Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bourbon of the Month: Woodford Reserve

I knew when I first posted my Bourbon of the Month back in February that I was being quite ambitious.  It wasn't that I was afraid of lacking material for posting about a different bourbon each month.  After all, I sip a bourbon after dinner almost daily.  My timidness came from the fact that I knew there was about a 99% chance that the "Bourbon of the Month" feature would most likely be forgotten each month.  Sure enough, it's been four whole months since the last Bourbon of the Month.  Who knows me better than me?

Sipping a bourbon on the rocks (or "on the ball" as I do) at the end of a sweltering Sunday in Miami just makes sense.  And with that, I headed to my local liquor store to see if they had anything new.  They didn't, but they did have a decent price on Woodford Reserve so I figured I'd get a bottle for the home bar.  It wasn't long after I got home that I remembered how much I love this bourbon.
Gold Medal Winner of the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup, Woodford Reserve is no stranger to popularity.  This premium small batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, located amidst miles of horse farms just outside Lexington in Versailles, Kentucky.  I had the pleasure of visiting the distillery a few years back when I hit up a few stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and it was impressive.

Built in 1838 by the Pepper family, the Woodford Reserve Distillery is one of the oldest in the country.  In fact, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  In 1878 the distillery was sold to Labrot & Graham who then sold it to Brown-Forman Corp in 1947.  Brown-Forman operated the distillery until 1968 then sold it in 1971, only to buy it back again in 1993, renovate it, and begin producing Woodford Reserve as a premium bourbon in 1996.  Oddly enough, the bottle that holds this rust-colored spirit still bears the Labrot & Graham name today.

Woodford Reserve distillery is the only operating distillery in America to triple-distill its' bourbon using copper stills.  The bourbon is then aged in a warehouse built of stone rather than one built of wood.  The stone helps to slow the warehouse's change in temperature as the seasons change, allowing the whiskey to slowly work through the charred oak barrels as they expand in the warmer months and contract in the cooler months.  The aging process continues for a minimum of six years before the bourbon is removed from the barrel and bottled at 90.4 proof (45.2% alcohol).

To me, Woodford Reserve is perfect in the Spring and Summer.  It's surprisingly tame for a 90-proof bourbon, lacking fiery spice notes found in other bourbons of the same proof and finishing smooth.  For this reason I have, on occasion, mistakenly labeled it an 80-proof bourbon.  The flavor notes of this bourbon are fantastic.  The nose is very woody with a hint of char, vanilla, and dried fruit.  The palate starts woody as well before yielding to a very flowery flavor.  The finish is the best - long and very full of fresh flowers.
Each year since 2005-2006, Woodford Reserve releases a limited edition batch of premium bourbon as part of the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection.  The first batch came in the form of Woodford Reserve Four Grain, a bourbon comprised of all four grains that can be used for bourbon (corn, malted barley, rye, wheat - most bourbons use rye OR wheat).  They followed with one of my personal favorites, Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, a bourbon aged in charred oak barrels and finished in barrels used to age Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay.  In 2008, it was Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash.  Usually, sweet mash is found in Irish, Scottish, and Canadian whisk(e)ys, with bourbon utilizing a sour mash, a method by which an old fermented sweet mash is combined with a new one, lowering the pH and making the yeast in the mash all happy.  I tried this one at Vessel Bar in Seattle, WA and thought it was just ok.  The last batch of the Master's Collection for 2009 was the dark-colored Woodford Reserve Seasoned Oak Finish, a bourbon aged in barrels made of charred oak that has been seasoned for 3-5 years as opposed to the regular 3-5 months.  One with a good eye will note that the bottles from the Master's Collection are shaped to resemble the copper stills from whence the whiskey is distilled.

Woodford Reserve is pretty easy to find at most liquor stores and many restaurants and bars in South Florida.  Retail price on a 750ml bottle usually falls in the range of $32-$40 though I've seen it as low as $25 and as high as $45.  A fair restaurant prices it around $8/glass.  Unfortunately "fair price" doesn't compute in Miami and most places charge $12-14 per glass.  The Master's Collection typically retails for $78-$90.  While I like my Woodford neat or with ice, it does make for a pretty stellar mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.  In fact, each year Woodford Reserve puts out a $1,000 mint julep for the Derby.  Here's the less expensive recipe in case you'd like to try:

Woodford Reserve Mint Julep

3-5 mint leaves
1 tsp powdered sugar
2 tsp water
2.5oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Crushed ice

Muddle (stir/gently crush) four mint sprigs and sugar in the bottom of a julep glass.  Add water and continue to muddle.  Add Woodford Reserve Bourbon.  Pack the julep glass with crushed ice.  Add a mint sprig for decoration and sipping straw.  If a metal julep cup is used, be sure to use a wooden muddler (bottom of a wooden spoon) instead of a metal spoon. This will eliminate the possibility of any metal shavings getting into the drink or scratching the julep cup.

Since this post, I was fortunate enough to find a bottle of the Woodford Reserve Master Collection Seasoned Oak Finish.  A truly fantastic bourbon that shows the effects of this bourbon being finished in barrels with seasoned oak wood staves.  A nice balance of sweet and spicy.  Through two tastings I have found this bourbon woody with a sweet hint of black cherry on the tongue that finishes with notes of caramel and vanilla.  Plenty more tastings in store...  :)

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