For me, first prize would be a bottle of Woodford Reserve… and second prize would be two bottles of Woodford Reserve!
Now you see why my career as a Borscht Belt comedian never took off. Setting that aside, I’m in the position of having to own my prejudice upfront here. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a Woodford Reserve bourbon. That’s not to say I haven’t had any; I’ll occasionally find myself at a bar with a limited selection, or a friend will have a bottle open that I’d feel rude to refuse.
To channel another late, great Jewish humorist: I’ve had wonderful bourbon, but Woodford Reserve wasn’t it. In fairness, I thought their “barely legal” straight malt whiskey was pretty decent. However, their mainstay bourbon is marred by off notes, while the limited edition Very Fine Rare Bourbon was some of the worst I have had on an absolute basis, never mind in consideration of the price.
Looking back on my tasting notes for those various expressions, a common element is “wood,” as in “way, way too much wood influence,” to the extent of becoming disgusting. I’ve come, via repeated exposure, to understand that this is essential to the house style. It’s why I ranked Woodford last in my league table of Kentucky distilleries.
And yet… I have been finding myself intermittently curious about Woodford Reserve. Two liquor stores in my area got barrel picks of the Double Oaked expression. This is Woodford’s foot up on the toasted barrelbandwagon, with a secondary maturation in a “deeply toasted” barrel. I previously tried the mass market version of this when it was poured by a pal; it was not to my liking.
However, I have been lured by the siren of bottles on the shelf. It’s hard for me to write off Woodford Reserve entirely. Plenty of folks I respect are fans of Woodford’s bourbon. Their master distiller, the genial and kind Chris Morris, does great work at Brown-Forman’s other other distillery, Old Forester. In a triumph of hope over experience, I keep wanting to taste some Woodford Reserve that will prove me wrong and redeem the distillery for me.
That opportunity has arrived today via a sample generously donated by an online acquaintance. This is a barrel pick of Double Oaked, of the type that tempted me when I was browsing shops nearby. I’m spared the financial outlay of a full bottle, but am able to give it as impartial a hearing as I can muster, considering my history with the distillery and brand.
With regards to the specific details of this pick: the official label says “Grafton Bottle Shop,” which a bit of casual Googling informs me is in Grafton, Wisconsin. The sticker on the back violates several of Matt Kusek’s 10 Sticker Commandments, but does contain the words “Distro Mafia” and “Allocated Syrup.” As a member of the Italianx community and descendant of low-level numbers runners, I’d like to strenuously object to the use of “mafia” in this context… but I can’t because my mouth is too full of Nonna’s Stromboli.
As for “Allocated Syrup,” a cached version of the shop’s Facebook page informs us that “We’ve dubbed this one ‘Allocated Syrup’ and the first in our Distro Mafia series… When we first picked the barrel it was a full butterscotch bomb. A few more months in the barrel and it’s also picked up some fantastic milk chocolate notes.” OK, sure, whatever; it’s your barrel.
This is bottled at 90.4 proof (45.2% ABV), the same strength as the standard retail version of Double Oaked. This was a sample sent to me by Phil (thanks, Phil!) from a bottle he purchased for $70. This is consistent with what the retailers in my area were asking and compares to the $60 retail price for regular old Double Oaked.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked (Grafton Bottle Shop Pick) – Review
Color: Medium-dark orange-brown with chestnut glints.
On the nose: When first poured, this leaps out of the glass with a luscious note of brandied cherry. Continuing on with the sticky sweetness, the aromatic profile pivots toward bourbon barrel aged maple syrup. In fact, this is reminiscent of that delicious Elijah Craig maple syrup, of which I have just finished my bottle [sob]. Wiping my tears away, I am sensing this take a turn toward more woody notes as it is allowed to sit in the glass. I get some butterscotch that turns toward a scent of freshly varnished wood, with all the volatile organic chemical notes implied by that process. There’s a heaping helping of pine resin and a faint accent of cocoa but, overall, I find the fruity and richly sweet notes fading the longer I sniff this, with the dreaded woodiness taking over.
In the mouth: That butterscotch flavor reemerges as this first touches the tip of the tongue. The volume fades as moves toward the center of the mouth, with the texture of the whiskey becoming surprisingly thin through the midpalate. This falls nearly mute as it reaches the top of the tongue, only regaining flavor in the form of an astringent, tannic woodiness. The finish turns mineralic, with a limestone note and a drying texture. About the best flavor here is a subtle note of cherry that lingers as an aftertaste, though even this is very dilute. There’s a faint heat that hovers near the roof of the mouth as the rest of the palate fades to oblivion.
I’d like to start by highlighting a few positives: that initial whiff of cherries was similar to notes I have enjoyed in some of my favorite bourbon whiskeys. The maple syrup aroma was excellent as well. Unfortunately, these dissipated after a little time in the glass, making way for aromas and flavors similar to those I have struggled with previously.
If you’re someone who loves woody notes and doesn’t mind when their intensity is dialed up to 11, then this is probably a bourbon for you. I prefer body (which this mostly lacks) and balance (which it definitely lacks). Maybe this is a stylistic impasse; Woodford Reserve has a profile that works for them and their fans, and I’m someone who prefers a completely different type of bourbon.
Hopefully this is as fair a review of a Woodford Reserve as can be produced by someone who told you, upfront, that he didn’t like Woodford Reserve. I tried my best to suppress my inclinations and give this its due. Even if you disagree with my conclusion (and I suspect many will), perhaps my notes will be of some assistance? Regardless, I have to score this based on my own proclivities, resulting in a mark one level below average.
Needless to say, I’ll be steering clear of Woodford when I’m paying out of pocket. That said, I’m open to trying more samples, should they become available. Just don’t gift me an entire bottle, or I’ll be exhorting friends to “Take my Woodford, please!”
Lead image courtesy of Woodford Reserve. Other photos courtesy of Phil.