I liked the older version better, and am still on the lookout for pre-batch 90 bottles with Lincoln Henderson's signature. Of course, I'm also a big fan of Old Forester 100 proof and OFBB, so I guess it's no big surprise that I'd like a whiskey made from Old Forester honey barrels. However, I found the older version of Woodford to have a much less distinct rye profile than either of the Old Forester bottlings.
The newer version is just mediocre in my opinion, and seems to vary a fair bit from bottling to bottling.
I'm just not a fan of Woodford. I don't see what's so special, I don't care for it. But I would like to try some of the older stuff considering what I've read here.
In reading Samuel M'Harry's Practical Distiller, M'Harry, who worked in Lancaster County, PA and wrote this book in 1809, gave much attention to the need to prevent the "grain" from "sticking" to the sides and bottom of the still and burning. His pot still was heated by a coal or wood fire. He advised to stir constantly the contents (manually) until they were well-boiled to prevent singeing and burning. He notes that the problem only attends the "singling" (first distillation): in the doubling the contents are simply liquid and burning not an issue. M'Harry also advised to grease the still with "bacon, tallow or soap" to avoid burning the mash. While modern Scots whisky practice is to filter the beer before distilling, some malt distilleries still use a method of chains or other system mechanically to keep the beer moving to avoid singing or burning: it seems even roughly filtered distiller's beer is liable to burn (and acquire off odours) unless precautions are taken. Possibly too various distilleries there use different degrees of filtering for their mash. I don't know if barley or bere mashes were filtered in the early 1800's in Scotland. I would suspect they weren't but I don't know for certain.
Of the many advantages to the column still, the inaptness of the steam to burn the mash is not the least.
I took a quick look at Byrn (circa 1860's) to ascertain mashing and distilling practices 60 years after M'Harry with regard to using mash or wash (filtered mash). Byrn was also writing in Pennsylvania but from a broader knowledge base and more sophisticated industrial perspective. In his chapter on distilling malt whisky, in which he states "Indian corn" may be substituted for the raw barley (he used barley malt and raw barley in proportions varying between 1:4 to 1:9), he states that both mash tuns and wash stills (therefore clearly referring to pot stills only) should contain apparatus to mix the solid and liquid parts of the mash. This should be done he said to reduce the risk of burning the mash in the still. He did not advise to grease the still as such but (oddly perhaps) advised to throw in a piece of soap to reduce the risk of the excessive bubbles and overboiling. It is clear from this discussion that Byrn, who was much influenced by foreign practice including that of Britain and France, did not even consider filtering the mash. I infer that this was not generally done at the time, at least for whisk(e)y. The survival in Scotland of wash stills in which moving chains or paddles help to keep the wash from sticking is probably a survival of a time when they had even a bigger job to do. At some point, perhaps due to the size of some wash stills in Europe (they were and are huge in Ireland, for example, holding thousands of gallons) it was decided to filter the mash to take out the solids which were liable to burn. Bourbon makers never did this, possibly because the switch to the column still rendered it unnecessary. It may be too that filtered corn beer is too bland to produce an acceptable bourbon taste. Or maybe it has something to do with yield (M'Harry suggests this in fact). As for Woodford Reserve, it is hard to say if its process to keep the mash from sticking increases the "coppery" taste some note in the bourbon. It may be this has had some impact as theorised by Chuck. It may also be that the Versaille stills are showing some effect of "newness" as bruited by Dan. The bourbon sold now would have been produced in the early years of their operation. Maybe none of these factors is valid and other things explain the palate of WR. I find WR an interesting whiskey. Considering the availability nation-wide of Old Forester it is easy to adjust WR to one's taste and stick to the brand profile (more or less). I view this almost as adding more or less water to a whiskey of given proof. Obviously not everyone (or even very many) are interested to do this but for those who are, something to bear in mind.
Woodford costs about the same as Maker's, BT 90 and WT 101 in England.
I first came across it in about late 1998 (I think) and thought it was a nice drop. I have not ever had a problem with the copper taste/taint and really find it a pretty well balanced, easy drinking whiskey. It has a full taste profile and a pretty easy finish, if a tad dry at times. I have not come across a bland bottle yet but it sounds like I've been lucky!
Not one I run to on a regular basis but one I would have no problem drinking again. There is no love at all for WR on this forum but I AM NOT ASHAMED! I like it. (I have to say though, that if ETL, Lot B and others were of a similar price to Woodford in England, WR would not really get much of a look in.)
Edited for spelling...
My biggest problem with WR is the price. Its marketed as a super-premium to the masses, but it isn't as nice as Buffalo Trace, Ancient Age or Evan Williams SB at a lower price point. It falls into the, nice enough in the glass, but if there is a different bottle available -- I'd take it.
