The good news is Woodford Reserve is adding two new Bourbons with its inaugural Distillery Series. The bad news is there isn't much of it. The conflicted news (depending on how you look at) is you get to—or have to—travel to Kentucky to buy it.
Woodford's two newest expressions echo current and past iterations. The Double Double Oaked puts an extra year's finish on its Double Oaked expression (see October 2015 issue of Cigar Aficionado for more information, which hits newsstands on August 25). The Sweet Mash Redux revisits an experiment that forgoes the normal sour-mash process used in most Bourbon. That process was last used on the 1838 Sweet Mash, in 2008, as part of Woodford's Master's Collection series.
Woodford's Distillery Series comprises whiskeys in very short production (three to four barrels that make less than 100 cases). With a third release expected within a year, they are to be sold almost exclusively at the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, and at few select retailers within the state. By the contrast, the Master's Collection is produced on the relatively large scale of 125 barrels and is made available worldwide.
"The Distillery Series is based on learning we have over the years while developing the Master's Collection, Double Oaked, Woodford Reserve Rye, et cetera," says master distiller Chris Morris. "We have so many cool things we know that work because they passed through the experimental stage that we'd like to make some of them and have people enjoy them. We just can't make all this cool stuff on a large scale. This is our creative outlet."
The original Double Oaked Woodford, now a regular part of the company's offerings, is a finished Bourbon with a unique twist. Rather than being further aged in a cask once used for another spirit (such as Port or Cognac), the whiskey is put into a brand new barrel that was treated differently than the first. This distinction allows it to maintain its status as a straight whiskey (complete maturation in new charred oak barrels).
The typical Woodford barrel is prepared with a deep char that involves setting the inside of the cask on fire. For Double Oaked's second maturation, they use a barrel that has been lightly charred, but toasted (not set ablaze) for the extremely long session of 40 minutes (as opposed to the usual 10 minutes). Morris says that this promotes buttery vanilla flavors similar to a West Coast Chardonnay. The finish lasts six to 12 months. In the case of Double Double Oak, the second maturation goes on for an extra year. "That extra time has darkened all those sweet notes. No, more creamy, butterscotch notes," the distiller adds. "Now it's the darkest maple syrup, the darkest chocolate. The spice starts to rise as well. It's like drinking dessert."
The production variation for the Sweet Mash Redux comes not in aging, but in the fermentation of the beer before distillation. Typically, Bourbon is made using the sour-mash process, which involves setback from a previous fermentation to promote continuity from batch to batch and to retard the growth of bacteria. In the case of this whiskey that method was not employed. Morris says the slight pH shift in fermentation resulted in more berry and apple notes. "Either it's making more of those esters, or they're just more noticeable."
There's a certain amount of irony in the fact that Woodford would be the brand to make a sweet mash in that its distillery (formerly Labrot & Graham) is associated with James Crow and Oscar Pepper, who perfected and promoted sour mash. "That's exactly what motivated me many years ago to do the first sweet mash," Morris says. "Let's just find out what sweet mash was all about. What did they recommend against? Because no one was making it. That was the intriguing question."
He reports that while he had no problems this time while using the antiquated method for the Sweet Redux, when he employed it on a larger scale for the Master's Collection there were issues. They had to throw away whole batches, and the answer to the question of how sweet mash disappeared dawned on the whiskey maker: "Oh, yeah, that's why. It's wasteful."
Nevertheless, Morris revisited the style because it offers an interesting flavor variation, and "if it becomes wildly popular, we'll do it again."
Woodford Distillery Series Sweet Mash Redux (90.4 proof, or 45.2 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $49.99 a 375-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber color. Collects in medium-size droplets that are glacially slow.
NOSE: Comes on with an interesting mix of sweetness, spice and olive oil. Opens up to reveal fruit—cherry, apple and pear—and some Christmas pudding.
PALATE: Explosively spicy on the tip of the tongue, it sweetens up a bit as it hits mid-palate when some of the oils of its pot-stilled origins appear. The fruits of the nose are there, but spice, with licorice, cinnamon and slight ginger, are the key notes. Harmony plays out with a bread dough and some barrel flavors.
FINISH: It softens in the medium-length finish as the fruit returns joined by some caramel and malt.
Woodford Reserve Distillery Series Double Double Oaked (90.4 proof, or 45.2 percent alcohol by volume; age statement; $49.99 a 375-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Dark copper color. Muscle-bound legs that give themselves up with reticence.
NOSE: A big, complex nose, hitting on many of the usual suspects (maple, caramel, vanilla), but introducing a jam-on-toast effect as well as some butter rum and a bit of olive oil.
PALATE: An interesting ride that veers back and forth between toasty and charred elements, always with a cargo of maple, cocoa and spice. The fruits are more berries than fleshy, with cherries and blackberries. The spice is tarter and minced with a hint of clove to go with the cinnamon.
FINISH: The finish goes in the opposite direction of the above Sweet Mash, becoming spicier with licorice and cinnamon as it slowly fades out. It's also markedly longer and introduces some smoky, woody notes and burnt nuts long after you think the encore has finished.
CIGAR PAIRING: B.G. Standard Issue Churchill (Nicaragua, 7 inches by 48 ring gauge, $9.00, 90 points, Cigar Insider, January 6, 2015) Covered in a dark, oily wrapper and rough cap. The draw is even and lush, delivering notes of oak, mesquite and cedar that are balanced by pepper and vanilla bean. We chose this cigar with visions in two directions: 1) for contrast (Sweet Mash Redux); and 2) for a wood matchup (Double Double Oaked).
With the Sweet Mash Redux: This pairing worked as expected with the two elements showing differing notes that complemented each other. The fruit of the Woodford enlivened vestiges of sweetness in the B.G. that created a bit of licorice when placed together. The whiskey also highlighted wheat in the cigar. Furthermore, the B.G.'s pepper created a nice contrast between sugar and spice.
With the Double Double Oaked: The whiskey opened up with a graham cracker taste as well as the promise of more vanilla that the cigar held. The woody notes of the B.G.—especially the mesquite—were also more recognizable. In the end, however, the cigar gave more to the Woodford than the other way around as this whiskey gathered a touch of anise.