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BOTM, 7/06: Woodford Reserve


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The re-opening of the Labrot and Graham distillery was an exciting occasion for lovers of Kentucky bourbon. Not only because it was the first "new" distillery opened in recent memory, but also owing to the 3 beautiful copper pot-stills that would be producing more of Kentucky's finest. Initially produced from honey-barrels of Old Forester bourbon brought to Woodford County from Louisville to finish aging, Woodford Reserve was a hit from day one. Fast forward a decade and Woodford Reserve is a constantly evolving product containing both pot-still bourbon distilled on site and bourbon produced in Louisville. Will Woodford Reserve eventually contain 100% pot-still bourbon? That remains to be seen, however what they are doing now seems to be working.

Join us now in a discussion of Woodford Reserve, both current and previous conjurations.

:893drillsergeant-thSound off:893drillsergeant-th

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My wife purchased Woodford Reserve last week when she saw the Labrot & Graham insignia and remembered the flavor from our tour of the distillery about 10 years ago. One taste and she immediately knew it wasn't the same drink as before; the nectar quality is missing. She absolutely loved the flavor then, but won't be pouring from this new bottle.

I think it's a decent drink and would serve it to guests but it'll be a long time before we empty this one. (Most of our guests are tee-totalers.)

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Edward_call_me_Ed

I never did get around to ordering the last bottle of the month, but I have seen this on the shelf of at least on shop, so I will be getting a bottle soon. I will get around to ordering the PVW 15.

Ed

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I have found this bourbon highly variable with time. About 2 years ago I got a bottle that was so bland as to be almost tasteless. Several months later my brother in law brought a bottle around and I approached it skeptically, but found it a decent medium-bodied pour with a pretty fair amount of character. So the jury is still out - my experience suggests that Woodford Reserve is really inconsistent.

Craig

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I had a bottle from batch 133. It was okay, but never really knocked me over---I figured there were other bourbons I liked better in the same price range, and after finishing that bottle I have not replaced it. The oft-discussed variability of the whiskey from batch to batch is a further disincentive to further experimentation.

I'm curious whether people who like WR and drink a lot of it still detect a similarity of "house style" with Old Forester now that they are apparently incorporating more of the pot still bourbon in the final product. Last I heard, it was still a secret how much pot still bourbon made up any given batch, but that was a while ago.

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mythrenegade

I am away for a couple of weeks, and bought a bottle of Woodford Reserve (batch 211) to be my only drink while I was gone. I figured this would be a good way to immerse myself in a new bourbon, allowing me to fully delve into its treasures. Big mistake.

This stuff is $26 a bottle for me, vs. $20 for Eagle Rare 10 YO (my personal favorite), $16.99 for ETL and $15.99 for Elijah Craig 12 YO. As my second most expensive bourbon purchase, I was expecting great things.

It has a medicinal flavor to it that reminds me a bit of the original listerine. I also taste oak, vanilla and a bit of honey & orange. Overall though, this is quite bland compared to the other premium bourbons I have tried. I'd take ETL any day of the week over this stuff, and at a considerable savings too...

I don't understand the "pot still" comments. If someone would like to enlighten me as to what is supposed to make this stuff special, I'm all ears. This bourbon and its packaging reminds me of the wineries in california who make a big deal about how great their wines are, they have beautiful facilities and charge fabulous prices, but their wines are just mediocre. They sell though, because people will buy the image and don't trust their own palates.

So, in conclusion my review of WR can be summarized like this: "Big Hat, No Cattle."

Joel

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mythrenegade
I never did get around to ordering the last bottle of the month, but I have seen this on the shelf of at least on shop, so I will be getting a bottle soon. I will get around to ordering the PVW 15.

Ed

Don't you have something like 114 bottles of bourbon opened right now? I am stunned that you don't have these fairly common pours in your collection...

Joel

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jburlowski

I echo the comments that others have made.... this was once a very good pour. Now it's a middle-of-the road bourbon that (through attractive packaging and heavy advertising) is marketed at a premium price.

The only time I drink it now is when I'm out for drinks and the only alternatives tha bar has are Beam White and MM.

