Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve distillery is known its Master’s Collection and Distillery Series limited edition expressions, both of which exist alongside its core line up of American whiskeys. Among the various Distillery Series bottlings, one of the most popular is Double Double Oaked, a somewhat amped up version of the core Double Oaked bourbon. The former is noted for being distinctly more spicy then the latter, the result of which comes about being two years in a second barrel that is heavily toasted and lightly charred (Double Oaked is aged just one year).
To learn more about this expression, which is now back again, and the Brown-Forman master distiller behind it, one Chris Morris, we recently conducted a phone interview with him. Note that this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Whiskey Wash: So, Chris, you have been the Master Distiller at Brown-Forman and Woodford Reserve for a bit. Can you talk a little bit about your background first before we get into the whiskeys? Kind of give me a little bit of a sense of your experience there?
Chris Morris: Certainly. I began at Brown-Forman in 1976 working at the Old Forester Distillery in Louisville as a junior junior nobody. I was working for the master distiller at the time, and I progressed in my career to the point where 15 years ago I was named master distiller when my longtime mentor had retired. So, I’ve been at it now for nearly 43 years.
TWW: So you’ve seen a little bit go on in the industry in that time, then?
Morris: Yes. When I joined the company, it happened to be, and I hope this isn’t my fault, that bourbon whiskey had just peaked, no one knew it, and it was going to enter three decades of decline. So I have lived through the worst of times – sounds like a book – and now I’m enjoying the best of times.
TWW: Talk a little bit about Woodford Reserve, and its history as a distillery.
Morris: The distillery is quite historic and is a National Landmark as you know. It was established, at least distilling on the site was established, in 1812 by Elijah Pepper. He was a farmer/distiller. His son, Oscar Pepper, took the site into commercial distilling in the 1830s, and our distillery was actually built between 1838 and 1840. It was named the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. Lots of history took place there. The perfection and recommendation of the use of new charred oak barrels, the use of the sour mash process, the use of the thermometer and hydrometer, were all pioneered at the distillery under Pepper’s ownership and partnership of his master distiller, the famous James Christopher Crow.
The third generation of the family, James E. Pepper, sold the distillery in 1878 to a commercial firm by the name of Labrot and Graham, and it operated under their ownership and name until it was closed during Prohibition. Briefly re-opened after Prohibition repeal in 1933, and it was purchased by our parent company, Brown-Forman, in 1941, and continued to operate under the Labrot and Graham name. [It was closed] in 1959 because of various business activities going on. We closed this very remote, rural distillery, and sold it to a neighboring farmer who wanted to farm the 400-500 acres that accompanied the distillery.
Now, I say ‘distillery’. Brown-Forman had stripped it of its equipment, removed all the barrels and inventory from the warehouses, and what was left were these historic, old buildings. So no distillation occurred until we came back in the early 1990s, purchased the entire place back with a mission, with a goal, of creating a new bourbon whiskey from scratch. And that, of course, is Woodford Reserve. We changed the name of Labrot and Graham to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, and took the name Woodford from the county in which the distillery is located, Woodford County. We started afresh, put in new processes that were unique to bourbon – such as triple distillation in copper pot stills, the longest fermentation in the world of whiskey, heat-cycled warehousing – and created this new brand that is now just been a great delight to work with and to see it having great success.
TWW: With regards to the Woodford Reserve line over the years, we’ve seen the bourbon, we’ve seen the rye, we’ve seen the malt. You guys also do these one-off releases, these Distillery Exclusives. Can you talk a little bit about the experimentation that goes on with the Distillery Exclusives, and why you guys like to tinker in that regard?
Morris: Everything we do flows from a concept I developed, and it’s part of our Distillery Charter. That is, Woodford Reserve Distillery is to be the home of innovative whiskeys, and that goes back to honor the work that Pepper and Crow did when they were innovating to create bourbon whiskey as we know it today. So, innovation is endemic to the site. We wanted to keep that going, and also, I decided that a bourbon distillery in Kentucky is not required to make bourbon. It’s a whiskey distillery, so we can make whiskeys other than bourbon. Going back into our past, into Brown-Forman’s past, into the industry’s past, I discovered that not only were Kentucky distilleries making rye whiskeys before Prohibition, they were making malt whiskeys and wheat whiskeys and all sorts of types of whiskeys that collectively we all have forgotten about.
