A Stop on the Bourbon Trail: Woodford Reserve

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After the Bourbon Social: Buffalo Brunch that we attended on October 9, we decided to take a tour of Woodford Reserve, since it was only 20 minutes away. This was the second time we had went to Buffalo Trace, and it was going to be the second time that we would visit Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve is a distillery that is located in Versailles, Kentucky, and it is a bourbon produced by the Brown-Forman Corporation. It is also one of the smallest and oldest distilleries in Kentucky. In 1995, Woodford Reserve was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

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History:

Just like with many American companies, ownership has changed several times over the years. The Woodford Reserve Distillery was formerly known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. It was later sold by the Pepper family to Leopold Labrot and James Graham in 1878. They owned and operated it, except during Prohibition, until 1941, when it was sold to the Brown-Forman Corporation. Brown-Forman operated it until 1968. In 1971, the property was abandoned by the corporation. In 1993, the property was repurchased by Brown-Forman and they once again made it operational. The brand known as Woodford Reserve was introduced in 1996.

Distilling began on site in 1780, and the distillery building was built in 1838. As of 2010, this makes Woodford Reserve the oldest of the nine bourbon distilleries that are currently in operation. However, the site hasn’t been continuously operational.

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The Five Sources of Flavor and The Process:

On the tour, you learn about “the five sources of flavor” that influence the taste of bourbon, which are water, grain, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

  • Water: The grains for the mashbill are mixed with water from Glenn’s Creek. I’m sure if you know about Kentucky, bourbon, or have been reading my blog, then you know all about limestone water. The limestone adds minerals, like calcium, which helps the yeast used to make bourbon. The limestone also filters out impurities, most importantly iron, which gives liquor a bad taste.
  • Grain: The corn used for Woodford Reserve is locally grown, non-GMO corn from Shelby County, Kentucky. The malt comes from Montana and the rye is from Canada. The mashbill is 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malt. Like I mentioned in my Bourbon 101: Starting With the Basics post, bourbon must be at least 51% corn.

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  • Fermentation: The fermenters are made of 100-year-old cypress wood. The grains and water are combined, and the mash is put into fermenters. Woodford Reserve also uses its own unique yeast strain. The average time for fermentation is three days for bourbon, but Woodford Reserve ferments theirs for six days. This is actually the longest fermentation in history. After the fermentation process, the distillation process begins…

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  • Distillation: Woodford Reserve is distilled three times in three stills. These are the tallest pot stills in the world. You may recognize Woodford from their iconic copper stills. The first still holds 2,500 gallons, and they distill it up to 20 percent alcohol. The second and third both hold 1,650 gallons each, and they distill it up to 55 percent and then 78 percent. The spirit will go into the barrels at 55 percent alcohol.

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  • Maturation: The rickhouses for Woodford Reserve are heat-cycled rickhouses. When the temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit, they will then heat the rickhouse until the bourbon is 85 degrees. Then, finally they will turn off the heat. These are the only barrelhouses like this in the world. The barrels are selected based on flavor, not age. Also, something cool about Woodford Reserve… They build and char their own barrels at their own cooperage. They also are the only spirit maker in the United States to use their own cooperage to make their own barrels.

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  • In fact, Warehouse C has walls that are two feet thick and made of limestone.

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After a barrel is filled, it’s rolled down the longest gravity-fed barrel run in the United States, which is over 500 feet long, to the warehouse, where the aging process begins.

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This is where Woodford Reserve is bottled. When we visited back in early 2015, this was completely different.

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Just as with all bourbon tours, there is a tasting at the end. With the Woodford Reserve tour, you get to taste Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked with one of their Kentucky Bourbon Balls made by Ruth Hunt Candies out of Mount Sterling, Kentucky.

Fun Fact: So, the average age for Woodford Reserve is about 7 years, so when it is taken out of the barrel, about 50% of the bourbon has evaporated. This is what is known as the ‘Angel’s Share,’ and this goes for all bourbon. In fact, when you are on tours, you just may hear them mention about it going to the angels or sometimes about the particularly greedy angels.

It looks like this post came at the perfect time. Actually, on October 17th, 2016, Woodford Reserve celebrated their 20th anniversary. There was a ceremonial barrel signing and a toast to the next twenty years!

 

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