Founded by Elijah Pepper in 1812, Woodford Reserve is located in a unique nature in the Kentucky region of America. Woodford Reserve, a Brown Forman brand, positions itself as a "Premium Small Batch" brand. Unlike many manufacturers in America, Woodford Reserve follows traditional and boutique methods in its production processes. Thanks to these methods, Woodford Reserve produces richer and more complex whiskies...

In this article, I will be sharing a brief history of Woodford Reserve, it's production process, expressions and small details that distinguish this brand from other manufacturers. Additionally, we will briefly refresh our memories about the American whiskey.

American Whiskey

Before going into the details of Woodford Reserve, I will briefly talk about American whiskey in general. I specifically say “briefly” because although American whiskey is seen behind Scotland and Ireland in many sources and narratives, there is a lot of detail to share about American whiskey culture. Therefore, I'm planning to discuss this subject in another article YouTube .

So, “What is American whiskey?” For the answer to the question, we can take a look at the definition made by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau institution.

  • American Whiskey:
    • It must be produced in the USA.
    • It must be distilled from fermented grain at a maximum of 95% abv.
    • It must have the taste, smell and character associated with whiskey.
    • It must have a minimum alcohol content of 40% (80 Proof).
    • It must be stored in oak barrels.
    • It must not contain any flavoring or coloring.

The definition is pretty clear, but I just want to draw your attention to one point here. As you can see, there is no minimum maturation period specified. This shows us that even 1 day of aging is sufficient according to laws in America. As you know, this period in Scotland is a minimum of 3 years. Of course, that doesn't mean that Americans mature their whiskey for a few days. When we look at the shelves in general, we see that the youngest whiskies are at least around 3-4 years old. But still, it is quite interesting that there is no minimum maturation requirement...

This general definition becomes quite different and very complex when we go down to sub-categories… In this article, I will not talk about all American whiskey types (Malt Whiskey, Straight Malt Whiskey, Wheat Whiskey, Corn Whiskey…). Yet I will briefly mention a few main categories that are also in the main portfolio of Woodford Reserve. These are; Bourbon, Straight Bourbon and Rye Whiskey.

What is Bourbon?

In addition to the "American Whiskey" rules above, we have 2 important conditions to add in order to call a whiskey Bourbon:

  • Corn: The grain processed in its production should be minimum 51% corn. Other grains can be rye, wheat or barley.
  • New (Virgin) Barrel: The barrels used for maturation must be new/virgin (not used before) and have been charred inside.

There is no specified minimum maturation in the Bourbon definition either. However, by law, if a brand produces a Bourbon younger than 4 years, it must indicate this on the bottle. In short, if you don't see a 0-4 year mark on a Bourbon label (which we usually don't), we can assume that Bourbon is at least 4 years old.

What is Straight Bourbon?

We see the phrase “Straight Bourbon” on many Bourbon bottles. This phrase means that the Bourbon has matured for a minimum of 2 years. All Woodford Reserve Bourbon bottles are labeled as Straight Bourbon. However, Woodford Reserve Bourbon is estimated to be about 6-8 years old.

What Is Rye Whiskey?

The definition of Rye whiskey is quite similar to Bourbon. The only difference is that while Bourbon has a minimum requirement of 51% corn, Rye whiskeys require a minimum of 51% rye, as the name suggests. Rye whiskies use new and charred barrels, just like Bourbon. A good example for this category is Woodford Reserve Rye.

Whiskey Production at Woodford Reserve

Whiskey production all over the world is based on the same principles. The production starts with grain, water and yeast, followed by basic stages such as fermentation, distillation and maturation. If you want to learn more about whiskey production, this article would be helpful.

Whiskey production in America is basically the same as the processes in countries such as Scotland, Ireland, and Japan. However, in this process, there are slight differences depending on the country, traditions and preferences of the brands. But these small details make great character differences.

In this part of my article, I will briefly talk about the differences in the production process of Woodford Reserve and explain how the brand successfully fulfilling the being a "Premium" Bourbon promise.

Mash Bill: In America, each brand has their own Mash Bill (recipe). This recipe shows us which grains are used in the production. Although we do not know the recipe of every brand, Woodford Reserve is quite open about this. Woodford Reserve uses 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley in their Bourbon bottles. Corn gives us a sweet and creamy character, while rye gives whiskey more spicy aromas. Barley is mostly used to trigger fermentation.

