Whiskey Review: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Woodford Reserve is typically known for their bourbon — and while that’s the majority of their product line, that’s not all they make. Today we’re looking at their Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, one of only three varieties that isn’t bourbon on their production schedule.

History

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’s an interesting history specifically about the rye whiskey. Brown-Foreman isn’t really known for their rye whiskey, but they did produce another rye in the past — for their competitor Heaven Hill. When the Heaven Hill distillery burned down in 1996, they worked with Brown-Foreman to keep producing their Rittenhouse rye while they got back on their feet. It’s believed that the knowledge learned from that cooperation led to Brown-Foreman starting production on their own rye whiskey line.

Product

There really isn’t much information we get from the label. We know that this is a “straight rye,” so we can assume that this whiskey sat in a barrel for at least two years after production despite the lack of age statement on the bottle itself.

The source grain bill for this spirit is said to be 53% rye, 33% corn, and 14% malted barley. Interestingly, they didn’t just swap the ratio of corn and rye for this whiskey — they also kicked up the malted barley by about 4%.

Just like with the bourbon, their “base” product (the “Distiller’s Select” version) 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, which 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 proper 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 rye,”. 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 six to seven years.

Packaging

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.

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 whiskey that you’ve purchased and shows off that beautiful dark brown color.

Interesting to note is that while the bourbon labeling is a dark brown or black color, the label on this rye whiskey is green. It’s a nifty differentiation.

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.

Neat

Compared to the vanilla that’s prominent in the aroma of their bourbon, with this rye I get more caramel flavors and honey sweetness coming off the glass first. There’s still that vanilla kicking in as well, but I think the extra malted barley content is making a difference and reminds me a lot of those honey-flavored Teddy Grahams from when I was a kid.

The flavors in the spirit live up to much of that promise — there’s the sweetness of the honey and the caramel flavors bright and early in the experience, and that’s quickly followed by a pleasant peppery spice from the rye content. It seems like there’s a touch of bitterness in the middle there, but the flavor finishes smoothly. I think I also get some crisp pear and fruit flavor mixed in, and that crisp sweetness lingers for a bit once the whiskey is gone.

On Ice

With a bit of ice added, this actually reminds me quite a bit of a scotch whisky like Glenmorangie. It has all of the same sweet fruity notes in there without the bold caramel and vanilla that you’d associate with a typical bourbon.

The one thing that this starts to miss is the peppery spice. It was very prominent when taken neat, but with a bit of ice that spice seems to fall away quite a bit. The good news is that the mild bitterness I was experiencing is gone as well, so you’ve got that going for you.

Old Fashioned

I was expecting that this might be an issue.

What makes a good old fashioned, in my opinion, is a good rich spirit. Something with some sweetness and some depth that the bitters and the orange zest can play off. In this case, the rye is just too sweet and lacks those darker richer notes that would have made for a really good old fashioned.

In this case, it’s just too sweet already. There’s nothing to balance out.

Mule

There’s a couple things that I’m looking for in a good mule. In particular, I’m looking to balance out the powerful flavor of the ginger beer and for the whiskey to add some uniqueness to the cocktail. In this case, I think it really works.

I’m more used to the caramel and vanilla flavors mixing in, but in this case it’s a sweeter and lighter mule. Almost like a penicillin cocktail but without the peaty notes that a scotch would bring, and with more carbonation. It definitely seems like a good drink to sip during the warmer months.

It also succeeds in adding something distinct to the flavor, namely the peppery spice. It’s not as prominent as when taken neat, but it’s still present in the flavors and rounds things out nicely adding a bit of depth to the latter half of the experience.

Overall Rating

Besides some minor bitterness, it’s a pretty delicious spirit. Sweet and bright, it’s more like a peppery blended scotch than it is a bourbon maker’s take on rye. And that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Produced By: Woodford Reserve
Owned By: Brown-Forman Corp.
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45.2% ABV
Price: $43.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

Overall Rating: 3/5
It’s a solid, sweet rye… with a good peppery kick to boot.

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