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Whisky Reviews

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 43.2% ABV

If you like bourbon, you’d inevitably stumble upon the well-known Woodford Reserve, a premium brand owned by the American whiskey giant, Brown-Forman Corporation. Thanks to brilliant marketers, much of the ‘backstories’ of many prominent American whiskey brands are shrouded in romantic myths, and it’s sometimes difficult to see through the fog to distinguish between historical fact and invented story. Of course, an invented backstory certainly says nothing about the quality (or lack thereof) of the spirits produced by those brands. Yet, as a whiskey enthusiasts, it’s much more satisfying to know when we’re being told ‘real’ stories and not just ones invented by men in suits from Madison Avenue.  

When it comes to the history of Woodford Reserve whiskey, a bit of digging does confirm that the history and heritage of the brand is actually quite legit. So before take a sip of its flagship bourbon expression, let’s tip our cowboy hats to the beginnings.

  
(Source: Woodford Reserve)

 

Hailing from Kentucky, Woodford Reserve's distillery is the oldest still-operating distillery site in the Bluegrass State, established. It's believed that distillation started on the site as early as the late 1790s by Elijah Pepper. The baton was passed on to his son, Oscar Pepper, who is credited for growing the family business, and pioneering several practices that would become industry-wide standards for bourbon production. 

Under Oscar’s watchful eye, the distillery perfected the famous sour mash fermentation method, a process that enabled consistency of quality in whiskey making. Oscar also insisted on aging the bourbon in charred oak barrels, a process that maximises flavour transfer when the spirit was aged in charred barrels. This, of course, became an industry standard that is now enshrined in US law as a crucial characteristic of the ‘bourbon’. Without charring your oak barrels, you could make whiskey but you cannot label it as ‘bourbon’.  

Working alongside Oscar Pepper was a notable Scottish figure named Dr. James ‘Jim’ Crow (the man was given this name before the term 'Jim Crow' meant anything more than a person's name), who was trained in chemistry and medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and joined the distillery. This Scottish connection might be related to the fact that Woodford Reserve Distillery still uses traditional Scottish-style copper pot stills today. This is a rarity in the US whiskey industry where most distilleries use slightly more advanced continuous column stills. 

 

A quick glance at these pot stills and you'd think you're looking at a Scotch distillery. Yet these have been used to make bourbon at Woodford Reserve in a triple-distillation process (Source: Woodford Reserve) 

 

Ownership of the distillery changed hands over the years until bigwigs Brown-Forman stepped into the picture in the 1940s. The site went silent from the 60s onwards before it was the company brought it back into operation and revived the Woodford Reserve brand in the 1990s. 

The flagship expression is none other than the Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which many describe as a dense and rich, very ‘bourbony’ bourbon. The distillery also produces a range of other styles such as rye whiskey, malt whiskey, as well as limited edition releases that come in higher proofs, or feature extra aging.

Recently, Woodford Reserve has just rolled out an ambitious Asia campaign, and it's all centred around the beloved Old Fashioned cocktail. The brand is celebrating the Old Fashioned Month from now till November with initiatives that encourage everyone to try their hand at crafting their own Old Fashioned cocktails using their flagship bourbon.

 

(Source: Woodford Reserve)

 

But before we get ahead of ourselves and begin jazzing-up our alcohol, let’s first have a simple dram of the bourbon straight.

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 43.2% ABV – Review

 

Nose: Rich and syrupy. Opens with very sweet cherry and raspberry jam leading the charge. There's definitely a punchy robustness to it on the aroma, with some heat along with spearmint and liquorice sweets – it takes me back to the taste of black HACKS cough drops. All of these are supported by everpresent notes of classic bourbon, with toffee, caramel and a touch of the mild saltiness that’s reminiscent of butterscotch.

Palate: Rich, sweet and warm, with a medium-rich mouthfeel. Frankly, it reminds me of a big sip of Starbucks Chai Latte – slightly scalding your tongue but laden with cinnamon and nutmeg and woody sweetness. Lots of sweet grain undertones from the corn as usual in a classic bourbon, along with a growing warmth in the mouth along with vanilla and caramel notes. As the flavours open up further, it develops a hint of savouriness, almost like peanut butter, but it's really quite subtle.

Finish: The spices peak towards the finish, and can be felt as a warming sensation at the back of the throat. while echoes of vanilla and caramel continue to linger. Usually I’d get a bit of dry oak tannins in the finish but the finish is pretty clean and it’s not present here. I have to say, despite the heft and general flavourfulness, it’s quite balanced and not too overoaked.

 

My Thoughts:

I liken this to the Starbucks Chai Latte of the whiskey realm. Not supremely complex or elegant, but it ticks the boxes for a classic bourbon – rich, layered with sweetness and spices, and packed with flavour. It's straightforward in its delivery. It doesn’t beat around the bush; it takes the well-trodden path and serves up exactly what one would anticipate from a good quality bourbon of its stature. For what you’re paying for this bottle, it’s very good value.

And as mentioned above, while it's rich in flavour, it avoids the pitfall of being too oaked, hinting at careful maturation.

If cocktails are your game, this flagship expression from Woodford Reserve would be a great choice – which really explains why the brand went to the trouble of creating an Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned Month that would run from October to November.

Given its pronounced caramel and vanilla notes, it would clearly in classics like Old Fashioneds or Whiskey Sours. That said, I’m just as happy to sit back like Don Draper and and enjoy it neat.

 

@CharsiuCharlie