I realize that I’ve been taking about some local Austin whiskey recently and haven’t even touched some of the more recognizable brands. Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite affordable and reliable bourbons: Woodford Reserve.
Introduced in 1996, Woodford Reserve is a brand of whiskey produced by the Brown-Forman company, a family owned private business that is one of the largest producers of whiskey in the United States. Other products by the Brown-Forman company include Old Forester, Jack Daniels, and (until 2016) Southern Comfort.
The Woodford Reserve distillery first started production in 1812 under the ownership of Elijah Pepper. He passed down the facility to his son Oscar Pepper for whom the distillery was originally named. This distillery was where Dr. James Crow of Old Crow bourbon fame helped create the sour mash fermentation process (where yeast from the previous batch is re-used in the following batch) while under the employment of Oscar Pepper.
In continuous use with the exception of during prohibition, the Brown-Forman company purchased the distillery in 1941 but decided to sell it to a farmer in the late 1960’s who stopped production and farmed the land instead. Brown-Forman re-purchased the land in 1993, refurbished it, and used it to launch their Woodford Reserve brand in 1996.
There really isn’t much information we get from the label. We know that this is a “straight bourbon,” so that sets the bar in terms of the grain bill and minimum aging requirements, but the details get a bit fuzzy.
According to some other sources the aggregate grain bill for the fermented mash where this spirit begins its life is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley. Rye isn’t always used in bourbon, but both this product and Bulleit Bourbon use it to add some flavor to their spirit (although Bulleit uses a much higher proportion).
For their “base” product (the “Distiller’s Select” version) the spirit is sourced from two production facilities. Some of the spirit comes from the actual Woodford Reserve distillery where they use pot stills to make their alcohol in batches, and then another part comes from Brown-Forman’s Shively, KY facility that uses a column still to continuously produce large quantities of spirit. Some of the more expensive versions are actually 100% distilled at the Woodford Reserve facility, but this one is not.
The properly combined quantities of the two alcohols are combined and added to a new charred oak barrel where it is aged for a minimum of two years. In theory at least, since that’s the requirement for a “straight bourbon,” but no where on the bottle or the marketing materials does it talk about how long it is aged. Some sources put the average aging of the product at about seven years.
Woodford Reserve uses a distinctive bottle that is easily identified and stands out on shelves. Wide in the front and narrow on the sides it takes up a significant amount of visual space while still only being the usual expected volume (375ml here or their “normal” 750ml version).
One thing I really appreciate about the packaging is that they take a minimalist approach to the labeling. The brand name is painted directly onto the glass in a traditional white font without really embellishment at all, and there’s a small label at the bottom with some additional information. It lets you actually see the bourbon that you’ve purchased and shows off that beautiful dark brown color.
This is one thing that irks me, though. The label at the bottom of the bottle talks about the batch number and bottle number, which is something I would expect on a small batch and single cask production whiskey. But here you’ve got a product that is only partially batch produced and then “topped up” with a mass produced spirit. It seems a little disingenuous to me.
The bottle is topped with an actual wood stopper and cork which is a very nice touch.
Pour a bit into your glass and the liquid is a beautiful dark brown color that smells absolutely delicious. I get some smokey vanilla mixed with a hint of caramel, a bit of brown sugar mixed in as well. There’s also a bit of smoke it seems that adds a bit of depth to the smell.
In your mouth the liquid feels like it has a good bit of weight to it, which makes sense given the 90 proof alcohol content. As for the taste, while I get the spiciness of the rye content there isn’t a whole lot more that jumps out at me. There’s a spicy sweetness that’s almost like a rum, or more like the spice you’d expect in a mulled wine.
What I really appreciate for a mass produced spirit is that there’s no real bitterness to the taste. It finishes nice and clean, and while there is some bite to the alcohol it’s no more than you’d expect from any other bourbon.
Usually when you add some ice the more delicate flavors disappear, but in this case it actually brings them out.
With a bit of dilution and some cold ice I start to taste some of those flavors that I smelled at the beginning. There’s the sweet caramel with some vanilla mixed in, and a good bit of oak added for good measure.
I think what’s happening here is that the ice is helping to tone down the spicy rye content and allows the more delicate flavors to shine on through. Whatever the reason it’s delicious.
A couple splashes of orange bitters and this turns into a fine sippable drink.
The bitters and the orange flavors mixes very well with the sweet vanilla and caramel flavors brought out by the ice. It’s a good balance that works well for me and is something I could see drinking on my back porch for many an evening.
Yep, that’s some good stuff.
The ginger beer in the mule is naturally a bit tangy and sweet, so it needs something with a bit of spice and more “mellow” flavors to balance it out. That’s exactly what the Woodford Reserve brings with the higher rye content in the grain bill.
I’m not thrilled that their base offering combines alcohol from multiple sources, but I’m not complaining that much. The end result is delicious in just about any format, and the price won’t make your wallet weep. If you’re looking for a reliably good tasting bourbon you can find pretty much anywhere in the USA then this is your best choice.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Production: Woodford County, KY
Classification: Straight Bourbon
Grain bill: 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley
Aging: ~7 years
Proof: 45.2% ABV
Price: $33.99/ 750ml ($0.045 / ml)
Overall Rating: 4/5
The packaging looks good. The bourbon tastes good. The price is good. It’s a damn fine choice.