The Woodford Reserve Distillery has been distilling on the same site for more than 235 years, making it the oldest Bourbon distillery in Kentucky. Now owned by Brown-Forman—one of America’s largest wine and spirits companies—it has been refitted and set to expand.
Since their founding in 1780, the folks at Woodford have been influential in the development and codifying of Bourbon production. In short, they helped invent the spirit as we know and love it today!
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Woodford is the “Official Bourbon” and its sister brand Old Forrester, is the part of the “Official Mint Julip Cocktail,” during the famous Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs racetrack.
The Woodford Distillery is the oldest distillery in Kentucky still operating today, but not necessarily continuously. It closed during prohibition while a few other managed to get permission to remain open for “medicinal production."
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Originally called the “Old Oscar Pepper Distillery,” its first iteration was open air. The first building was constructed around that operation in 1838, which is the date listed on its registration as a historic landmark. The founder was Elijah Pepper, who handed it off to his son.
In 1878, the Pepper family sold the property and the name was changed to the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Brown-Forman bought and sold and then re-purchased the operation again in 1993, and gave the entire shop a re-vamp.
They are the only major Bourbon distiller to use traditional copper pot stills (most use column stills). Annual production is up to nearly 2.5 million bottles per year, and a recent expansion of rick-houses allows them to age up to 165,000 barrels at a time on site.
Most of this production goes into their famous signature Bourbon, with the balance flowing into various other Brown-Forman brands and product lines.
The facility is a beautiful, restored stone building surrounded by rolling hills about 20 mile west of Lexington, Kentucky. It has become one of the most popular stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
A transcript for non-audio situations
Benedikt: Hello and welcome to whiskey.com where fine spirits meet. And today I'm at the Woodford Distillery, also known as the Labrot and Graham Distillery. And this distillery is the only distillery left that produces the Bourbon on pot stills. That is very special, and also they only produce small batches. That means it's a bit more expensive and less supply. But we're gonna find out that this is a really great Bourbon.
So I'm here at the Pepper Spring that is the water source for the Woodford Distillery. And in 1812 there was a little log cabin here where the distillery was located. And the farm used to make like 10 barrels a year. It was just a little farm distillery. And today you're not allowed to use the water from that little creek because it's surface water. So the distillery dug a well, and now they get the water directly from the water source. And they don't have to process it, because processing would affect the flavor. And here at Woodford Reserve, they're really looking at the flavor of the Whiskey.
Now we talked about the water earlier, and now we talk about the ingredients. Woodford Reserve consists of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. The malted barley has enzymes in it that can split the starches of the other two grains into fermentable sugar. And the special thing about Woodford is that its water is very mineral rich, so the yeast has a lot of nutrition.
So it can grow better and faster, and produce better flavors that you will find in the Woodford Reserve. And here we're now at the fermentation process where everything comes together, the water, the grain and the yeast. And the process here is really slow, and that is very important because the yeast has to develop very fruity and tasteful flavors. And how Woodford Reserve does this is by a unique strain of yeast. They have their own strain of yeast that ferments very slowly, and that takes six days to convert the sugar into the alcohol.
Also, the tanks are really small. They only hold 7,500 gallons or 28,000 liters, and that lets the heat dissipate really quickly so it doesn't overheat because yeast doesn't like to be in too hot temperatures. And the last thing is the water that I mentioned earlier, it has many nutrition and minerals in it, so the yeast can grow really strong and doesn't have any problems while growing. I am still in Kentucky. But right of me here is a spirit safe of Richard Forsyth, the famous Scottish producer of pot stills. And here is where all the spirits are being leveled and the center cut, or how the Americans call it "the heads or tails" are distributed.
And this here is a unique piece of a wash still or the Americans call it the "beer still." And the unique thing is that it's conical at the bottom so you can take out what is left from distillation. And this is then called the "sour mash" and then added to the fermentation. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a sour mash Bourbon. And here we see the wash still. It is pretty tall. Also, you can always identify a wash still by the watch glass because if you have bits going around in here and it boils too fast, then it could overcook. And here in the watch glass you can see that it doesn't overcook. This reflux bowl here is for more surface area because the copper, the contact of the copper and the alcoholic vapors produce a much smoother and better flavor.
And here we have the high wine still so there are no bits going around in here, just spirits. And it also has the reflux bowl for an even smoother Whiskey. The wash still distills at 40% alcohol that is 80 proof and the high wine still has 50% which is 100 proof. And the last still is then the spirit still that finishes the spirit and afterwards it can go into the barrel. And here we are looking at 74% ABVs. And that is now the last step in the distillation, and now we are ready for maturation. So I'm here at the filling of the barrels.
And what is great about Woodford is they belong to the Brown-Forman Corporation. So the Brown-Forman Corporation has their own cooperage. So Woodford Reserve orders barrels just the way they want it to be. The staves in the barrels are matured for nine months in open air. So the staves get a bit less of these bitter flavors. So you have less distracting flavors in your Bourbon and you can better focus on the Rye flavors or the fruity flavors from the distillation, and that is very good.
Also, the Woodford Distillery dilutes the Whiskey down a bit more to have more barrels filled and that is because Woodford Reserve wants to have more exposure to the wood and get more flavor into their Whiskey. So I'm here at the warehouse. And one special thing about Woodford Reserve is they have brick warehouses. And also, the warehouses are heated during the winter and that means the warehouses are heated to 30 degrees Celsius. And that is actually very hot during the winter.
And periodically they are heated and then they let them cool down so the wood breathes. The Whiskey gets into the pores of the wood and takes off the good vanilla notes and the caramel notes from the staves. And who thinks now that this is a giant waste of energy is wrong because they take the steam from the distillery that would actually be waste and take it through the warehouse and heat it through this waste steam.
So we have an ecological process. And if we look at this barrel here, we have the distillery name on it and all the other figures. And here at the warehouse we also have what is stored here in this cask. This is Bourbon-Whiskey 1 which is the normal Woodford Reserve. And what you can also see are these holes that look like leakage but they are actually drilled. So what the people do, they go around, drill a hole in, take a sample and then have a look. Is this Whiskey already matured enough to be bottled? And when it's done, then the people take the barrel, go to bottling, and then it's ready to be a good Woodford Reserve Bourbon.
So I'm sitting here with Chris Morris. You are here for 18 years at the Woodford Reserve distillery. And you're making Bourbon for nearly 40 years now?
Chris: Nearly 40 years, yes.
Benedikt: So being the master distillery here is very nice. So tell us something about your products.
Chris: Well, we're very happy, Benedikt, that we have one product that this distillery makes. It's called Woodford Reserve. And we have three expressions of Woodford Reserve. We have our original Bourbon, Distiller's Select. We have our new Rye, Kentucky Straight Rye, and our Double Oaked, which is a special finished expression of Woodford Reserve, finished in the second barrel which we'll talk about as we get into our tasting.
The Woodford Reserve family has a similar theme, going back to those five sources of flavor that you were telling your viewers about: the same water, the same yeast, the same grains, the same barrel, warehousing across all three with just a couple subtle changes that make this expression different from the previous one. So let's start with our Bourbon, the Distiller's Select. And this was introduced to the American market in 1996. And, slowly, it's been expanded throughout the United States and now in several export markets, including Germany. It's still just 20 years on the market. And yet it's now one of the leading super premium Bourbon brands in the world.
And this was designed to have a balance of flavor. It is a Bourbon but it also has tremendous fruit character, very unusual for a Bourbon. It has spice, wood, and grain character so it's very complex, very balanced. And we present this at 43% ABV or 86 proof as we would say here in the U.S.
Benedikt: It's very interesting to have a pot still whiskey.
Benedikt: With corn in it. And that is...
Chris: Very unusual. And as a pot still influenced Whiskey, it's gonna be very textural, heavy and rich on the palette. And at 43%, it has no alcohol burn at all, no heat. It's very mild.
Benedikt: Mild from the point of view that you don't feel the alcohol that strong but...
Chris: Full of flavor. Benedikt: Yup. And now I get the fruitiness. Chris: Because certainly Woodford Reserve, with those unique barrels that we've talked about, we're gonna have tremendous caramel and vanilla notes. But boy, the fruit, even hints of citrus, apple, berry notes. And I just kicked out a little Rye note. So every sip, every nosing of Woodford, you're gonna find something new in it because it has over 200 flavors in it. And my first fruit note is now cherry, a nice cherry note. And you move into a hint of clove and cinnamon. So this is an exciting Whiskey.
It's always intriguing on the palette. And it's ever-changing which makes it a fun brand for a bartender to use, a fun brand for people to experience neat. But it sure makes great cocktails going forward.
Benedikt: It is great. So when did you switch from column stills to pot stills. How did that work?