We wanted to bring the past to life, but bring it to life in the guise of the Woodford Reserve concept, which is a complex whiskey that is balanced. Each of our whiskeys must show the entire range of American whiskey flavors. So they must be not only sweet, aromatic in nature, they must be floral and fruity. They must be spicy, woody, and grainy. You must taste all the components of an American whiskey in each of our products.
As we experiment with different recipes, and different barrels and finishes, our goal is to change only one aspect of our process. So we have a nice standard baseline of the same water, the same fermentation, the same distillation, the same barrel, the same maturation. We will vary one aspect, and that’s usually the grain recipe, and/or, in some cases, as you know, the maturation, the barrel process. Everything in between stays the same. Now we have a good baseline to judge where the flavor came from, and what is that resulting flavor. That’s what the Master’s Collection and Distillery Series are all about. One simple change should result in a completely different flavor profile.
TWW: Over time, you guys have done some different bottlings in the Distillery Series [which] have been a little limited in scope and focused in Kentucky primarily. What have been some of your favorites among that release series so far?
Morris: The reason why the Master’s Collection is a larger scale and available to a wider audience, usually national, and in some cases, international distribution is they’re more scalable, they’re more feasible to make in a larger amount. The Distillery Series are for those wonderful innovations that are less scalable, less feasible, because of whatever the nature of that change was. It’s hard to do a lot of it for various reasons.
We’ve had a number in the past three years. Currently we have Bottled in Bond on the shelf at the distillery, and we’re almost out of Double Double Oaked. By far, the Double Double Oaked has been the star, and, therefore, I have to say my favorite, because it makes people so happy when they can get Double Double Oaked. That’s why we decided to make it a permanent member of our rotation. So, every January, we’ll produce Double Double Oaked. Obviously, it’s produced long before then, but it’ll be released in the stores. Then we’ll have two unique releases, and then cycle back to Double Double Oaked.
TWW: Talk a little bit about the specifics of [the Double Double Oaked] expression.
Morris: Doubled Oaked is fully matured Woodford Reserve, with a number of barrels batched together and then re-entered, instead of bottling that batch, into brand new, charred oak barrels, so it retains its bourbon designation. The Double Oaked barrel, working with our cooperage, is a unique barrel. It’s not a width reserve barrel, [but instead] it’s a double oaked barrel, specifically made for this finishing process. The width reserve barrel that our rye and malt, all of our other products go into, is toasted like a wine barrel for 10 minutes and charred as a bourbon barrel for 25 seconds. The Double Oaked barrel is toasted like a wine barrel for 40 minutes and charred for a mere 5 seconds, [resulting in] a very different barrel.
We keep Double Oaked in the second barrel as a finish for an additional year. For Double Double Oaked, we stay in the second barrel for two years, therefore doubling the double oaked process. And the result is a much spicier version of the Double Oaked. So it still has all those wonderful sweet, aromatic notes of the Double Oaked, but now we’ve added a new layer of spice. It’s an extremely rich expression.
We’ve experimented with tripling and quadrupling that time period, and those didn’t work, so Double Double is, to me, as good as it’s going to get.
TWW: What occurred with those particular other experiments?
Morris: We talked about our balance of flavors, and our focus on flavor. They start to become, in my opinion, too wood forward. The wood starts taking over, and therefore, you’re starting to lose the benefits of the first and second year of finishing. You’re covering them up with oak tannins, so its not worth going for.
TWW: With the Double Double Oaked, if people are trying it, what kind of flavors can they expect?
Morris: Because it’s Woodford, they will find it is fruity and has a nice wood balance and grain notes, certainly the rye and the malt. They are layered over with this really rich range of butterscotch and toffee and maple syrup notes to which have been added these more intense clove and cinnamon and nutmeg and a little bits of mint, all these wonderful spice notes. Black pepper, as well. So, it’s fruity, it’s wood. Again, when I say wood, I don’t mean woody, but nice wood notes. Grain, and then just these terrific sweet aromatic and spice notes, and they’re just big. That’s what you’re going to find.
TWW: Do you feel like this is a whiskey that would do well in a cocktail?
Morris: Oh, yes. All of our whiskeys go great in cocktails. That might not be the best presentation for them. Double Double Oaked is so rich, I think it does well served like a single malt or a fine cognac in a nice snifter [and] with a couple of drops of water. Ice is certainly fine. That’s how you would best enjoy all of it’s richness, but it will certainly make an awesome cocktail.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...