Let’s hear it for the fans!
As I write this, in early August, MALT has surpassed one million page views for the year 2019. My frantic hitting of the “refresh” button accounts for only about a third of those. The rest is down to you, our faithful readers.
Not only do you show up day after day to indulge us by reading our rambling, quixotic, or ill-tempered musings, but you engage. I’m not talking about likes and retweets and the Facebook and the Instagram and I-don’t-know-what-else you kids do nowadays. I’m talking about the comments, questions and criticism that follow every article. For the purposes of this review, particularly, I’m talking about the recommendations.
I’ve written before about my love of recommendations, even when I can’t remember where they came from. I’m even more obliged when someone requests a review. Like a wedding DJ, I am here to make the people happy. Thus, a reader’s mention of Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey stuck in my brain, until I found a bottle on the shelf of – of all places – Target, itself quickly becoming a sleeper whiskey bonanza.
Americans will perhaps be familiar with Woodford Reserve as the sponsor of an annual festival of wanton animal cruelty known as “The Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve.” In this carnival of barbarism, drugged-up horses are flogged until a pulmonary hemorrhage or a catastrophic accident causes them to be executed in front of rowdy crowds of ludicrously-dressed people hopped up on bourbon whiskey. Like other questionable legacies of the Old South, the affectation of genteel refinement serves as a thin veneer for the type of revolting behavior that bourbon generally, and Woodford Reserve in particular, will one day be embarrassed to be associated with. Until then, you can watch Mike Tirico drink a $1,000 mint julep every May.
That brief but ardent rant aside: to my knowledge, Woodford Reserve has never been reviewed here on MALT. I’ll now do the necessary by providing a short history of the brand and distillery.
Located near Versailles, the Woodford Reserve distillery lays claim to being one of the oldest working distilleries in the state of Kentucky. Started around 1812 by Elijah Pepper, it was called the “Oscar Pepper Distillery” once Elijah’s son took over. Scotsman Dr. James Crow arrived on the scene in 1820, becoming a distillery employee for the next three decades. A sale to a pair of businessmen in 1878 saw the distillery re-christened “Labrot and Graham” after the new buyers.
The distillery was owned by current parent Brown-Forman from 1941 to 1973, at which time it was sold to a local farmer. Brown-Forman re-purchased the distillery in 1993 in order to start production of a “super premium” bourbon; they rolled out Woodford Reserve three years later. A $35 million expansion was announced in 2013, adding three warehouses with 165,000 barrels storage capacity as well as new stills and an expanded bottling line.
Woodford Reserve, as we know it, is a relatively recent entrant to the world of straight bourbon whiskey. As I typed that, I realized that 1996 is a blip – if you’re, say, a geologist – but is effectively an eternity ago in whiskey terms. One of few widely-available super premium bourbons in the early years, Woodford Reserve developed a cult following among bourbon drinkers in a similar way to Maker’s Mark.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon is distinguished by a high rye (18%) mash bill and a long (six day) fermentation. Distillation is done in a trio of pot stills; the mature whiskey is incorporated into the finished product after being blended with additional column still output from the Brown-Forman distillery, home of Old Forester. Quality has remained relatively good despite rapid growth (+23% in each of the years ended April 30, 2019 and 2018, after +18% in 2017), with wide distribution making the expression a go-to for bar-hopping bourbon drinkers finding themselves in more sparsely-provisioned environs.
Apart from the core Kentucky Straight Bourbon (officially called “Distiller’s Select”), Woodford Reserve produces a “Double Oaked” expression and a Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, as well as an annual “Master’s Collection” comprised of varying mash bills, maturation methods, and bottling strengths. In June 2018, the company added this Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey to the stable (again, with the horses).
Woodford Reserve’s notes describes this as “the malt whiskey for bourbon drinkers.” Umm, sure, great. There’s a promotional video which contains some of the most preposterous utterances I have ever heard about whiskey (a category with cutthroat competition). A sample: “the world of malt whiskey is very one-dimensional.” OK, yeah, except: no. Not in the slightest. Did you mean wheat whiskey? Whatever. Let’s give it a try, shall we?
The mash bill is 51% malted barley, 47% corn, and 2% rye. It is called an “American Straight Malt Whiskey” which means that it is matured for at least two years in charred new oak. This is bottle #3353 from batch #0035, bottled at 45.2%. I paid $35, which is the MSRP.
Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-dark auburn
On the nose: Nose starts twiggy, with immature wood aromas and a floral bouquet. Quickly gains complexity, with graham crackers, macerated cherries, ripe stone fruit, salted chips (crisps), chicken broth, and the smoky and sweet meaty aromas of slow-cooked barbecue. Over time, I notice some sweeter notes of taffy and caramel candies.
In the mouth: This has a fruity entrance, as well as some flower flavors reminiscent of the nose. There are coffee notes of espresso lingering around the periphery. At midpalate, this has a sweet and syrupy crescendo before becoming astringent with a woody bitterness toward the back of the mouth. There’s the lingering medicinal taste of cherry cough syrup, some baking spice, as well as the hot hint of crushed red peppercorn flakes.
This has some similarities with the standard Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey but gains a bit in plump fruit from the malted barley. It’s got some awkward parts through the nose and the mouth, however, including the aforementioned juvenile wood flavors as well as some rather pointed cask influence towards the rear of the tongue.
As both a malt whisky and a bourbon whiskey drinker, I’m not sure if I am or am not the target audience for this. In total honesty, I’m not sure Brown-Forman has figured out the target audience for this. You know what? That’s OK. Not every expression needs to be focus-group-tested to death.
This is an interesting experiment, it’s plenty flavorful, and it’s relatively inexpensive at $35. Like Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it’s not going to change your life, but it might save your evening once or twice. That’s good enough for me, and I can recommend trying a dram of this on that basis.