If you carefully consider the work that goes into your glass of bourbon—the grains, raised and harvested, the heart of the distilled spirit captured and laid down for years, decades even, in new, charred-oak barrels—then you’re already at the head of the class. And for extra credit, there’s Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy.
I was recently invited to Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced “ver-sails”), where master distiller Chris Morris and his team make Woodford Reserve and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. There, I got to experience Bourbon Academy, which commenced with a bourbon primer and a sour-mashing demonstration on the patio. It would have been sweaty, backbreaking work stirring a bushel of hot, wet grain with a wooden pitchfork as would have been done in the time of the Pepper family, the original owners of the distillery, back in the early 1800s.
We explored fermentation during a tour of the distillery, the lab where Woodford’s distinct yeast is cultivated, and the stills, where the heart of the spirit (the desirable distillate) is hand-cut from the heads and tails (undesirable) using levers. The spirit is triple-distilled in three 1,650-gallon copper pot stills before going into new American-made oak barrels for 6-8 years. And since this is a hands-on academy, we demonstrated this by setting a 53-gallon barrel on fire using the highly-flamable combination of hay and new-make spirit. Now, this is not how Woodford’s barrels are made today at Brown-Forman’s Louisville cooperage, but it got the point across—varying toasting and charring levels contribute to a bourbon’s distinctive character.
In culmination of the Academy, we tasted the standard portfolio and the Master’s Collection. Released only at Morris’ discretion, the collection has featured limited-edition whiskeys, such as the Sweet Mash (as opposed to sour mash), Maple Wood Finish and my favorite, Four Wood. The next release debuts in November: the Double Malt Selections (Straight and Classic), that are the first fully matured malt whiskeys in Kentucky since Prohibition. Morris says he has an idea of his future releases till 2029!
After Bourbon Academy concluded, we toured the cooperage, a rare treat exclusively offered to the public by Mint Julep Tours. One breathtaking moment I’ll never forget: In one of Brown-Forman’s warehouses, with 40,000 barrels at our backs, we pinched a little Old Forester from three selections and pretended that we had the ducats to buy the whole barrel, a very real new program that launched in March.
If you’re ready to talk yeast with a master distiller, light a barrel on fire and completely immerse yourself in bourbon (history), the next Bourbon Academy is March 22, 2014. To reserve your spot ($225 per person), call 859-879-1953.