Trip Report: Bourbon and Barrels

In March I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, where I had the chance to learn about Old Forester, Woodford Reserve and some other Brown-Forman brands, as well as tour the company’s headquarters and cooperage. This was my third trip to Kentucky over the past few years, and it’s always one of my favorite places to visit when covering the beverage alcohol industry.

While I was there, I met with Campbell Brown, the great-great-grandson of George Garvin Brown. Campbell is president of Old Forester, a brand the company is spending $50 million on for new line extensions and the opening of a distillery in Louisville on Whiskey Row, the original site for Old Forester. The company expects to open the new distillery, which will include a visitor area, sometime in 2016.

“This Bourbon renaissance is driven by curiosity – consumers have a love affair with the spirit and want to learn what makes each product different,” Campbell Brown says. “If we can create a home location for the brand, customers will continue to fall in love once they can see it, smell it and meet the people behind it. Then they become lifelong consumers.”

Later I traveled to the Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville, where the company “raises” nearly 600,000 barrels per year, all used for its own brands. Most of the barrels are used for Jack Daniel’s, but since the company opened a new cooperate in Alabama to exclusively supply the Lynchburg-based brand, more inventory is available for other spirits like Herradura, El Jimador, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve.

Chad Ruch, the production manager at the cooperage, walked our group through the process of making a barrel, all the way from drying the staves outdoors to the finished product rolling down the line onto a truck making its way to one of the company’s distilleries.

Visiting with Woodford

Later at the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, Master Distiller Chris Morris showed off the brand’s new visitor center. The distillery site was originally built by Oscar Pepper in the 1830s. Later, his son James sold the Old Crow brand his family created to Brown-Forman in 1941. The distillery was sold in the 1950s, but the company bought it back in the 1990s to serve as a homeplace for Woodford Reserve.

“When we opened the visitor center in 1996 it was designed for 80,000 people,” Morris says. “Once we reached 130,000, (which doesn’t include minors, since they only count the number of samples given out at the end of the tour) we felt it was time to renovate the building and expand.”

Morris also explained that Woodford Reserve was designed with five distinct flavor sources – grain, water, fermentation, distillation and aging. Woodford Reserve is created using a specific combination of these variables, and each variant of the whiskey (including the annual Master’s Collection offerings) changes one or more of them to impact the whiskey’s taste profile.

“The flavor profile behind Woodford Reserve really helped us climb the mountain in the beginning,” Morris says. “No one needed a new Bourbon in 1996, since the category wasn’t that popular at the time.”

Since that debut, the brand has introduced Double Oaked, which Morris calls a special occasion Bourbon designed for dessert, and Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, which was released earlier this year.

“The rye whiskey category was 90,000 cases, mostly from big distilleries when we started developing our rye,” Morris says. “We were aiming for 10 percent of the market at that time. 
By the fourth year of our aging process the category started to grow and we 
realized we wouldn’t have enough – now we can’t even cover the market demand from a handful 
of cities with developed bartending cultures.”

Creating a non-Bourbon whiskey is a departure for Woodford, but Morris explains “the charter we created early on for Woodford Reserve says we’ll be an innovative whiskey distillery. Nowhere does it say we’ll be a Bourbon distillery.”

Tasting the Flavor

Because flavor is so important to the brand, local 
restaurant owner Ouita Michel serves as the Chef-in-Residence and often creates “flavor wheels,” which pair a variety of foods with the whiskey to highlight its flavor characteristics.

She created a lunch menu based on the flavor profile of the new Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (see sidebar for the full line-up of pairings). During the tasting, our group also sampled un-aged Bourbon Reserve, un-aged Rye, aged Bourbon and Double Oaked.

Among the chefs who have visited the distillery in Versailles, participated in tastings and 
chosen barrels to take home are Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child (who also created a Woodford-based dessert).

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