Woodford Reserve Very Fine Rare Bourbon

15, 16, 17…

Whiskey is packed with numbers, some of them bearing essentially no significance to the contents of the bottles they adorn. While I’m usually of a quantitative bent, the numbers attached to these expressions are not useful as data for analysis, so much as an example of the obfuscation and resultant confusion besetting whiskey nowadays.

Old No. 7, the official name of the whiskey better known as Jack Daniel’s Black Label, is the one that springs immediately to mind. Daniel’s Tennessee neighbor Dickel produces “Classic No. 8 Recipe” and “Superior No. 12 Recipe,” while up in Kentucky we’ve got 46 from Maker’s Mark. To that pile of random digits, we can add a few generated by the subject of today’s review.

This is the 15th release in the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, though the label confusingly calls this “Ltd. Edition Series No. 16.” The hook is that there’s some 17-year-old whiskey in the mix here. If you’ve been able to keep all this straight then good, Will Hunting. For the rest of the readers shaking their heads, let’s step back a moment…

I previously talked about shelf turds, those bottles that sit unwanted due to an unfortunate combination of weak USP and elevated SRP. For each of the past several years, I can recall seeing Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection bottlings lingering on the shelves of local liquor stores, even the ones that are regularly cleaned out by the locust-like hordes of collectors, flippers, and taters.

I’m not really a Woodford fan, based on what I have tried from them. Their mainstay bourbon expression “Distiller’s Select” has all sorts of awkward woodiness, while their “barely legal” malt whiskey was just a bit better than alright (refer to that article if you’re interested in a history of the distillery). However, I am a sucker for novelty, as are most of us whiskey drinkers. Thus, I felt tempted by the prospect of something new and different and potentially better from Woodford, even if I was put off by the triple-digit price tag.

A perusal of other folks’ generally tepid reviews kept me away from the Master’s Collection, until today. Thanks to the generous donation of a sample by Mike, I am now able to make an evaluation of this premium offering and hopefully help guide the similarly curious cats out there among the readership.

We have here a release dubbed “Very Fine Rare Bourbon.” This has already become the topic of gentle mockery among a few whiskey pals of mine. One could dismiss this as the knee-jerk cynicism of those who have burnt their fingers on a decade of special releases, though I’d argue that experience is the mother of wisdom. A clarifying disclaimer states “[t]he name Very Fine Rare Bourbon is a nod to the descriptors used by our ancestors to auction highly-aged Bourbon barrel lots” per Woodford Reserve’s site.

There are a few more specifics provided: “The bourbon includes liquid from barrels that are 17 years old and date to 2003, the year Chris Morris was named Master Distiller. Morris and [assistant master distiller Elizabeth] McCall have been holding back the barrels to batch with other barrels for a special release.” This comes to us at a strength of 90.4 proof (45.2% ABV).

So, some unspecified quantity of fairly old whiskey blended with another unspecified quantity of younger whiskey, and bottled at a potency that would be acceptable for a mainstay bottling. I still have more questions than answers: How much younger was the younger whiskey? How much of each was included in the blend? We’ll never know, but based on these sketchy details alone, this doesn’t sound like the type of thing I’d normally rush right out and splurge on.

Speaking of splurging: SRP is $130, which puts this bottle in rare air as far as bourbon whiskey is concerned. Those of you regular readers will remember that – given the preponderance of excellent quality bourbon at prices well south of $100 – an expression bearing this kind of price tag needs to deliver something truly special in order to justify even a slightly positive score in this space. With that in mind, let’s see how “very fine” this actually is.

Woodford Reserve Very Fine Rare Bourbon – Review

Color: Medium rusty orange.

On the nose: Aromatically, this is dominated by a sickly sweet and slightly chemical scent that sits somewhere between banana taffy, vanilla extract, and varnish. It’s vaguely unpleasant and nearly impenetrable; only through some really dedicated sniffing am I able to discern additional aromas of root beer, confectioners sugar, and green tea. However, the nose is continually assaulted by that one very forceful opening note. Allowing this to sit in the glass a while releases some other odd aromas of latex bandages, underripe limes, cherry cough syrup, and freshly-cut twigs.

In the mouth: The first kiss of this whiskey on the lips reveals a dilute but awkward woodiness that has become a Woodford hallmark for me, and not in a good way. That chemical nuance emerges again as this moves toward the middle of the palate. About the best note in here is a slightly sour cherry that sits firmly on the center of the tongue, but even this has all manner of unpleasantly artificial-tasting weirdness swirling around it. A lingering aftertaste of overripe, nearly rotten bananas fades eventually, leaving a not unpleasant flavor of pumpernickel bread and a very faint lick of chocolate fudge.


Tasted blind, I would have sworn that this was the normal, garden-variety Woodford Reserve… you know, the one that costs 35 bucks and can be found almost anywhere. This delivers nothing extra for the premium price and, in a few ways, is actually worse than the reference expression.

To go all holy roller on you: this tastes like bourbon cooked up in a satanic science lab, with sinful techniques of accelerated maturation or sacrilegious synthetic flavoring added to the blasphemous blend. Perhaps this should have been dubbed No. 666? Regardless, I am glad to cast this into the infernal abyss and encourage you to avoid it like the devil.

Score: 2/10

Photograph kindly provided by Woodford Reserve.

  1. Greg B. says:

    I don’t understand Woodford Reserve. I’ve had a few bottles of it as just like you, all I taste is wood or various sorts and little else. Not awful, but not complex either, and not worth the price charged IMO. Yet it seems to sell well. I don’t get it.

    1. John says:

      Hi Greg, as far as I know, a lot of the brand’s sales are tied to the Kentucky Derby. I remember being in Atlantic city a few years ago and the restaurant was really pushing Woodford while the Derby as on tv.

    2. Taylor says:

      Greg, setting aside that there will be some natural deviation of tastes and preferences from the mean: Woodford Reserve perhaps benefits from its incumbent status. For a certain segment of the bourbon drinking population, it was probably the first premium bourbon they drank, and there’s likely some ingrained bias toward thinking it’s “good” regardless of the actual liquid in the bottle. I’m with you, however; I continue to try various expressions and it never quite hits the mark for me. Cheers!

      1. Frank Brown says:

        Taylor, I think this drives at the heart of the matter. A great deal of newcomers to bourbon try Woodford as it tends to be one of the first “premium” bourbons people try, and I think that initial appreciation tends to carry their fondness for it into later dates. Having recently offered it in a virtual class on tasting whiskey for beginners (next to Maker’s Mark and Elijah Craig) it won the most overwhelming praise. From the proof to the elusive “something is happening I’m just not sure I like it” flavor it offers up, it seems to do very well on undeveloped palates – and sadly I imagine many novices and their money have already been parted in the name of this pricey expression.

Leave a Reply

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