We Went To Bourbon School In Kentucky. Here's What We Learned.

The Woodford Reserve tasting room, both aged and new barrels are used for different flavors.

Earlier this month I was invited to visit the historic Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, KY to take part in their Bourbon Academy — and be among the first to taste the latest release in Woodford's Master's Collection series. Master Distiller Chris Morris led the assembled whiskeyphiles through a lively discussion of the "Five Sources of Flavor" that the distillery employs to create their unique products: grain, water, fermentation, distillation and maturation. While touring the facility and taking part in hands-on demonstrations which included making up a batch of sour mash and charring a new oak barrel, the class learned about how Woodford Reserve controls each element of the distilling process to create the smooth whiskey at a distillery site that has been in operation on and off since 1838.

When Brown Forman reacquired the property in 1992, after selling it to a neighboring farmer in 1971, they sought to reinvent bourbon in the form of Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, a product made with all-natural corn grown in the Bluegrass State along with Canadian rye and barley from Wisconsin. Rather than using the traditional column stills like most Kentucky bourbons, Woodford installed three pot stills that are reminiscent of Scotch and Irish whiskey distilleries to undertake the triple distillation process that gives their bourbon its unique characteristics.

These pot stills also served as the inspiration for the latest release in their Master's Collection, a series of products that demonstrate Woodford's dedication to creative innovation and honor the pioneering work of Oscar Pepper and James Crow, the original owner and distiller of the operation where Woodford Reserve is now made. The seven previous Master's Collection releases have included some offerings made with unusual grains and others with exotic aging and finishing elements like seasoned oak and maple barrels for maturation, and sherry, port and Sonoma-Cutrer wine casks to add character during the finishing process.

One of Pepper and Crow's 19th century experiments revolved around comparing the effects of whiskey maturation using aged casks versus new casks. Modern distiller Morris took elements of these practices and combined them with the heritage of Woodford's pot stills to create two separate expressions of the latest Master's Collection, The Double Malt Selections, the first two fully matured malt whiskies produced in Kentucky since Prohibition.

The first selection is called Classic Malt and features the grain-focused flavor profile reminiscent of Old World whiskeys. Thanks to the use of aged barrels, the spirit is a pale straw color and exhibits a very soft nose with minimal wood influence. The primary aroma is malt, with some nice notes of fruit and a yeasty banana nut bread. Since barley doesn't develop the spiciness of rye over time, the flavors trend toward shortbread and lemon custard with a long malty finish.

More aggressive is the Straight Malt which is aged in new charred oak barrels. Basically a malted whiskey made in the Kentucky bourbon style using the same yeast strain and water source as Woodford Reserve, Straight Malt is a fascinating expression of a New World spirit. The barley contributes many nutty notes on the nose, with hazelnut, peanut and walnut taking the lead. A little bit of the caramel and vanilla which you would expect from a bourbon is present thanks to the contribution of the charred oak. The wood is even more apparent on the tongue as fruity flavors of fig and dates become apparent during the long finish. The mouth feel is exceedingly creamy for a malt product and makes for an excellent dram served straight up. Neither of the Double Malt selections would probably be done justice as an ingredient in a cocktail, so enjoy them straight from a Glencairn glass.

If you'd like to try either or both of this year's Master's Collection, you'll probably have, since it will be November before they make it out to the market. It's not too soon to start sucking up to your favorite liquor monger because these will be a very limited release of less than 10,000 bottles apiece. Like all Master's Collection releases, they will only be made once and never repeated. The French-made bottles are designed to mimic the shape of Woodford's pot stills and will retail in the $100 range.

To sign up for the Bourbon Academy at Woodford Reserve, visit the distillery's website for more information. These small classes are offered four times per year, and the next one is slated for February 22, 2014. Like all things bourbon-related, this class is worth waiting for.

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