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Pot still refers to the distillation equipment used to make part of WR. These are small copper "pots", a trio is used to distill successively the spirit in a traditional, batch process. They are similar to what is used to make single malt whisky in Scotland and cognac in France. Some bourbon is blended in to the aged pot still WR sourced from Brown-Forman's distillery in Louisville, but recent batches seem to stress the pot still component. The Louisville whisky and all other bourbons made today are made in large column stills. This is a different technology that is a newer, more efficient style of production that (to make a long story short) tends to result in a spirit with less "whiskey" (congeneric) character. Originally, all bourbon was made in pot stills although quite early on (mid-later 1800's) early versions of the column still (e.g., the 3-chambered beer still) took over. So part of the appeal of the pot still WR is to see what some bourbon was like when it was made in pots in, say, 1830-1850. Funny you say WR reminds you of Listerine. I recall bourbon historian Mike Veach stating that a pre-Prohibition whiskey he tasted reminded him of dental mouthwash. The whiskey Mike tasted may or may not have been made in a pot still but the analogy is apposite since even column still products before Prohibition tended to be distilled at a relatively low proof, as one obtains today from 2 or 3 runs in a pot still. So the pot still has the aura of authenticity, or an early version of it, and that appeals to many of the cognoscenti here.

Gary

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I can answer one question from Jeff's original post for this thread. According to Chris Morris, who is the man in charge, Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select never will be 100% pot still whiskey from the Woodford plant. The reason? That plant can't make enough to meet present, let alone future demand.

They are, however, committed to releasing limited edition products that come 100% from their pot stills. The first of these was the Four Grain.

In order to distill a mash in a pot still, which isn't done in Scotland (they screen out the grain solids and distill from an all liquid wash), they came up with a system in which the mash is pumped into the still horizontally, so it kind of spins around the pot down to a drain at the bottom, then back to the pump to be shot in again, until all of the alcohol has been stripped out. This shooting of the mash into the still seems to have a scouring effect. Copper contact is considered good for whiskey, but this just might be too much of a good thing. At any rate, you can really taste the copper in the pot still whiskey.

Whether you like this taste or don't, it's definitely different.

Another factor, I think, for some here is that we are used to our super premium American whiskeys being distinguished by age, whereas Woodford is about six years old and even with the temperature controlled warehouses, it just doesn't have the oaky depth of something with ten years or more. In other words, it's just not going to stand up to comparison with a Pappy 15, for example.

All that said, I have to agree with others here who have said they have enjoyed previous bottles of WR more than they have more recent ones.

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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.

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TimmyBoston

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.

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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.

Gary

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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.

Gary

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Ambernecter

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...

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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.

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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.

Notes:

  • 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?

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bluesbassdad

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.

Yours truly,

Dave Morefield

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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.

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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.

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Uh, ok. Most of #2 was a dumb question. I guess the two distilleries would be Old Forester's "Early Times" distillery in Shively, and the Woodford Reserve Distillery. D'oh! For some reason, it didn't register that Woodford Reserve was one of their distilleries.

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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...?

At one time, I made a rather concerted effort to get them from a public source, without success. However, the distilleries all have them and my contacts there have been happy to supply me.

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?)

Shively, which is a suburb of Louisville, in Jefferson County; and Versailles, which is near Lexington, in Woodford County. The Shively distillery is just called the Brown-Forman Distillery and produces Old Forester, Early Times and some of the whiskey for Woodford Reserve. The Versailles distillery is the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Yes, the inventory includes Early Times.

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.

"2004 whiskey" means whiskey entered (i.e., distilled and put into barrels) in 2004.

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So is information available on number of barrels entered in previous years? And are the years broken out? Or do the reports just display the number of barrels entered in that particular year?

If there are year-by-year stats, would be very interesting to know what some of the oldest bourbon is in stock out there, etc.

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Just saw your post in the other forum with the consolidated statement. Thanks much!

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...would be very interesting to know what some of the oldest bourbon is in stock out there, etc.

Dan, I tasted a 25yo Stitzel-Weller wheated sample from Drew Kulsveen's hand in April, and while it was probably not marketable, it wasn't altogether 'gone', either.

The 2,000 barrels of 18yo S-W warehoused at Buffalo Trace, but owned by Diageo, on the other hand, is wasted in Crown Royal!

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