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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

Woodford Reserve: Corn to Cork

Let me go on record – I have the greatest. Family. Ever. My daughters, knowing that I love all things bourbon, got me the BEST FATHER’S DAY GIFT EVER. They know I love Woodford Reserve, and splurged for a behind the scenes tour entitled Corn to Cork. This 2½ hour tour took 3 couples on an exclusive trip, beginning at the spring where water is drawn. It consisted of sampling at every step of the process, and then sitting down to enjoy a long, slow pour of the velvety finished product.

Where it all begins

We began at the clear spring, where limestone-filtered water is drawn and added to the 100-year cypress fermentation vats, bubbling with a cooked mash of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% barley. Our tour guide ladled up a small beaker of the grain-water mix… and began pouring it into 6 small shot glasses. Yes. The tasting begins now.

Woodford Reserve spring.

It is definitely a taste and texture sensation. It’s warm, sweet, and full of corn flavor – like consuming a cornbread cappuccino. The finished Woodford Reserve product is full of caramel, vanilla, dried fruits, and just a hint of spice. The high percentage of corn lends the sweetness and corn flavor, with rye adding a bit of spice, and the malted barley rounding out the palate to add a slight nutty, grain crescendo. Before we left this stage of the tour, our guide grabbed one more beaker of the mash – this one from a vat that had ceased the fermentation process and was ready for distillation.

High School Chemistry Revisited

From the mash room, we’re whisked into a quality assurance lab. There, our guide fires up a small Bunsen burner, just like I remember using in a high school chemistry class – though I don’t recall distillation of spirits as one of the chapters in my high school textbook.

As he set up a series of tubes and jars, I realize that he’s assembling a mini-still. The liquids began to boil and before long, there was alcohol condensation forming. He passed around the first distillate; it’s a very low-proof product called low-wine. We sampled it, and while it was very crude and rough, I quickly noticed some slight floral aromas and flavors. Woodford passes through a triple distillation process, so he poured this back in and the process starts anew.

I wouldn’t mind curling up with this on a Saturday night

After trying the raw spirit in the lab, we head past the 3 triple stills – Woodford’s iconic symbol – and into the barreling room. Woodford and its parent, Brown-Forman, are unique in the industry as they are the only distillery with their own cooperage facility to make their barrels. With the boom in spirits of all kinds – bourbons, whiskeys, scotches and rums – it’s handy to be in control of your barrels that are critical to production. No barrels; no bourbon.

Woodford Reserve triple-stills.

As we watched barrels being filled, our guide carefully drew off another sample – this time the triple-distilled pure spirit about to enter the barrel. This is a lean and mean 125 proof white dog.

I carefully took a small sip and swirl it around. Again, it’s interesting. While there is heat, there are also the faint hints of sweetness and floral notes. “All in all”, our guide remarks, “It’s not bad, and while it’s not yet bourbon, I wouldn’t mind curling up with this on a Saturday night.” My thoughts exactly.

Oh that HEAVENLY smell

We’re over halfway done now. We entered the bottling room – slightly out of order. There, as the bottling line is clanking in full operation, I noticed one barrel on its side by the dumping table. We’re each handed a glass and our guide grabbed a copper thief, thrust it into the barrel, and immediately began filling our glasses with a dark, amber liquid. Yes, there’s even a fleck or two of char in the bottom for extra flavor.

Our tour guide used a copper thief to extra bourbon from the bourbon for a quick tasting.

He directed us outside and into the adjacent rickhouse and we dart into a quiet alcove surrounded by hundreds of barrels, all with tannins and stains as evidence of the angel share that has escaped the barrels. While the Woodford products do not bear an age statement, they trend in the 7-8 year range, and by the time they’re mature, that 55 gallon barrel is holding perhaps 44 gallons.

We spent time with our guide slowly sipping and savoring this barrel-strength bourbon (around 125 proof) that would normally be brought down to 90.4 proof. It’s rich with traditional vanilla, caramel, toffee and cocoa notes. This is so worth the trip to share this fresh-from-the-barrel taste. Can I just say that bourbon DOES taste better when sipped in a rickhouse?

Wrap Up

All too soon, our tour was over. We were led back to the Tasting Room to sample Woodford Distiller’s Select, Woodford Double Oaked, and Woodford Rye along with a famous Ruth Hunt Bourbon Ball. Check out my thoughts on these first two bourbons in my previous Woodford Reserve tour post.

Woodford Reserve tasting with Ruth Hunt bourbon ball.

Woodford had just released their Woodford Malt Whiskey and I was really hoping to snag a taste of it, but no such luck. The gift shop, though, did have a great supply and I was able to snag a bottle from batch 0001.

If you’ve got a few hours to spend in the Bluegrass, and you want a deep dive into the chemistry and background of a great bourbon name, check out the Corn to Cork Tour from Woodford Reserve.

Thanks girls! This is one experience I will treasure a long time!

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