Interview: Woodford Reserve’s Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall on Wheat Whiskey, Mint Juleps and More

Woodford Reserve continues to innovate, and behind that industry-setting creativity are Master Distiller Chris Morris and Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall. The two pride themselves on staying ahead of trends, or outright setting them, and this includes their newest permanent line extension, a Kentucky straight wheat whiskey, slated for summer 2019.

Morris and McCall recently swung through NYC in supporting Woodford Reserve’s annual $1,000 Mint Julep fundraiser with the Kentucky Derby. We caught up with the distilling duo to talk mint juleps, what Kentucky bourbon and horses have in common, the rising whiskey secondary market and, of course, what’s next for Woodford Reserve.

Beverage Dynamics: What’s coming down the pipeline that you can divulge?

Chris Morris: This summer we’ll be releasing our Kentucky straight wheat whiskey. That will make our distillery the only one with all four post-Prohibition-approved whiskeys available as straight.

Elizabeth McCall: The wheat will be fruit-forward, real fruity, with sweet aromatics as well. It came out pretty spectacularly.

CM: We first laid this down seven years ago, which puts us ahead of the wheat trend. Of course, this will be in short supply for a number of years, just like our straight malt whiskey released last year. The wheat will be priced in line with our bourbon and rye with a suggested retail price of $34.99.

In May we’re also launching in duty-free accounts around the world our Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition. This is fully matured Woodford Reserve finished for three years in XO Cognac barrels. It’s presented in Baccarat crystal. Baccarat actually approached us because they wanted Woodford Reserve to become the first American whiskey presented in their crystal. It has a $1,500 suggested retail price. The plan is that within a year or so we will also bring this to retail.

BD: Last year you released that Kentucky straight malt whiskey. What’s been the consumer response?

CM: We made the first batch of our malt whiskey years and years ago, before most craft distillers were making single malt. So we produced what we thought back then would be a year’s supply: 10,000 cases.

Well, after we released our malt last year, those bottles were gone in a matter of months. Both from us and from most retail shelves by now, I think. Which has led to a little bit of confusion, whether this was a one-time deal. Nope. This is now a permanent member of our family.

Another production’s year of the malt will release early this summer. There will be a little bit more of it than last year, but it will take some years to have an appreciable volume. But that volume will never be as much as our bourbon or rye, of course.

BD: How did the relationship between Woodford Reserve and the Kentucky Derby first come about?

The 2019 Woodford Reserve Kentucky Derby bottle.

CM: The history with Woodford Reserve begins with thoroughbred racing realizing that they needed to attract a new audience. They wanted something new and cool, for a younger audience, while also focusing on luxury items. So they came to us around 1999. Horseracing and bourbon go hand-in-hand: the same kind of people who like one would probably like the other. Each of us introduced to the other a new audience of fans, who were basically the same.

The history with whiskey goes back even further. The pioneers who originally settled Woodford County always had distilling in their blood. And their farms were self-sufficient, with their own stills. So our ancestors always had bourbon and horses growing up. And as the county fair system came together with horses and racing, farmers would also bring their whiskeys to share and compete. There’s a shared sociability to horseracing and bourbon.

The earliest mention of a mint julep cup was when a cup was awarded for a horse race in 1816. So our Kentucky Derby Mint Julep is the ultimate evolution of that history.

EM: The history of whiskey and horseracing also relates to the Kentucky water. We have a limestone shelf that’s nutrient-rich. That helps make strong bones in Kentucky thoroughbreds, and it’s great for our bourbon.

BD: What’s the genesis of the $1,000 Mint Julep fundraiser at the Kentucky Derby?

For the 2019 Kentucky Derby there will also be 25 Mint Julep gold cups for $2,500 each.

CM: About 14 years ago, we had already been making a mint julep at the derby, but with no special program. I had heard some PR buzz about bars, mainly in New York, that were serving $10,000 margaritas, or $1,000 this or that. But those were just to get buzz for the account; they had nothing to do with the bar or the cocktail.

So I said, ‘We have a drink associated with us already, and who has a better right to have an upscale cocktail than Woodford Reserve? And at the same time, let’s raise some money for charity.’

BD: What charity does the cocktail program benefit this year?

EM: The John Asher Scholarship. Asher was vice president of racing communications, and had become the face of Churchill Downs. He passed away last year. So this scholarship in his name supports journalism students at Western Kentucky University.

Also, what’s special for this year is that we have bourbon barrels filled with honey sweetener aging up in one of the spires at Churchill Downs. We went there and placed it inside the spire ourselves. It’ll rest for 145 days, for the 145th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby.

CM: We’ll have 120 silver cup Mint Juleps available for $1,000 each, and 25 gold cups for $2,500 each, for a total of 145. [Editor’s note: The cups go on sale on April 10 at 10 a.m. at woodfordreservemintjulep.com.]

“Also, what’s special for this year is that we have bourbon barrels filled with honey sweetener aging up in one of the spires at Churchill Downs,” says Woodford Reserve Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall. “We went there and placed it inside the spire ourselves. It’ll rest for 145 days, for the 145th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby.”

BD: What are your tips for making mint juleps?

EM: There’s a right way to muddle your mint. Wipe the mint on the inside of the cup. If you muddle it too much, then you bruise the veins of the leaf, which can turn tannic and not that pleasurable.

CM: You have to ask questions. The proper mint julep is a personal drink. Ask, ‘Do you like a lot of mint or not? Do you like it sweet or not?’ Most people who tell us that they don’t like a mint julep were served one that was not made to their taste.

BD: Woodford Reserve releases limited-edition bottles, which can end up on the secondary market, where rising prices have begun to cause similar upticks in retail costs. What are your thoughts on this situation?

CM: Obviously we’re all about capitalism, but we just want customers to know that it’s not us who are raising these prices. But we are honored that our bottles are commanding a higher price.

EM: Remember, we’re in it for the long haul. We would never think, ‘Hey, let’s raise prices and strike while the iron is hot and make a lot of money’. No, what we do is put out a product that’s high in quality but meant to be approachable and affordable.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece 8 American Whiskey Trends in 2019.

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