Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey

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.

Score: 6/10

    1. Mark says:

      Theon, touched as we are that you post consistent trollings on our beloved site, I do personally wonder what you are looking to get out of this level of engagement? Is the world not plagued by so many crises right now? Perhaps your keyboard energy may well be better served channelled into rectifying them as opposed to loitering in the underbelly of our website?

      1. Theon says:

        I guess what I really want is just open dialogue, and you guys seem to be doing everything you can to squelch anything that doesn’t fit your narrative, especially this Taylor

        1. Taylor says:

          Except here’s the thing: you don’t actually want open dialogue. You want to post trash talk that adds nothing to the discussion, which is why some of your comments get deleted. Jason and Mark are fair and very tolerant of dissent; just look at the comments section of some of our more controversial articles.

          If you can come up with a substantive criticism of anything I’ve written rather than just whining about my negativity, imaginary bias, and cynicism, I am happy to engage with you. If you can’t: stop it. Get some help.

          1. Travis says:

            I am totally confused by Theon’s whole series of comments. How do they in any way relate to a whisky article? I feel like they’re general statements written with the intent to illicit a response (which I’m begrudgingly falling prey to) and could be written below any political article linked/shared on Facebook.

            On a positive note – keep up the good work Malt team. I really enjoy the content on this site; it cuts through a lot of the BS fluff and flanel (thanks Ralfy) that appears elsewhere in the ‘whiskyverse’.

        2. Mark says:

          What is our narrative? What have we squelched? Are you saying you’re just lonely and would like to talk with somebody?

    2. Welsh Toro says:

      Seriously Theon, why do you use words like “cowards?” If you feel so strongly about this site why do you bother to read it?

  1. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I’ve always kept away from Woodford, thinking it was a sourced bottom shelf brand. Didn’t realize they made their own. At $35 though, it’s worth a try…one can do far worse for much more money

    1. Taylor says:

      PB, given its ubiquity, you could be forgiven for thinking that. The Straight Bourbon Whiskey is definitely worth a try. Cheers and GO BLUE!

  2. Welsh Toro says:

    Nice review Taylor. Kentucky bourbon can have that image of the South can’t it (think Blanton’s). I’m not complaining though. I’ll buy into it and push to the back of my mind all the garbage. Talking of garbage, I linked to the Woodford video and it is pure pants. Saying ‘malt whisky’ gives the impression of Scotch. What’s the point of of comparing/criticising Scotch when it’ basically a kind of bourbon set up?

    On to the stuff itself. It sounds pretty good for the right price. Bourbon is never the right price in the U.K though. I’d give it a go in a bar though.

    All the best. WT

    1. Taylor says:

      WT, thanks for the compliment. Jason indicated that he saw this on special at Asda. Comparing this solely with what’s on the shelf here in the U.S.A., one could do a lot worse for $35. As you intuit, it’s worth a dram at the bar if you can find one. Cheers!

  3. ZX says:

    I think this review was thorough and accurate. I’ve had the entire range of Woodford Reserve (and the similar Old Forester) whiskies, as well as a wide range of other American and world whiskeys. I’m glad WR’s preposterous “one-dimensionality” claim didn’t seem to bias Jason against this whiskey; I certainly am aggravated by it, and I like WR whiskeys. The malt whiskey is very good, certainly 6ish, if you like this kind of thing. I typically find WR whiskeys to be astringent (which I like) rather than bitter (which I don’t), but there’s plenty of taste and/or batch variance to push it one way or the other. A fair review.

    1. Taylor says:

      Appreciate the kudos, thanks ZX. I had almost no preconceptions going into the tasting, other than mildly positive associations with the Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey. “Astringent” is a good way of putting the style. It won’t appeal to every palate – I’m thinking of those more predisposed to wheated mash bills – but I find it has a solid quality/price ratio. Cheers for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *