The more people perpetuate a rumor, the more likely it’s accepted as truth. Even if it has no factual base, sometimes the lies continue as if they’ve been etched into history books. We all survived junior high, right? We know how rumors spiral out of control and take on a life of their own.
No one knows this more than Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, whose premium bourbon is often whispered about as being the exact same product as Old Forester, another longstanding Brown-Forman brand. Old Forester is less expensive than Woodford, so the false belief is that the Louisville-based company is just upselling their Old Forester by putting it in a fancy bottle, turning on the marketing machine and labeling it “premium.”
“People who know bourbon would not even entertain that thought. People who think they’re the same whiskey do not know bourbon,” reiterates Morris. “There are no secrets here — we’ve always talked about this quite openly. We always challenge anyone to sample Old Forester and Woodford side by side — and what a taste difference!”
The rumor began about 10 years ago, Morris recalls, and was started by a competitor who is no longer in the business. Perhaps he toured the distillery and just got confused by the terminology, or perhaps he just wanted to tarnish Woodford’s high-quality bourbon image. “They really hit it hard, but the more people talk about us, the more we sell,” Morris says.
The company has always made it known that they batch together whiskey from the Brown-Forman Distillery (in Louisville) and the Woodford Reserve Distillery (in Versailles, Ky.) to make the premium recipe that is Woodford Reserve Select. And Old Forester is currently made at the same Brown-Forman Distillery, which is relocating to Whiskey Row next year.
However, Morris stresses, every barrel that goes into Woodford Reserve is made specifically for Woodford Reserve — at both distilleries. “And they all end up at Woodford: We empty every barrel at Woodford; we reduce the batch to bottle-proof with our limestone water from Woodford; and every single bottle is filled and shipped from Woodford — so it’s very much a different, unique product.”
So why mix the two in the first place? Why not just distill Woodford at Woodford? “That’s a great question,” he begins, and then warns it’s time to get technical. (The bourbon nerd in me did a cartwheel.)
“The triple-distilled whiskey, the 100 percent pot-stilled whiskey (made at the Woodford Distillery), is such a powerful flavor. It’s designed to be a component of the product. Pot-stilled whiskey is a very rich whiskey — think about cognacs and single-malt scotches. That’s why we batch the two together, to get that perfect middle ground where the product is creamy, thick, rich, soft and has tremendous caramel notes — and that requires the two coming together.”
So basically, if they were to just bottle what comes out of the Woodford Distillery, it would taste more like a rich, bitter cognac than a smooth, semi-sweet bourbon.
By debunking the myth, Morris doesn’t want to downplay the importance of either Woodford or Old Fo’. Both have their places on bar shelves across the country, and both are reputable bourbons millions of people enjoy. But to take the angel’s share of this conversation, basically Old Forester is made to be enjoyed in cocktails, while Woodford should be enjoyed on its own.
“It’s quite clear that Old Forester has a dry, spicy, austere character actually designed for cocktails, because you’re going to add sugar and fruit and spice … you name it,” says Morris. “And Woodford is heavy, creamy, textural, more sweet, more fruity, more complex. It was designed to be enjoyed neat and on the rocks. We designed it as a contemporary product more than 20 years ago. It was certainly designed at a different time than when George Garvin Brown put Old Forester together in the 1800s.”
And while we’re waxing on Woodford, here’s some related news…
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish to be released in November
Brown-Forman recently announced the release of a new Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, which is finished in used pinot noir barrels from Sonoma-Cutrer in California.
Created by Morris and Sonoma-Cutrer’s winemaking director, Mick Schroeter, the Master’s Collection — which is not technically a bourbon because of its stint in a wine barrel — will be released in early November. Morris is excited to hear what people think. After all, both bourbon and wine have long histories of tradition and innovation — so why not bring them together?
“By putting the fully matured Woodford into these beautiful pinot barrels, the pinot noir just really enhances and highlights Woodford’s fruit character; and to make a good pinot, you’re going to recognize spices like clove and cinnamon,” Morris says. “It really highlights those flavors. There’s not a flavor we added — they were already in Woodford, but exposure to the wine barrel makes some of them just really stand out.”