Chris: Well, this is a historic distillery. And we have not always owned this distillery. And, in fact, it had converted from pot stills to column stills only after the repeal of Prohibition in 1935. The distillery was closed in 1959 and at that time it was stripped of its distillation equipment, stripped of its barrels. And it was sold to a local farmer because it had 500 acres of farm land around it and the farmer wanted the land. So the distillery building set vacant for a generation. We purchased the distillery and put in the pot stills new. So that occurs in the early 1990s when that transition occurred. So while it had been a column still distillery, it had not made a drop of Whiskey since 1959.
Benedikt: So what we're looking at, everything came from the pot stills.
Chris: That's right. This is our creation.
Benedikt: So okay. So we don't look at any column still Whiskey here, okay. That is great.
Chris: Now we introduced our Double Oaked three years ago. Double Oaked is a finished Whiskey. Think of a great, single malt or an Irish Whiskey that's finished in a port or a sherry barrel, a cognac cask. Well, what we are doing is taking fully matured Woodford Reserve and finishing it, putting that Whiskey in a second barrel. But the second barrel is a new charred oak barrel. So Double Oaked retains its Bourbon designation. We don't have to say finished. And that second barrel was made in our own cooperage, specifically for this product.
Benedikt: You have an oak barrel. You mature it in it and then when it's partially used and got the flavors out, you take the Whiskey in a new barrel.
Benedikt: It's fresh. Get the next flavors out and then it's the... What do you call it? Double...
Chris: Double Oaked because it's been oaked or exposed to oak barrels twice.
Benedikt: Okay. But it's white oak so it's not that spicy as like a European...
Chris: Correct. Yes, it's American white oak. And we do this to get more of the oak sugar which, of course, are transformed during the charring process into caramelized sugars, so sweeter on the nose. Benedikt: Sweeter on the nose.
Chris: Caramel, vanilla, butterscotch notes, maple syrup notes.
Benedikt: But it's a deeper sweetness, I would say.
Benedikt: But they are the same barrels as the first barrels?
Chris: No, they're actually different.
Benedikt: They're different?
Chris: Same wood, but we've toasted and charred them differently.
Chris: Than the Woodford barrel.
Benedikt: How differently?
Chris: We have toasted, which is a slow application of heat below the combustion point of wood, we've toasted the barrel interior four times longer than a Woodford barrel. But we've charred it one fifth the time so very heavy toast, very light char.
Benedikt: So we're looking at longer caramelization.
Benedikt: And less of the oak charcoal filter.
Chris: Yes, the smoky notes, etc.
Benedikt: Okay, great. Okay.
Chris: We've also presented this at the same ABV, the same proof point as Woodford. So that extra color, the extra flavor, the extra aroma is not due to an alcohol level change because they're identical. It's all due to the second barrel.
Benedikt: Okay. I would say it's definitely dried fruit. But I got a lot of old notes as well.
Chris: Yes. It's a big Whiskey. It's a big, rich Whiskey.
Benedikt: Your Whiskeys are pretty different from the standard [inaudible 00:16:00] I know. I would say this is all because of the pot stills. Chris: Well, there's several reasons. Number one, I would really give a lot of credit to our unique strain of yeast that we use here only. That strain of yeast was designed to make fruit character. Don't discount our long fermentation and our natural spring water. So it's a matrix of flavors. You really can't single out any one individual aspect and say it's all due to that.
Benedikt: You're right.
Chris: It's the whole.
Benedikt: I tasted the fermenter and it was... I don't know how you did it but it was like a bit of apple in there.
Chris: It sure was.
Benedikt: A bit of fruit in the other, so that was pretty unique as well. So you put a lot of thought into that and I appreciate it.
Chris: Well, wonderful. I'm glad you like it. Now, Rye Whiskey's all the craze now. People love Rye Whiskey. And we started making Rye Whiskey over 10 years ago through our experimentation process, through our gearing up. And finally we started making Rye Whiskey. It's available only in select markets now in the United States because we still don't have a large volume of Rye. But here is Woodford Reserve Rye. It's, again, the same water, yeast, fermentation, distillation as we have used to create our wonderful Bourbon. In fact, we're using the same three grains: corn, rye and malt. The only exception is, as a Rye Whiskey, we have more Rye than corn.
Benedikt: Than corn.
Chris: And this is 53% Rye. With Reserve Bourbon, it's 18% Rye. So we've nearly tripled the amount of Rye, dramatically reduced the corn note but included more malt because it takes a little more malt to convert Rye into fermentable sugar.