A brief bit of a time line regarding Woodford Reserve, so we're all discussing from the same knowledge standpoint (and you many here who already know this better than I do, please correct and add to it):
- Woodford Reserve introduced in 1996, using Old Forester honey barrels, transferred to and aged in Woodford County; Labrot & Graham (later Woodford Reserve) begins disilling more or less at the same time;
- Woodford Reserve VIP bottling introduced in 2000;
- Fall 2003 (around Batch 90): L&G (Woodford) pot-still distillate begins being added to WR batches, essentially by taste -- some have a little, others have a lot. There is no set percentage;
- Summer/Fall 2005: 100% pot-still distillate, in the form of the Four Grain, is released;
- Summer 2006: Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris' signature replaces retired MD Lincoln Henderson's on WR bottles, which are renumbered back to Batch 1.
- Early 'batches' were much smaller than later/current ones. It's my understanding the first ones were about 8,000 bottles, while today's might number 30,000.
- Batch numbers are not created equal. Batch 1 750ml bottles appeared in 1996. Batch 1 VIP bottles appeared in 2000. Batch 1 "Chris Morris" just appeared. Each new size/issue begins with Batch 1, regardless of when it's released.
- Some (including me) have noticed that the dissolution of WR's quality consistency, if actual, seemed to begin about the time the Birthday Bourbons originated. Competition for the honey barrels?
I was disappointed when Woodford Reserve was announced as BOTM for July. I was sure it would be unavailable to me unless I ordered it from out of state (which is getting harder to do here), and I wasn't sure it would be worth the effort.
However, last night while I was pawing around in overflow storage area #2, I noticed a very wide bottle in the back. Within seconds I had my hands on it, and sure enough, it's WR. Specifically it's from Batch 61 with the Henderson signature. Thanks to Tim's excellent post, I know from that information that my bottling has none of the pot still bourbon.
In fact, I might have known that anyway. The flavor is very reminiscent of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I last drank a couple of weeks ago. The flavor of WR is lighter and sweeter than that of OFBB. All in all, the WR comes across as a very pleasant but not very interesting pour.
I think I still have a few pours left in each of two bottlings of OFBB. I also have a nearly full bottle of OF BIB, which I haven't felt like revisiting for a few months. Perhaps I'll get around to trying a four-way comparison before the month is out.
When I did a head-to-head a few years back with OF BIB and WR as the subjects, I found the OF to be sweeter and less sooty than the WR. That result was startling in that the consensus here at the time was that WR was like candy. Some folks likened it to honey and flowers.
Here is something I find interesting that may bear on this discussion.
As you probably can imagine, the distilleries pay a state tax on their aging stock, so they have to report it. Every year, a "consolidated statement" showing who has how much of what, from what year of production, is released.
Looking at the 2004 statement, the most recent one I have, I was surprised to see how little whiskey Brown-Forman makes at its two Kentucky distilleries. (This report is just Kentucky production, so Jack Daniel's isn't included.) It is broken up by company, not plant, but BF filled just 16,399 barrels in 2004, compared to 330,008 for Jim Beam and 151,103 for Heaven Hill, the two largest.
I should point out that this is actually a report of who has how much whiskey in storage, so production is inferred. For example, United Distillers (Diageo) reported that it has 20,596 barrels of 2004 whiskey. Strange, since it doesn't have a distillery. Obviously, that is someone elses production (Four Roses, presumably) which it took possession of and is aging in its own warehouses, presumably at Stitzel-Weller.
Anyway, the point as it applies to Brown-Forman is that they don't make very much bourbon and it's all going into Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, with WR probably now being the bigger of the two brands.
In reference to Tim's note about Birthday Bourbon, that sales volume is so small it seems unlikely to be a factor, but the overall size of BF's production and the fact that all of it goes into whiskeys that are nominally considered premium may be a factor in the seeming deterioration of WR.
When I wrote my post last night I was drinking some EWSB 1996, but later I had some WR from a fairly recent batch. I found it unusually light, I might even say thin, and while I could taste the copper influence, I found it nicely balanced, not overpowering as it is in the four grain. It definitely goes toward the herbal side of the taste spectrum, with definite anise and coriander notes. Just drinking it, I found it a bit thin and unsatisfying, but when I carefully tried to tease out some flavors, I found what was there to be satisfying. I even detected some slight resemblance to Jack Daniel's, which I found interesting.
My conclusion, as I've sort of said elsewhere, is that Woodford Reserve is different, and different at least in theory, as in "variety," is a good thing. It may be that the intention is for WR to appeal, like Blanton's and some others, to people who are not normally bourbon drinkers. While it doesn't in any way taste like scotch, it has some characteristics that, intellectually, remind me of scotch.
Chuck, your post raises three questions for me:
1. How does one get ahold of these consolidated statements? I assume it's a matter of public record, but is it available online or by writing an agency or...?
2. Sorry to ask a very basic question, but where are Brown-Forman's two KY distilleries? Louisville and Shively? (and does that barrel count include Early Times whiskey?)
3. You mention that "United Distillers (Diageo) reported that it has 20,596 barrels of 2004 whiskey." By 2004 whiskey, do you mean whiskey stored in 2004, or whiskey distilled in 2004? If so, and if such information is regularly reported, would be very interesting to see the ages of bourbons in stock at various distilleries.