Fermentation: After the grains are mixed with hot water and a porridge-like liquid is obtained, this liquid is taken into a separate tank. Yeast is added to this liquid, called wort, and the fermentation process begins. Woodford Reserve uses a special yeast strain. Thanks to this yeast, a slow and long fermentation is provided (approximately 5-6 days) and in this way, it is aimed to obtain richer fruity flavors. The use of small tanks for fermentation also supports this goal. The brand uses traditional wooden tanks.

Credit: Brian Donnelly

Distillation: The most important detail that distinguishes Woodford Reserve from other Bourbon whiskies is in the distillation stage. Unlike many American manufacturers, Woodford Reserve distills in traditional Scotch-like copper stills called Pot Stills. The distillation process is led by 2 experts, Master Distiller (Chief distiller) Chris Morris and his assistant Elizabeth McCall.

In the photo above, 3 stills must caught your attention. Another thing Woodford Reserve does in the distillation phase is to distill 3 times. This method, which is mostly seen in Ireland, is a very unusual practice in the United States. Although this is perceived as 3 times distillation in a row, the process is actually much more complicated than that. Instead of describing the process and getting lost in the details, I leave you with the infographic below. However, if you have any questions, I'm always a message away :)


Maturation: We have come to the last stage of the production process. Woodford Reserve, part of the beverage giant Brown Forman group, is one of the few (and lucky) brands to have its own cooperage. In this way, Woodford Reserve can select the barrels based on their desired specifications from the group's cooperage in Louisville.

The barrels used by Woodford Reserve for maturation are left to rest in natural weather conditions for 9 months while they are still lath form. In this way, it is aimed that the barrels give more balanced flavors to the whiskey during maturation.

Woodford Reserve, which matures in an old-fashioned stone-walled and earthen-floor warehouse called Rickhouse, accelerates the aging process by heating and cooling the warehouse with air. This practice is called “heat cycling”. Woodford Reserve also age their expressions a little longer (about 6-8 years) compared to most American whiskeys.


Woodford Reserve Bottles

Woodford Reserve has a quite rich portfolio. The brand has bottles in the Bourbon, Rye, Wheat and Malt categories.

The core whiskies in the portfolio include Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked expressions.

However, I should point out that Woodford Reserve has limited edition bottles such as Master's Collection and the Distillery Series. Of course, these bottles are very limited and mostly exclusively sold in America.

Woodford Reserve & Cocktail

Although I usually prefer Woodford Reserve straight or with a single cube ice, especially in hot weather, I also get very good results when I try Woodford Reserve with many classic cocktails. One of them is the Old Fashioned, which is my favorite whiskey cocktail.

Old Fashioned is a sweet, bitter and strong cocktail in which the whiskey character is at the forefront. I think Woodford Reserve's fruity, spicy and oaky character goes really well in Old Fashioned . Let me also point out that Bourbon or Rye Whiskey was used in the original recipe of many classic cocktails, including Old Fashioned.

You may look at various whiskey cocktail recipes from this link .

When we are talking about Woodford Reserve, we have to mention Mint Julep as well. Mint Julep is a Bourbon cocktail that is said to have originated in the southern states of America in the late 1700s. This cocktail is particularly associated with the Kentucky Derby. Woodford Reserve has bee the whiskey sponsor of Kentucky Derby since 1999, so it is strongly associated this traditional race. The brand also has different bottles specially released for the Kentucky Derby.

Timeline - Woodford Reserve

1812: Whiskey production in the lands where Woodford Reserve is located begins with Elijah Pepper producing a whiskey called Old Pepper Whiskey.

1878: Leopold Labrot and his partner James Graham bought the distillery and expanded the facility by making serious investments. The name of the distillery is recorded as The Old Oscar Pepper Distillery.

1941: Brown-Forman bought the distillery, which Labrot and Graham managed until 1940.

1993: The distillery, which has changed hands many times over the years, is finally re-purchased by Brown-Forman and completely renovated.

1996: The distillery takes its current name, The Woodford Reserve Distillery.

1999: Woodford Reserve becomes the official whiskey sponsor of the iconic Kentucky Derby race.

2015: Woodford Reserve Rye is added to the main portfolio of the brand as the 3rd bottle.

With their dedication to traditional methods, innovative approaches and interesting production details, Woodford Reserve is a brand that started my interest in American whiskies. I should also mention that Woodford's standard Bourbon and Rye whiskey are my to-go bottles in my home bar. A brand that deserves the phrase “Premium Bourbon” to the fullest.

Baris Mercan

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