Interview: Master Distiller Chris Morris on Woodford Reserve Turning 25

Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris interview bourbon whiskey
Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris. | Photos courtesy of Woodford Reserve

When Brown-Forman launched Woodford Reserve in 1996, the American whiskey market was remarkably different. Nobody drank bourbon. Premiumization was a losing strategy. Top bottles that fetch hefty secondary prices today sat on retail shelves, collecting dust at their SRPs. The number of distilleries operating in Kentucky was fewer than ten.

What a difference the decades make. American whiskey is now at the center of the global alcohol scene. Existing distilleries are expanding rapidly (Woodford Reserve is doubling production) while new producers open up at a rapid pace.

One of the pioneering brands behind this meteoric comeback was Woodford Reserve. It helped reintroduce the world to premium bourbon, and in doing so, has thrived through the years. Woodford Reserve celebrates 25 years in 2021. We recently spoke with Master Distiller Chris Morris about this anniversary, and watching a brand he helped create grow with the category as a whole.

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Beverage Dynamics: What’s this Woodford Reserve anniversary mean to you?

Chris Morris: It’s really hard to believe. Twenty-five years has gone by in a blink. But it’s been an amazing 25 years.

Looking back, when Woodford Reserve launched and opened for consumer visits, thinking about the state of the industry then versus now, it really is an unbelievable accomplishment.

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Bourbon had been in a state of decline for 20 years, since the late ‘70s, when we launched. Lots of famous distilleries had closed down in the ‘90s. There was no tourism interest in the whiskey industry in Kentucky. Brown-Forman took a big chance by reopening an old distillery at a time when distilleries were closing, by launching a new brand when brands were disappearing, and by opening for tourism when there was no big rush to visit distilleries in Kentucky.

BD: Why did Brown-Forman take that chance?

CM: Because Brown-Forman is an old bourbon company, founded in Kentucky. We take a lot of pride in our industry, and have the desire to keep it going. Opening Woodford Reserve was a dynamic moment for the industry. Obviously we didn’t bring back bourbon all alone, but we gave the industry a new reach.

Twenty-five years later, there are more than 70 distilleries in Kentucky, with 300 new labels. And Kentucky depends on bourbon for tourism.

BD: What has changed in your mind during 25 years?

CM: When we launched Woodford Reserve, all we ever heard was that bourbon wasn’t innovative. Scotch was innovative, but we weren’t. That got my competitive juices going. I’m really proud of the role we’ve played in introducing new grain recipes and barrel finishes to the industry, like our chardonnay and maple finishes. We’re taking risks to make a statement. We were the first single malt whiskey made in Kentucky. People didn’t know what to make of it at first.

We were the beginning of the modern craft whiskey industry as we know it today, and we’re really proud of it. Now there is a microdistilling movement across the industry, with innovation going gangbusters.

BD: How has taking on Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall changed your work and the brand?

CM: It has been an energizing force for me to have a person like her who is as passionate about learning and quality as she is. She is someone who knows quality, and knows that flavor presentation is of the utmost importance to the brand. And it is a joy to have someone like her who wants to come in and contribute her own ideas.

Elizabeth is really passionate about grains. She’s interested in the different corns, and initiated our small grains program, working to bring rye back to Kentucky. She has taken off on a whole new avenue that I couldn’t do myself. That makes our bandwidth so much broader.

Woodford Reserve promoted Elizabeth McCall to assistant master distiller in 2018.

BD: Why was Woodford Reserve so early to embrace bourbon tourism?

CM: First, I obviously have to bring up that Maker’s Mark always had their tourism experience. For a long time, that was it. They kept the candle lit in the window. I give Bill [Samuels] and Maker’s Mark a lot of credit.

For me, I’ll never forget a trip I took to Scotland to visit a single malt distillery owned by our company. I had a revelation there. That distillery did such a good job of showing, ‘This is where our whisky brand comes from. No matter where you see our brand out in the world, it comes from here.’ That made me realize that people would appreciate having the same kind of experience when they came here. That way, the home of the brand becomes their home, too.

Tourism has been so important. Consumers like to know where their things come from. It really helps make the case for the brand to have a special position.

Woodford Reserve is doubling production, expanding from three pot stills to six.

BD: What’s next for Woodford Reserve?

CM: Our Doubled Oak is becoming a brand within a brand, a real standalone. I see that fine expression continuing to grow with its own programming and personality.

Our Master’s Collection and Distillery series will continue on, with more growth and innovation ahead, thanks to Elizabeth.

Our Baccarat release, that was going to be a firestorm launch, but got reduced to a slow boil due to the arrival of Covid. It’s still doing well, but remains under the radar. I see that growing into the ultimate luxury whiskey moving forwards.

We will have more brand expressions as we increase production. And there will be more new entries as the brand grows out. We’re adding three more pot stills to our existing three, and doubling our fermenters, from four to eight.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent pieces, 7 Craft Whiskeys to Watch From the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and Interview: Picking Whiskeys with Justins’ House of Bourbon.

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