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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bourbon Outfitters Part 2: Make Your Reservation Here

Both Four Roses, who formed the first half of this mini-series, and Woodford Reserve, which forms this second half, make up two of the six member distilleries on Kentucky’s ‘Bourbon Trail’, something which, at present, remains a dream of ours to complete.

In lieu of hopping on a tube train to Heathrow, jumping on a plane to Washington, grabbing a transfer to Louisville and hiring a car to drive to Woodford, I thought it would be much easier to catch the 133 bus for 10 mins and be part of a Woodford Reserve tasting evening hosted at The Whisky Exchange’s shop, in London’s Vinopolis Centre.

Bourbon is becoming more and more of a key spirit in my cupboard. As I learn to make an ever increasingly wide variety of cocktails, bourbon is fast becoming my choice of whisk(e)y as a flavour. Richer and with more of a kick than most Scotches, it is robust enough to add serious attitude to a cocktail, yet rounded enough to compliment your chosen drink's other flavours. Do be careful, however as some older bourbon whiskey can easily over-power your drink, in the same way a big, smoky Islay can knock it for six.

But it isn’t just in a cocktail that bourbon whiskey is exciting me. Sipping it has become a real pleasure too and, along with Irish and Japanese and some ‘new world whiskies’, it can add real colour and experience to the pouring selection on offer at home. Sadly, too many bars focus on the lower end bourbons or Tennessee Whiskeys for their back-bar, hampering the education of the masses on sipping anything even vaguely non-Celtic.

If you are a Scotch lover and haven’t yet given bourbon a fair chance, then you most certainly should. It’s tasty, for sure, but it is equally important to understand the product which sat in the majority of barrels which then gave birth to the Scotch you so dearly love. And while you’re out procuring a (decent) bottle of American Whiskey, do yourself a favour and pick up some nice Sherry at the same time. It’ll only do your palate good and enhance your understand of Scotch. It’s a little like meeting your partner's parents. Suddenly you see, nay understand, where their little traits come from.

I’m waffling. Let’s get back to the whiskeys in question. The evening was certainly educational and I’m sure we’ve covered this before, but for bourbon to be called bourbon, it must conform to these three key regulations.

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn (maize)
  • It must be aged in new oak barrels

When it comes to an age statement, it is a little bit more complicated than Scotch or Irish whiskey, with no minimum age requirement. However if the whiskey has been bottled at under four years of age, it is required to reflect this on the label. At the same time, any bourbon listed as ‘straight’ must have been aged for a minimum of two years, and if it is between two and four years, this must be specified on the label. So any bottle without an age statement will be +4 years old. Straight Bourbon Whiskey must also have no added colour or flavour.

The Woodford Distillery is the oldest bourbon distillery to still be working. Opened in 1812, the current Master Distiller is a chap named Chris Morris (no, not this Chris Morris, a different one) who practices triple distillation, in pot stills, on his spirit; quite the oddity in Kentucky. And it was some of his experiments which have made it in to the bottle, that we were to try.

On first look, the sight of eight different glasses on the tasting mat was very daunting, especially when we were treated to Woodford Reserve Mint Juleps on arrival. But as it transpires, the first four drams were really only for comparisons sake; they were:

  • Woodford Reserve White Dog (new make) – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve 1 Year Old – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve 2 Year Old – 55% abv
  • Woodford Reserve – 43.2% abv

It was interesting to see how a bourbon develops it flavour and colour very quickly,due to a mixture of fresh American Oak barrels and the extreme seasonal temperatures in Kentucky, where the stuff is matured.

Woodford Reserve – NAS – 43.2% abv

Nose: Not as strong as other bourbons, with some delicate vanillas, a hint of toasted almonds and well polished copper. Some tobacco notes.

Palate: Soft brown sugar, almost rum like, on the palate becoming even softer over time (from brown sugar in to toffee or Scottish tablet), backed with soft vanillas again.

Finish: A delicate hint of spice, with some more brown sugar hitting through.

Overall: Deliberately inoffensive, but still with some character, this is a bourbon for everyman, from the cocktail mixer to someone wanting a lower-end sipper as a starting point on their own bourbon trail. At around £26 here and here, it seems pretty decent for money.

Having moved on from what makes Woodford Reserve, Woodford Reserve it was time to delve in to their special releases, known as The Master’s Collection.

In short, the Master’s Collection is a series of bourbons which have been subject to additional maturation in different styles of casks, a la a Scotch whisky, with the exception of their Sweet Mash release, a bourbon made without using the traditional sour mashing technique. Interestingly, however if you additionally mature, you are not allowed to call it a bourbon. But you are allowed to put the word bourbon on the label. Go, figure...

The Masters Collection on offer for the evening were as follows:

  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sonoma – Cutrer (wine finish) – 43.7% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Sweet Mash – 43.2% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak – 50.7% abv
  • Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Maple Wood – 47.2% abv

All very interesting experiments, these. It’s is good to see a bourbon company playing around with finishing and bottling at cask strength. The biggest let down on these bottles are prices, with the cheapest being the Seasoned Oak at £95 and the most expensive being the Wine Finish which, if you can still find it, should retail at around £160. For that sort of cash, you could land yourself a George T Stagg at 70.9% abv. Yes! Exactly.

The pick of the bunch from the Master’s Collection for me was the Maple Wood finish, as it was the trust to its roots:

Woodford Reserve - Master’s Collection - Maple Wood – 47.2% abv

Nose: The soft brown sugar of the standard edition comes through, but this time with an addition of sweet, reduced sugars, obviously some maple notes mixed in with light tobacco and some prune juice. A hint of candied cherry is in there too, as well as some delicate wood spices. Very appetising.

Palate: The palate is less sugar-sweet than it’s big sister, this release giving hazelniut chocolate spread tones mixed in with an oak spiced flavour (like weaker tea, sans milk) with the nuttiness taking over the driving from the brown sugar.

Finish: The finish is long, with a decent balance between the maple sugars and natural wood spices, but also the corn flavours do a good job to underpin these, without making the whole lot gluey and sticky which can happen in a bourbon. Complex? Yes. Room for more complexity without over-doing it? Certainly.

Overall: A good experiment that has produced a good whiskey, but at £110 this is an expensive bottle to keep around the house. Granted, you won’t find too many others like it, but then maybe there is a reason for that. Spend the extra £50, buy yourself a case of the original, invite a load of friends over, flip some pancakes, pour everyone a large glass of Woodford Reserve with ice and a side order of pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. Stick on Sea Sick Steve on Spotify and have yourself a cotton-pickin’ jolly old evening.