Woodford Reserve is a relatively recent entry into the world of bourbon. Brown Forman, owners of the Kentucky distillery that produces Old Forester and Early Times as well as the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee, bought the old, shuttered Labrot & Graham distillery in 1993 and began selling Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select in 1996. Unlike most bourbon distilleries, which use column stills, the Woodford distillery uses pot stills, though the bourbon in the Distiller's Select is a blend of the pot still whiskey and whiskey distilled by column still at Brown Forman's other Kentucky distillery.
In addition to their regular Distiller's Select bourbon, each year since 2005, Woodford has released a new whiskey as part of its Master's Collection. The Master's Collection bottlings are experimental whiskeys distilled entirely in pot stills at the Labrot & Graham distillery. They retail for about $90. The releases so far have been as follows:
2005/2006 - Four Grain, a bourbon made with both wheat and rye (most bourbons have only one of the two) along with the usual corn and barley.
2007 - Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, the bourbon was finished in Chardonnay barrels from the Brown Forman owned Sonoma-Cutrer winery.
2008 - 1838 Sweet Mash, a bourbon distilled from a sweet mash rather than a sour mash, meaning that instead of transferring some spent mash from previous distillations, to maintain a consistent environment for the yeast, the mash was created from scratch, allegedly based on an 1838 recipe.
2009 - Seasoned Oak Finish, a bourbon finished in barrels made from wood which had been seasoned (essentially left outside) for 3 to 4 years instead of the usual 3 to 4 months.
2010 - Maple Wood Finish. The bourbon was finished in barrels made from sugar maple wood.
Thanks to some samples from Regular Chumpington, a frequent commenter here on Recent Eats, combined with some shopping luck, I was able to amass a set of all of the Woodford products except for the Four Grain Master's Collection. So here they are, the almost complete Woodford Reserve.
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 45.2% abv
This is the standard Woodford Reserve. The nose on this is light and sweet with some banana notes; the palate starts sort of generically sweet but quickly turns a bit astringent with some acidic notes at the tail end and a bit of a chemical flavor with some earthy notes as well which continue into the finish. I started drinking Woodford early in my bourbon career, and it was one of the bourbons that I really took a liking to early on. It was once my go to bourbon for cocktails and sipping. I haven't had any in years, and it's either changed character quite a bit since then or it's just not as good as I remember. It's not offensive, but it has some off flavors and is overall, a bit flat.
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, 43.2%
The nose on this a bit sour. You can sense the wine influence in that it smells a bit like a winery, with the damp, musty old barrels, but not as pleasant. The flavor is sweet with a definite wine influence, but more like a cheap jug wine than a good California Chardonnay; the way the sweetness is integrated with the corn also gives it some Canadian Whisky notes. The jug wine notes really come out in the finish. The label says Sonoma-Cutrer, but the finish shouts Paul Masson.
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection 1838 Sweet Mash, 43.2% abv
This is probably the Woodford I'm most interested to try. The whole concept of doing a sweet mash is highly innovative, and I was excited to see what the result was. The nose on this is dry, oaky and maybe a little soapy. It almost reminds me of the nose on Wasmund's Single Malt (which is also distilled in a pot still). The palate is quite medicinal and woody, maybe even a little bit briny with some orchard fruit in the background. The finish is medicinal with a bitterness that grows. This version seems to have magnified some of the harsher characteristics of the regular Woodford, not one I would rush back to try. Maybe they should have left it in 1838.
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Seasoned Oak Finish, 50.2% abv
Unsurprisingly, the nose on this is distinctively woody with some nice butterscotch notes. The palate starts sweet, has some woody astringency and finishes with the medicinal qualities that seem to be characteristic of Woodford. The woody astringency complements the medicinal notes making this pretty decent, with a dry, woody finish.
Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Maple Wood Finish, 47.2% abv
The nose on this is similar to the basic Woodford but with a bit more sweetness to it. The palate has a combination of briny and sweet notes. Those medicinal notes are there but are lightened up a bit by some sweetness. I don't detect any real maple character, other than the general sweetness; it's more Log Cabin than pure maple syrup. It's a decent combination, though there is still a bit of lingering bitterness in the finish.
The Woodford Reserve Master's Collection has a generally poor reputation, and I'd have to say it is deservedly so. I wasn't very impressed with any of these whiskeys. If you have a thing for astringency and medicinal flavors, you might appreciate them, and while I like some medicinal flavors in peated Scotch, this was a different sort of medicine. The maple finish and the seasoned oak were my favorites of the lot, though I wouldn't rush to buy either of them, especially at the going price. Given that I was an early fan of the regular Woodford, I must say that while I admire their experimental spirit, I'm disappointed in the outcome.