Saturday, March 28, 2015

Woodford Reserve, Distiller's Select

stats: Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.2%, $37

In my last post, which covered 86 proof Old Forester, I discussed a few of the many acquisitions that Brown-Forman has made since the end of Prohibition. Now I’m going to look at another distillery, Woodford Reserve, which the company actually purchased two different times, in transactions that took place more than 50 years apart.

Located in Versailles, KY, the current Woodford distillery building was constructed in 1838, but Elijah Pepper had established his farm and distilling operation on the site in 1812. It is often mistakenly stated that distilling here dates to 1780; an inaccuracy that springs from the fact that Elijah Pepper began his distilling career in 1780. At that time he lived in Virginia though, and he didn’t relocate to Kentucky until 1797. He and his brother-in-law established a distillery in Versailles which they operated together for several years until Pepper started his new farm distillery in 1812, which was located about five miles away.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 leaving the distillery to his son, Oscar Pepper. In 1833 he hired Dr. James Crow as his master distiller. Crow held that position until his death 23 years later, and made many advances in the methods of bourbon production during his tenure. It was in this period that the distillery officially took the name Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, likely when the building dating to 1838 was constructed.

Oscar Pepper passed away in 1865 and the ownership of the distillery gets a little confusing from that point, as he left no will. His oldest son, James Pepper, who was 15 at the time, began running the distillery. The family leased the distillery to Gaines, Berry & Co. in 1867. When the court finally settled Oscar's estate in 1869 they divided it between his seven children. The portion of the property with the distillery (and everything else that made money) was given to his youngest son, O’Bannon, who was only seven years old. This was done so Oscar Pepper’s widow could be left in charge of the finances of the property. She extended the lease to Gaines, Berry & Co. by another two years at the start of 1870.

The official distillery name was not changed during this period, but due to the fame and reputation of Dr. Crow, the distillery may have sometimes been referred to as the Old Crow distillery while he was employed there and in the years following his death in 1856. Dr. Crow was paid with a share of the whiskey he distilled, and it's likely that the sold that liquid as Old Crow. Once Gaines, Berry & Co. took over the operation, Old Crow was revived as a brand.

In 1872 James Pepper sued his mother in order to take back control of the distillery. Two years later, James Pepper entered into an agreement with Col. E.H. Taylor, who provided capital for improvements to the distillery. Taylor had been a partner in Gaines, Berry & Co. when they leased the distillery, but he left the firm in 1870.

James Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877, leaving Col. Taylor as the sole owner of the distillery. Shortly thereafter, Taylor was forced into bankruptcy himself. George T. Stagg, who had been one of Taylor’s creditors, paid off Taylor’s debts for pennies on the dollar and ended up with the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Later in 1878 he sold it to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot.

In spite of a legal challenge from James Pepper after he emerged from bankruptcy, the new owners kept using the original name of the distillery, although it was amended slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. While the members of the partnership that owned the distillery changed several times over the following 62 years, the proprietorship continued using the Labrot & Graham name. The distillery was forced to close during Prohibition (1920-1933), leaving the buildings vacant and unused after much of the equipment was sold for salvage. At the end of this hiatus the company was re-established and the distillery rebuilt. As far as I can tell, it was at this time that the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery moniker stopped being used and the official name was changed to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940, Brown-Forman purchased the distillery for the sum of $75,000. A series of improvements were made, increasing capacity. During this period the whiskey made there was primarily sold as Early Times bourbon. Early Times grew to become the best selling bourbon in America by the 1950’s, so the demand required that it be produced in the Versailles distillery in addition to Brown-Forman’s facility in Shively. Once the distillery in Shively was modernized and dramatically expanded in 1955, the days were numbered for the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Production ceased in 1957, but they continued to store whiskey in the warehouses until 1965. The mothballed distillery property was sold in 1973 to a local farmer who used it primarily for agricultural storage.

