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Woodford Reserve Whiskey

Woodford Reserve is such a fixture among bourbon lovers that it’s hard to imagine that the brand only dates back to 1996 when it was launched by Brown-Forman. At the time the category was just beginning to recover after years in the doldrums, and the launch of a premium bourbon was a big statement of faith by the American whiskey giant. Named after Woodford County in Kentucky, initially it was made at the company’s Shively distillery. But in 1994 the parent company bought the old Labrot and Graham Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, which it had previously sold off in 1971 and refurbished it to make Woodford Reserve.

This old distillery can trace its roots back to the pioneering days of American whiskey. A distiller named Elijah Pepper began producing small amounts of whiskey in 1797 in his little set-up, just behind the Woodford County Courthouse in Versailles, Kentucky. His product was popular and it wasn’t long before he required a more substantial premises. Elijah founded his new distillery in 1812 on Grassy Springs in Glenn’s Creek, not far outside of Versailles. Following Elijah’s death in 1831, his son Oscar Pepper hired Dr James Crow as the head distiller. Crow was a Scotsman and both physician and chemist. He is credited with championing sour mash fermentation, a key process with regard to the consistency of bourbon.

Oscar Pepper died in 1865 and in 1878 the distillery was acquired by a French whiskey broker called Leopold Labrot and his partner, Kentucky-born James Graham. Labrot and Graham extended the facilities and ran their business under the name the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Save for closure during Prohibition, Labrot and Graham ran the distillery until 1940 when it was acquired by the Brown-Forman Corporation of Louisville. The distillery was intended to help the brand cope with the surge in demand following the abolition of Prohibition. Sadly, the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery fell into disuse shortly after, when smaller distilleries were deemed too costly and inefficient, and it was sold in 1971 and moth-balled.

But in 1995, the firm bought it back and in 2003 it was renamed the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Three years earlier it had been designated a National HIstoric Landmark and it is now one of the most notable stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Woodford Reserve flavour starts with a high-rye mash bill, 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. The water source is crucial too, high in calcium thanks to the limestone in the area. The distillery has its own yeast strain, 72B for all the yeast aficionados out there, which is different to other brands in the Brown-Forman portfolio. Fermentation is very slow, up to seven days in Cypress wood washbacks. Like many traditional American whiskeys, Woodford Reserve uses the sour mash process where some of the residue from distillation is added to the next ferment. This lowers the pH which inhibits the growth of bacteria which might spoil the ferment.

The distillation process, however, is unusual. The distillery uses copper pot stills made in Scotland and triple distillation. There is also some column still new make made using a Vendome column beer still. Before going into new white oak barrels produced by the Brown-Forman cooperage, the spirit is reduced to 55% ABV, and all ageing takes place on site. The flagship expression doesn’t carry an age statement though it contains whiskey between six and seven years old, and it is bottled at 43.2% ABV.
To meet demand, in 2013 Brown-Forman began a US$35 million investment in the distillery with the creation of three new warehouses with the capacity to store 165,000 barrels, a new bottling line, and three new pot stills.

Since its launch in 1996, Woodford Reserve has been recognised the world over as one of the finest bourbons money can buy. If you’re looking for an all-rounder in your drinks cupboard that is great to sip neat as well as in cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or Mint Julep, then look no further. Fittingly, Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.

In addition to the classic expression, master distiller Chris Morris produces a range of other whiskeys including straight rye, a cask strength edition, and the fabulous Baccarat edition which spends an extra three years in XO Cognac casks.

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