Benedikt: So you need a bit more enzymes for this kind of grain? Okay.
Chris: Yes. Yes. And the Rye was designed like Woodford to be a balance of flavor. It's also to have fruit character which is one of our Woodford Reserve signature notes, as you've mentioned. So this is not your typical, very straight forward spicy Rye Whiskey. This is a whole new style of Rye Whiskey that here in the US we're getting incredible compliments about how different it is, how drinkable it is because it was designed to be different.
Benedikt: So we're looking at the contrast of fruity and spicy then?
Chris: Right. And your first note, you should find pear, pear drops, Pear eau de vie. This is very fruity but it's not the dark fruit that you mentioned in Woodford or Double Oaked. It's more tree fruit. And the spices are all baking spices, not tobacco and not leather but anise and clove and cinnamon and nutmeg. It's a very delicate spiced aroma, little bit of chocolate.
Benedikt: It's a bit... I would say... I'm not that great of an expert so it's a bit complicated for my nose, I have to say.
Chris: It is very complicated. Compare it to the Bourbon and you'll see how the Bourbon is so wood forward, typical, classic Bourbon.
Benedikt: Now that I have the Bourbon, I get that the Bourbon is much sweeter.
Chris: With a nice citrus character to it and this is just delightful. And the spices really sparkle on the palette.
Benedikt: Now I have developed [SP] the spices. But it's... I don't have like peppery but it's...
Chris: No...more calming, again, spices you might...
Benedikt: I think I have a bit of cinnamon in there.
Benedikt: I like it. It's not a... It is a Rye but I know the Rye is a bit tougher. Usually, Rye is a bit tougher as well.
Chris: It is.
Benedikt: So maybe that's like the balance from the sweetness and the fruitiness? So I like it.
Chris: Well, this Rye was designed to be in the Woodford family. Again, that balance, the subtle sweetness, deep complex flavor, very easy to enjoy, all of these can be enjoyed neat just as we have today. They're great with rocks. They're great with a splash of water. And we're finding they're favorites with bartenders, making great cocktails with all three of these Woodford Reserve expressions.
Benedikt: Okay. Great. So I see you're doing a bit of an expansion. So, obviously, with good products come more demand and then you need more supply.
Chris: Yes. We have been very fortunate in the reception that Woodford Reserve has gotten from Germany to here in Kentucky. And we are building more warehouses, more heated warehouses. We have added more wooden fermenters. We are going to add another set of pot stills from Scotland in the next year. We are growing. Benedikt: So are we looking at the identical pot stills?
Benedikt: So are they gonna be like is the room gonna be mirrored or...
Chris: It will be mirrored, yes. Benedikt: It will be mirrored. That is gonna be amazing. If you walk in, you have three pot stills on the right, three pot stills on the left.
Chris: It's gonna be spectacular.
Benedikt: Okay, [crosstalk].
Chris: And all because we want to continue to make Woodford the way we've been making it. So while we are growing and expanding, we are just adding more of the same processes. We're not gonna sacrifice quality for quantity.
Benedikt: I'm not sure how you're gonna keep up with... I would estimate that with such a good product, you have a huge demand increase. I hope you will get this, that with the demand increase, you know, you can still put that much effort that you're doing right now into your bottles because in the warehouse, you just see that you just taste all the barrels, not just, "Okay, we think this is right and we put it all together," and it is probably right. But you taste every barrel and it's called the Distiller's Select. So you taste all the barrels. So I'm hoping you get that effort will be put into the future.
Chris: Absolutely. This product is a labor of love. Everybody here at the distillery is passionate about this brand. And we will not let anything deviate from the course we've been on these last nearly 20 years.
Benedikt: Okay. I'm glad to hear that. So hopefully these two products will reach Germany as well.
Chris: I'm counting on it.
Benedikt: And so...
Chris: And, of course, I would like all of your viewers to know that the Woodford Reserve distillery is open for tours. We do have Europeans, Germans, Asians. We have people from all over the world visiting Woodford Reserve. We are one of the most popular distilleries on the famous Kentucky Bourbon trail. So please come and visit us. We're open seven days a week. We'd love to have your customers come and visit.
Benedikt: If you come to this area, it is a great campus. You have a lot of trees there. You see the creek and definitely the pot stills are definitely worth a look at. And so thank you for having us.
Chris: Thank you.
Benedikt: And thank you for watching. And if you like this video, then please give me a thumbs up. And thank you and goodbye.