When the bourbon market showed signs of revitalization in the early 1990’s Brown-Forman began exploring the possibility of creating a premium bourbon using traditional methods. They investigated potential sites for this project and their old Labrot & Graham Distillery ended up being the most viable option. The property was repurchased in 1994, and Brown-Forman continued to call the facility the Labrot & Graham Distillery, as they had done through their first period of ownership.

During the two year restoration many of the historical aspects (in terms of architecture and production equipment) of the distillery were preserved or revived. The biggest nod to traditional techniques in the new distillery was the reintroduction of the use of copper pot stills. This is certainly how whiskey would have originally been made here, as the column still didn’t start to see widespread use until at least the mid 1830’s. I’ve only seen documentation that the distillery was using a column still some time prior to the start of Prohibition, but I think it is possible that the switch from pot stills to a column still happened as early as the 1838 construction of the new still house. The modern bourbon made here would be named Woodford Reserve, for the county in which the distillery is located.

It’s often rumored that Woodford Reserve is nothing more than over-priced Old Forester in a fancy bottle. While this rumor is not completely true, it does have some basis in fact. Not wanting to lose ground to their competitors, Brown-Forman chose to start building the brand for their new bourbon as soon as the distillery renovations were complete. Of course “straight” bourbon has to age for at least two years, so there was no way that the Woodford Reserve initially sold was a product of the new distillery. For several years it was in fact made up of the better barrels of bourbon from the Shively distillery that would have otherwise been used in Old Forester. Woodford Reserve is currently, and probably always will be a vatting of column still whiskey from Shively and pot still whiskey from Versailles. The reason this isn't likely to change is two-fold; the bourbon sold as Woodford can't be too dramatic of a departure from the whiskey the brand was built on, and because the Versailles distillery doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand for Woodford Reserve.

I did a bit of research and was able to glean some information about how Woodford Reserve has transformed over the years. The first 89 batches of Woodford were distilled solely at the Shively distillery. Batch 90 was the first one to have pot still whiskey from Versailles in the mix; that was released in May of 2003. As of 2005 there were numerous reports that Woodford Reserve was pretty inconsistent from batch to batch, and a well-respected source suggested it would likely be several years before the product had a consistent flavor profile. Somewhere around 2005 the batch size increased from 1000 cases to 5000 cases; a change that could only help the consistency issue.

The column still whiskey from Shively used in Woodford Reserve and the pot still whiskey from Versailles both use the same yeast and the same mash bill (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley) as Old Forester. The percentage of pot still whiskey in the mix varies from batch to batch as they try to attain the desired flavor profile. Brown-Forman doesn’t disclose these numbers, but in 2006 there was a claim on a discussion forum that it ranged from 25% to 50%. In 2010 a well-respected source stated that there was no difference between the barrels of column still whiskey that went into Woodford Reserve and those that went into Old Forester when those barrels were laid down. After a few years of aging in Shively, some barrels would be selected to finish aging in Versailles before they were used in Woodford. Although it carries no age statement, Woodford Reserve is said to be about 7 years old on average.

The annual limited release Master’s Collection from Woodford Reserve is always made up of 100% pot still whiskey, but those have each had unusual wood finishes or different grain recipes than the standard Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. And just one last historical footnote before my tasting notes; in 2003 the official name of the distillery in Versailles was quietly changed to the Woodford Reserve Distillery. That change went largely unnoticed and the “Labrot & Graham” name can still be found on every bottle.

The nose is not too intense, but focused and concentrated with a dark character – leather and shoe polish notes are prominent. On the palate it shows very good complexity. Leather, vanilla, cinnamon spice, oak, nuttiness and gentle sweetness are all well-integrated. It gently shifts to a drier, spicier character, with leather and charred oak as the prominent notes, as it transitions into the finish. All the while it maintains its complexity and the alcohol level stays in check. Overall, the flavors evolve gracefully with subtle transitions. It’s approachable but still has good depth and plenty of character.

Anyone who tells you that this is just over-priced Old Forester simply hasn’t tasted the two side by side.

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