Situated in Woodford County, KY, the Woodford Reserve Distillery is built on the site of the oldest standing distillery in the US. With a rich history dating back to 1812, Elijah Pepper was the first to begin distillation on the site. Elijah’s son Oscar Pepper eventually took over the distillery and continued distilation on the site under the famous Old Oscar Pepper brand with operations overseen by Dr. James C. Crow who is accredited with the creation and perfection of the game-changing sour mash technique still used today. When Oscar died in 1864 his estate and distillery were handled by the famous Colonel E.H. Taylor on behalf of his son James E. Pepper. However, in 1878 the distillery and site were sold to Leopold Labrot and James Graham. Labrot and Graham owned and operated the distillery, with the exception of during Prohibition, until it was sold to the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1940. Brown-Forman continued production until the late 1960s, then sold the site and lands to a local farmer. Brown-Forman then re-purchased the property in 1993, refurbished it, brought it back into operation, and launched the Woodford Reserve brand in 1996.
Today Woodford Reserve is thriving and is set to tip a million cases this year globally. As a small-scale distillery, Woodford are also consistently pushing the boundaries when it comes to producing experimental whiskies. Under Master Distiller Chris Morris and his dedicated team, the distillery produces a core portfolio consisting of all four distinctive styles of American straight whiskey: bourbon, rye, wheat, and malt, as well as their very popular double-oaked bourbon on an ongoing basis. They also produce several smaller, more innovative limited releases under both their Distillery and Master’s Select series.
First released in 2012, Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye was Master Distiller Chris Morris’ first exploration outside of bourbon under the Woodford Reserve brand. Having spent the better part of a decade perfecting the recipe, Morris approached it with the same focus on flavour that has made Woodford Reserve’s Distiller Select bourbon the success it is. Made with a mashbill of 53% rye, 33% corn, and 14% malt Woodford Reserve’s rye is a Kentucky Style rye with a good amount of corn and a percentage of rye that is very close to the 51% legal requirement. Using this much corn typically makes for a sweeter and oilier rye whiskey with the addition of a good amount of malt also thrown in to help rein in the aggressive rye spice. This whiskey was released in response to the growing popularity of rye-based cocktails in bars and growing diversification of consumer taste preferences.
Today I’ll be reviewing the standard release of Woodford Reserve’s rye whiskey. This whiskey is bottled at 90.4 proof (45.2% ABV) and is a readily available ongoing release.
Name: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Straight Rye Whiskey (Batch 012)
Proof: 90.4 Proof (45.2% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: 53% rye, 33% corn, and 14% malted barley
Producer: Brown-Forman Corporation
Nose: The nose opens sweet with deep caramel, earthy rye grain, subtle black pepper, toasted almonds, faint baking spices, a touch of fresh pears and red apples, followed by a wisp of herbaceous charred oak.
Palate: The palate is semi-viscous opening with sweet deep caramel, warm toasted oak, peppery rye spice, baking spices such as cloves, a touch of red fruit, toasted almonds, and dark chocolate on the back of the palate as you continue to chew.
Finish: The finish opens with a herbaceous minty rye note on the palate before leading in to a delicious aftertaste filled with notes of deep caramel, toasted oak, almonds and charred oak.
This is a great example of a classic Kentucky-style rye that drinks almost as mellow as a bourbon but has just enough rye grain in the mashbill to also give it that peppery and herbaceous rye character. It’s well-balanced and packed full of flavour, with the signature toasted almonds note found in most Woodford Reserve whiskies present from the nose to the finish. There’s also a decent influence from the toasted Brown Forman barrels interacting with the low entry-proof to create a delicious and very well-rounded rye that requires less water to get down to bottling strength and thus saves on flavour dilution. There’s no mistaking that this is a young-ish rye but there’s also no mistaking that it’s delicious. In fact, this is a really solid great-tasting rye whiskey that can be enjoyed by rye drinkers from any level of experience. For beginners it’s easy-drinking with lots of herbaceous rye character, for experienced palates it gives a break from aggressive rye spice and replaces it with a delicious depth of flavours that doesn’t burn your tongue out for the pleasure. It’s versatile and can be enjoyed both neat or as the star of a whiskey-based cocktail – what’s not to love?
From talking to the Irish distributor of Woodford Reserve at this year’s (2019) Whisky Live, keeping Woodford Reserve Rye in stock is a monthly struggle as bottles fly off the shelves. Sipping on this it’s no surprise and I’m sure that a majority of these sales are driven by the on-premise side whom are no doubt serving this whiskey either neat or in a rye-based cocktail. As I pointed out in my 2019 Irish Bourbon & Rye Gift Buying Guide rye whiskey is a very popular transition style of whiskey between Scottish or Irish whiskey and American whiskey.
Try or Buy?
I’ve never hesitated to pick this up, in fact, I have a backup bottle waiting for when my current bottle is finished. At the princely sum of around €50 you could definitely do worse!