As the country celebrates the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Brown Forman has released a Bourbon in a style that's not been commercially bottled in at least that long and probably in twice that time: Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash Whiskey.
Yes, that's sweet mash, not sour. Whiskey is a distillate of a beer fermentation and, virtually all Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey made today uses a method that sets back some of the spent mash—corn-rich grains, yeast and water—from a previous fermentation to be used in the next batch to insure consistency. Hence the name sour mash. The "sweet mash" in this new whiskey's name refers to a revival of the original process used to make Bourbon in which fresh ingredients were used in each fermentation batch.
While the change sacrifices consistency, Woodford claims it reveals a layer of aromas and flavors that aren't found in sour-mash Bourbons.
The irony of this limited-edition whiskey is that it has been made in a distillery—formerly Labrot & Graham, now Woodford Reserve—at which the sour-mash process was codified. Its former owner Oscar Pepper and past master distiller James Crow (of Jim Crow Bourbon fame) are both credited with applying advanced science to the art of distillation. Among their efforts was the study and use of the sour-mash method. "Though no one person can be credited with creating the sour-mash process now used to make all American whiskies, the present-day Woodford Reserve Distillery is largely known as the site where the method was defined," said master distiller and spirits historian Chris Morris, calling the sweet-mash Bourbon a step in reverse.
Brand director Wayne Rose said he believed this was the first such whiskey bottled for 150 years "or certainly since Prohibition." Woodford, based in Versailles, Kentucky, is not a stranger to retro whiskey making processes. When the spirit was created more than a decade ago, Woodford revived the strict use of copper-pot stills in distillation. Other commercial Bourbons use a column still in distillation.
With an amber-to-copper color, the 1838 Sweet Mash Whiskey has legs like a Clydesdale's that take forever to start down the glass. The nose is maple syrup, nutmeg, toffee and popcorn. On the palate, the flavors immediately start out with toast, then return to the maple syrup and corn, before exhibiting black coffee, rye, almond and dark fruits, all with the of guts of a black strap molasses. The finish isn't particularly long, but this is by no means a powder puff whiskey. And it goes very well with a cigar.
The whiskey has a very limited production of 1,045 cases of 12 750-millileter bottles to be sold for $89.99 in major metropolitan markets in 25 states. (The year 1838 in the its name commemorates the founding of the distillery, and the end of its sweet mash Bourbon-making era.) It is packaged at 86.4 proof. The standard Woodford Reserve (a sour mash whiskey) is 90.4 proof.