Chris Morris is one of those rare master distillers who become synonymous with whiskey. His four-decade career includes shaping Woodford Reserve into the innovative, global brand it is today, and now also distilling Old Forester with similar intentions. Raised in the industry — his parents worked for Brown-Forman — Morris boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of whiskey history, plus a knack for knowing what’s next.
Who better to ask for a look ahead as 2020 mercifully concludes? While Covid roiled the world, rickhouses sat still, with whiskey aging inside all the same. But outside, change permeated through the industry as always, and we recently spoke with Morris about the state of American whiskey and what he expects in 2021.
Beverage Dynamics: What whiskey trends do you see for 2021?
Chris Morris: I’m seeing a new category, or segment, of world blends. These are global blends that combine many whiskeys from different countries. I’m seeing big companies doing it.
BD: That begs the question: Is Woodford Reserve making a world blend?
CM: Not at this time.
BD: When we spoke this time last year, you predicted more premium blends and finishes. I assume that hasn’t changed?
CM: Yes. A number of years ago, blends were still frowned upon in America because they had a bad reputation because U.S. distilleries were using neutral grain spirits in their blends. But this is a changing landscape again. We’ve been doing that well with our Distillery Series, including our Four Grain release in 2020, which blends bourbon, rye, malt and wheat. In our Five Wood release this year, we blended together different finishes: Oloroso sherry, Amontillado sherry, Ruby port and Tawny port. [Editor’s note: The fifth ‘wood’ was the original American oak used to age the whiskey, pre-finish.]
Anyone can put whiskey into a port barrel and have it taste good. But now we’re getting into finesse.
BD: With so much innovation and craft distilling, how important is quality and consistency in 2020-21?
CM: Woodford Reserve is an old player now in the industry, so we have the luxury of having a base. A known standard by which all our whiskey is judged. When we put out a new innovation, someone can taste that next to our base whiskey and understand what makes the new whiskey taste different.
With newer distilleries that come out with 10 different expressions all at once, I wonder: What is your base? How do we judge your product? Maybe that’s a new business model, to put out a lot of stuff. But we built a base first, and all the rest flows from that. That foundation — that standard — I think is very important.
BD: I continue to find younger whiskeys tasting better. What gives?
CM: As the industry grows, and smaller distilleries and organizations develop, the educational base, the level of research, is growing as well. And these are growing to levels that did not exist in the early days. A lot of people newer to the industry have found their legs. Their institutional knowledge has grown.
Experience is growing, too. When you’ve had your doors open for five, six, ten years now, you know how to run your equipment better.
BD: I think Old Forester remains underrated. What’s the plan there?
CM: I think the construction of Old Forester’s new distillery in the very building where it was made in the 1880s is a significant statement that the brand is in line to return to its bigger and better days. I envision a return to the past when Old Forester was a million-case brand, like in the 1970s. And the brand is already doing extremely well today.
BD: Single barrel store picks exploded in popularity this year, despite the pandemic. Why?
CM: I did two picks personally with groups yesterday, and have more later today. It’s become a very busy business. I’ve heard that these bottles are flying off of shelves. Even on-premise accounts have continued to purchase these bottles from us.
On the retail side, those businesses like to have something special to offer their customers. And the retailers’ marketing has become more sophisticated. These bottles give retailers something else to talk about on social media.
It’s nice networking for us, too. We really appreciate barrel picks because they let us know more retailers personally, which I value, because that way I can get input personally.
BD: Will the idea of whiskey terroir take hold firmer in 2021?
CM: I think it will become more of a storyline, as it can apply to anyone. When you’re a bigger brand, it can be more difficult, because your ingredients come from 18 different states. You have to be more terroir-specific.
That can mean temperature location or water-terroir. We have done some terroir-specific products at Woodford Reserve, but they have been on a smaller scale.
With terroir you have to verify the ingredients. You have to be very clear about it. That means using photographic records, tagging ingredients as they come in.
BD: What’s next from Woodford Reserve?
CM: We have a good body of work still going on. We’re still just scratching the surface. Our malt and wheat releases are just now getting out across the country. Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition just came out and has done great. We don’t have enough of that to meet consumer demand.
There’s a lot of little fun things going on within the bigger picture of Woodford Reserve.
This interview was condensed and edited for publication.