and indeed it does when it comes off the third distillation at around 79% ABV (158 proof).
However, it was interesting to hear that they actually dilute the new make down to 55% ABV (or 110 proof) before casking it, as they believe it matures better and gets more flavour out of the cask, needing less dilution at the end!
Next up was their flagship expression, Distiller’s Select. A seven to eight year old bourbon made with their standard grain bill, triple pot distilled and bottled at 43.2% ABV (I believe it’s bottled at 45.2% in the US?).
I got some lovely caramel notes on the nose, vanilla, orange, some nutty spice, woody furniture polish and grainy cereal swirled throughout. I found the Distiller’s Select to be a tad thin on the palate, big wave of spice and not quite as sweet as the nose suggested. Pleasant burnt caramel and woody notes, minus any bitterness faded to a medium length finish, mainly concentrated in the mouth.
It was around this point that Stuart introduced some of the sensory tasting items he brought along, aimed at highlighting certain flavour characteristics. I picked up on the orange notes a fair bit in the Distiller’s Select, while the tart dried cranberries really emphasized the sweet caramel notes.
Before I move on from this one, ever wondered where the grain comes from? Probably not.. but I did and I can report the following: The corn comes from Kentucky, rye from Manitoba and barley from Wisconsin.
Now we’re into the big league – the first of the Master’s Collection bottlings on taste. Created as one-offs, the Master’s Collection range is never intended to be repeated.
Released in 2010, the Maple Wood expression starts life as the standard Distiller’s Select, before being finished for around 18 months in a toasted sugar maple barrel.
On the nose I got some additional sweetness over the Distiller’s Select, but not in a caramel sense. More of a dark fruity syrupy sweetness, with a bit less spice. This translated to fuller palate, hints of sugared plums, fresh toffee, vanilla, cereal grains and restrained spice. At 47.2% ABV, the finish was noticeably longer.
Aged Cask Rye
Released in 2011, the Aged Cask Rye was sold in a twin pack with the New Cask Rye (coming up), so you could taste them side-by-side and taste the influence of the cask on the base spirit. A pretty neat concept in my opinion!
Made from a combination of both malted and un-malted rye, this represented another first for the distillery, being the first triple distilled 100% rye whiskey made in the world.
I got some interesting grassy notes on the nose, vanilla sweetness, crisp green apple, pineapple and hints of spice. Stuart likened this one to a young Calvados (apple brandy) and I think he was pretty spot-on with that analogy. On the palate, clean, mild citrus, dry, spice, some pepper and overall quite mild. I’ve never had a rye like this before!
New Cask Rye
Now for the comparison – exactly the same spirit as the previous version, but this time, matured in a fresh charred oak barrel and bottled at 46.2% ABV.
Much sweeter on the nose, return of the Woodford caramel notes, vanilla, sweet balsamic, lots of vibrant spice, soy and hints of crisp apple. I thought this had a thicker mouth-feel, loads more caramel on the palate, spice, woody oaky flavours and a touch of cinnamon.
Interesting tidbit on these twins – although they both weigh in at 46.2% ABV, they actually entered the cask at a surprising low 43% ABV!
This was an interesting one. Released in 2012, as the name suggests, four different types of wood come into play.
As with the Maple Wood, this expression starts life as the standard Distiller’s Select. After seven to eight years though, a proportion is placed in a toasted sugar maple barrel for a year, another portion in ex-Oloroso sherry casks for six months and the remainder in Portuguese ruby port pipes for six months.
In the end, it’s all mingled together, bottled at 47.2% ABV and presented as the Woodford Reserve Four Wood.
Sounds like it could have been the makings of total disaster, however it’s surprisingly balanced. Clear hints of port and sherry on the nose, some lovely raisin notes, vanilla, spice, caramel and still clearly Woodford. On the palate, I got some big spice upfront, followed by soaked raisin sweetness, vanilla and some malty cereal. Big sherried whisky fans would appreciate this one I reckon.
To end the night, the one I had been eagerly awaiting! Released in 2013, the Classic Malt is essentially a single malt whisky, but made it the US by one of the most innovative bourbon distilleries. The mashbill is 100% malted barley, it’s triple distilled in copper pot stills and aged in used, ex-bourbon casks before being bottled at 45.2% ABV.
I got some serious grassy, grainy cereal notes on the nose. Lots of barley and freshly grated green apple. Reasonably thin on the palate, still quite grainy and grassy, but with an underlying sweetness and some vanilla. Not really to my taste, but quite delicate whisky, I mean, whiskey.
Andrew Derbidge, Cellarmaster of the SMWS was also in the room and likened this expression to an Auchentoshan single malt from the Lowlands of Scotland. Right on the money with that comparison in my opinion.
Some final thoughts
I’m not sure how impressive this lineup would look to someone in The States, but I have to say that we were mighty privileged to be tasting this number of Master’s Collection releases.
These releases are something of a rarity in Australia. You’d struggle to find these behind a bar if you wanted to taste them and if you managed to find a bottle for sale, you’d need to hand over $200+.
If that wasn’t quite enough, we each left with a goody bag comprising a Distiller’s Select miniature and the smallest bottle of bitters I’ve ever seen – perfect for mixing an Old Fashioned on the weekend.
Thanks to Stuart for presenting a highly informative tasting, sharing the story of Woodford Reserve and these fantastic bourbons (and whiskeys) with us. A big thanks to Shirt Bar as well for hosting another great evening – check out their website for info on their upcoming tastings.