A fly on the rick house wall: Westport Whiskey & Wine and Butchertown Grocery pick a barrel of Woodford

Woodford Reserve’s Personal Selection Program allows you to batch your own bourbon. | Photo by Sara Havens

When one of Louisville’s coolest liquor stores partners with one of Louisville’s coolest restaurants and invites you along for an afternoon of sipping bourbon, you move mountains to clear your schedule.

Besides, any amount of time spent at Woodford Reserve Distillery with the folks from Westport Whiskey & Wine and Butchertown Grocery is not wasted.

I was honored to tag along and learn, document and partake in the blissful, educational experience of choosing private barrels of Woodford Reserve and Woodford Double Oaked.

It was a hot and humid Monday August morning when I arrived at the distillery in Versailles, Ky. It was a bustling little place, with tourists perusing the gift shop, forming lines for tours and snacking at the small restaurant inside the visitor’s center.

Chris Zaborowski | Courtesy

I quickly spotted Chris Zaborowski, co-owner of Westport Whiskey & Wine, and found my way to my flock.

It was then I noticed Butchertown Grocery’s Chef Bobby Benjamin and Beverage Director Nic Christiansen, who I correctly assumed were sharing a barrel with the East End liquor store.

Many times, a liquor store will partner with a restaurant or bar on a private barrel pick to split the cost and share the wealth. It allows the bar to offer its patrons a one-of-a-kind, single-barrel bourbon by the drink, and it allows the same for the liquor store, but by the bottle, of course.

And with Butchertown Grocery, not only will Christiansen create intricate cocktails with the bourbon, but it’s more than likely Benjamin will take some into the kitchen and add it to entrees, sauces, desserts, you-name-it. In fact, Benjamin said he was looking forward to smoking some of his meats with the empty barrel you get from a private pick.

Finding Your Flavor

Our group was treated to a full tour of one of Kentucky’s oldest distilleries (Elijah Pepper started distilling there in 1812), followed by lunch in the drying house (where spent grain was once dried for local farmers to come take to feed livestock) and finally the Private Selection Program.

The group featured folks from Westport Whiskey & Wine, Butchertown Grocery and The Bourbon Society. | Photo by Sara Havens

During lunch, I chatted with Zaborowski and Westport’s other co-owner, Rich Splan, to find out exactly what flavor profile the two were looking for.

“It’s got to sing to me,” said Zaborowski. “It’s got to be good on all accounts — nose, taste and finish.”

The two guys said they don’t always select the same profile, but they’ll know instantly when they’ve found a unique honey barrel in the wild. And Splan said he tends to defer to Zaborowski.

“I usually sit back and let Chris do the choosing,” said Splan. “It all tastes good to me.”

The bottles will be specially marked. | Courtesy

Zaborowski said Westport Whiskey & Wine does more than 40 barrel selections each year, and he believes it’s what helps set his store apart from the others. It’s a way to offer his patrons new experiences with distinguished brands.

“Consumers who are into whiskey are looking to experience new flavors and tastes from the traditional brands,” he said. “Single-barrel selections offer something unique and yet are within the taste profiles of standard everyday brands.”

Zaborowski and Splan have essentially created a trusting bond between their barrel picks and their patrons. If you’re a regular at the store, you grab a new single-barrel release each time one hits the shelf, because you know it’s going to be quality, tasty and original. So far, they’ve never had a return.

“We believe we have built a taste profile that is unlike any other group of stores. And thankfully, it appears it is one that resonates with our customers,” Zaborowski said.

The Woodford Experience

Woodford does private barrel selections a bit differently than other distilleries. For the standard Woodford Reserve, which the group was to choose, you’re given samples of six barrels and then asked to eliminate two. The four barrels you chose are then batched into twos, and the group then decides on the best pair.

Master Distiller Chris Morris led the Personal Selection Program, and he poured samples 1 through 6 in tasting glasses. We smelled, swirled and sipped our way through all six and agreed to eliminate No. 1 and 3.

We were told to sample all six and get rid of two. | Photo by Sara Havens

Morris then went back to work, batching our four favorites into six more options — Nos. 2 and 4; 2 and 5; 2 and 6; 4 and 5; 4 and 6; and 5 and 6. We returned to our tasting glasses and sipped through these.

This was the most difficult of the experience because not a single sample was awful — not that anything was awful that day. The group was torn between three, so Morris again kicked us out of the room while he batched the top three for us to blind taste.

In the end, it was Batch A — No. 2 and 4 — that won the majority of the votes.

Morris explained that since Woodford is a batched bourbon, it made sense that the Personal Selection process be the same, as opposed to choosing a single barrel of Woodford Reserve. Each distillery does it differently, and this is what sets Woodford apart.

Butchertown Grocery’s Nic Christiansen and Bobby Benjamin debate the samples. | Photo by Sara Havens

Plus, it gave our group insight into the intricate batching process. You might find two barrels you really like, but together, they may not get along with each other, so to speak.

We had several do just that, and it made us respect the master distiller’s job even more.

Next up for the group was choosing a barrel of Woodford Double Oaked.

This process went a lot quicker than the regular Woodford, because Morris and Brown-Forman Whiskey Ambassador Cat Platz already batched the Double Oaked into three distinct flavor profiles.

We sampled the original Double Oaked — which essentially is fully matured Woodford that is then aged in a new heavily toasted, lightly charred oak barrel for an additional six months to a year — along with the other three samples.

This vote was the easiest of the day — everybody in the group chose Batch No. 1 with no discussion, no dissent and no denying the rich butterscotch flavors that oozed from the small sample. Someone fittingly referred to it as a “Butterscotch Bomb,” and it was hands down the favorite.

Zaborowski said he hopes to have both Woodford Reserve and Double Oaked Personal Selection bottles in Westport Whiskey & Wine by the end of September. One unique aspect about the store is its expansive tasting room, so if you’re unsure you’ll like the bourbon, you can always try a sample before committing to buy the bottle.

The store is located at 1115 Herr Lane in Westport Village.

Here are a few more photos from our afternoon at Woodford: