Woodford Reserve's Elizabeth McCall on mastering her whiskey craft

Woodford Reserve's Elizabeth McCall on mastering her whiskey craft

The new master distiller at bourbon giant Woodford Reserve shares her story in whisky so far – and what we can expect from her next chapter

Interview | 07 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Bethany Brown

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T here is a much-quoted statement on the acquisition of knowledge, generally attributed to Greek philosopher Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.” This statement was given scientific basis by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, whose research confirmed a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or expertise in a given subject tend to overestimate their abilities. Further research in this vein helped build the ‘conscious competence’ learning model, which breaks down the learning of a skill into four stages: unconscious incompetence (where you don’t realise how much you don’t know), conscious incompetence (where you do realise this fact), conscious competence (where you start to appreciate how much you know), and finally, unconscious competence (where you don’t realise how much you know).

 

After 14 years in the whisky industry, Woodford Reserve’s new master distiller, Elizabeth McCall, is just about allowing herself to peep over the parapet into conscious competence. She still considers herself a “spring chicken” and seems cautious, even unsure, of the power and responsibility she now holds. This is despite her taking every educational opportunity afforded her – and others she sought herself – since she took her first job in whisky.

 

Looking at the rarefied company she has joined, McCall’s nerves are more understandable. She is only the third master distiller in Woodford Reserve’s 26-year history, following its founding master distiller, the late, great Lincoln Henderson, and her mentor, Chris Morris, who continues as Woodford Reserve’s master distiller emeritus. Woodford Reserve itself is built on bourbon royalty; the site near Versailles, Kentucky, where the distillery now stands has been used for distilling since Elijah Pepper and his son Oscar began making whiskey there in 1812.

 

Aside from her humility, another particularly striking thing about McCall is her genuine fascination with and love for her job. She joined Woodford’s parent group Brown-Forman in 2009 as a sensory technician and freely admits she “didn’t know anything about whisky” – she was not an ardent whisky enthusiast, just a graduate-school student looking for a job – but her drive to learn is indefatigable. “As I was learning I released how fascinating whisky is and as people in the US were gaining a lot of interest in it, I was too,” she says.

Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve master distiller, in one of the distillery's warehouses. Credit: Kylene White

During her technician days, she started going into the distillery to learn about the production process – “In the job I didn’t have to do that, but I wanted to” – until a maternity-cover position came up, giving her an opportunity to get closer to the ‘wet chemistry’. It was here that her passion for whisky really took root.

 

She was subsequently involved in developing a liquid education programme for Brown-Forman’s partners overseas and travelled around the world to support its implementation, teaching people how to “properly nose and taste” Brown-Forman’s spirits. Based at corporate headquarters, she refers to this as her first ambassadorial role for the company. “People viewed corporate headquarters as the bad guys, so I was there to say, ‘No, we are there to support you – if you are successful, we are successful.’ And that was when I realised I loved talking to people, training, educating, and just getting up and speaking.”

 

She signed up for a Spirits Academy class, an old training programme run by Brown-Forman primarily for sales and marketing staff. Once again, although it wasn’t required professional development for her, McCall wanted in. It was the first time she came into direct contact with Chris Morris, who led the Academy classes, helping him to set up for and clear down after tastings. She says she “made an impression” on Woodford’s master distiller. “He didn’t know who I was, I was a lowly sensory technician in the lab,” she laughs self-deprecatingly, “but I developed that relationship with him.”

 

In 2014, following this introduction, Morris asked McCall if she’d train with him to be a master taster. She didn’t know exactly what this would entail but knew it would involve speaking to and teaching people, so she agreed. After about a year’s training, she was named a master taster in 2015, working with both Woodford Reserve and sister brand Old Forester. In 2016 she moved again, back to production, as a quality control specialist for Woodford Reserve. “I think it was a kind of succession planning,” she observes.

 

Her suspicions were given credence by her promotion to assistant master distiller for Woodford Reserve in 2018. Here, she was working directly with Morris – and it's possible that he took her promotion even more seriously than she did. “Chris had a strict curriculum for development,” McCall explains. “I had to go and spend time in all our production facilities, cooperages, mills, the Jack Daniel Distillery, to give that perspective.”

Elizabeth McCall with Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve master distiller emeritus, at the spirit safe. Credit: Woodford Reserve

Although she had been on a carefully managed path to the master distiller role for several years, there was an unforeseen spanner in the works. When Woodford execs came to McCall in early 2023 and explained their plan to promote her, she had some news of her own: she was pregnant. The company had planned to announce her promotion in July 2023 – the month her baby was due – so the announcement was brought forward to February.

 

“We knew it was the plan, but it shook out differently to how we expected because I ended up getting pregnant,” she says. “But it has been wonderful because that didn’t change anything, apart from the time we announced my promotion… I am excited about my and the business’s future.”

 

Since stepping into the role, McCall says she has focused much of her effort on improving strategic thinking and planning among the Woodford team. “We have operated as this small brand for so long, but we need to start thinking like a big brand because we are a big brand,” she explains. “We are trying to plan earlier and bottle earlier… We have done our work at this end on the liquid planning.”

 

This liquid planning has stepped up a gear recently. In 2021, the year of its 25th anniversary, Woodford Reserve announced it would be doubling its production capacity with the installation of three new copper pot stills and eight new fermentation tanks, plus new areas for grain and barrel unloading and barrel storage. The project was completed in September 2022. The distillery surpassed sales of one million cases in 2019, and McCall told the Lexington Herald Leader in October 2021 that it was hoping to reach sales closer to 2.5 million with the increased production capacity. McCall says the company is also considering building more warehousing (it currently has around 500,000 barrels in storage).

 

She has also been planning for the first Woodford Reserve releases that will bear her signature as master distiller, set to launch while she is on maternity leave (she has practised her signature diligently, and canvassed friends for their opinions on the best version). There’s the 2023 Master’s Collection release, which McCall says will takes cues from the collection’s 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir expression (“That was one of my favourites because I love red wine”), and a Distillery Series release, which will blend a number of double-oaked Woodford Reserve whiskeys.

Elizabeth drilling into a barrel. Credit: Woodford Reserve

Having worked with Morris for some years before her promotion, McCall has identified differences in the way they operate (although she caveats that there is “no right way or wrong way” to do the job – only a different way). She feels she is more hands-on, as she has always “thoroughly enjoyed” the practical elements of her work, and mentions a difference in the way she connects with people, likely to have been influenced by the psychology degree she gained before joining Brown-Forman. “I am a huge collaborator. I love working with people, that is where my strongest attributes are. In this role, one thing I have had to learn is, [for example] I may not know exactly how the pressure release valve on the still works from an engineering standpoint, but I do understand its functionality, [and] I do know who to bring in. You look at your team and leverage who is the best on different skills.”

 

Although she had trained with him for the better part of a decade, McCall admits being intimidated by taking over from Morris, who held the position of master distiller at Woodford Reserve for almost 20 years and is credited with significantly influencing the brand’s development and product innovation (including its pioneering bourbon finishing programme). She likens his whisky problem-solving abilities to “taking a lemon and making lemonade”.

 

“What he has done for American whiskey and bourbon is phenomenal and it has been done in a humble way,” she says. “He has done some things that really pushed the envelope, and he is brilliant, quick at thinking on his feet. And one colleague said, ‘But do you think that Chris was like that when he started his career?’, and I had never thought about it like that. I have started to wrap my head around that.”

 

In working to overcome these pangs of imposter syndrome, McCall says she has surprised herself with her own ingenuity and decisiveness. “I have these conversations with people who are higher up than me and they said, ‘It is your decision, you get to make the call.’ It is scary to have that influence, scary and exciting all at the same time.” But with great power comes great responsibility. She references a recent call on product quality that she had to make, knowing it would make extra work for the distillery team, but she appreciates that that particular buck now stops with her. “We have specifications of how things should be [at Woodford Reserve], and you can have exceptions to the rule, but where do you draw the line? Sometimes we have to draw a line and say you cannot compromise anymore, and that creates more work for people, and I hate that – I am a people pleaser – but the integrity of this brand is up to me now and I cannot let anything hurt it.”

Mixing an Old Fashioned with Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Credit: Woodford Reserve

McCall draws parallels with her mother’s journey in the whisky industry; she worked for Seagram in the late 1970s and early 1980s in bottling and quality control, and McCall says they have faced similar dilemmas in holding back cases of whiskey which didn’t pass muster. However, their experiences of pregnancy in the workplace could not be more different. After falling pregnant in the 1980s, her mother left her job, which McCall says was due – at least in part – to there being no workable maternity-leave policy. “She was the only woman in management, and they had no frame of reference,” she explains. “Because they didn’t have the support she would have felt she needed to return to work, she decided to leave the workforce, but she has always wondered what if she didn’t feel the pressure from the world. It makes me feel so lucky.”

 

A few eyebrows may have risen at the thought of McCall working around whisky throughout her pregnancy, but she says it’s had little impact on her day-to-day work. As she explains, it’s pretty easy to perform her role without consuming alcohol: “Nosing is 90 per cent of the work, then tasting and spitting out is what I have done to get through. Fitting into the ricks the last time I was up there was a bit of a challenge... It is just being more aware that people may have an issue with me being pregnant around whisky, even, but at the end of the day I know that I am not imbibing anything.”

 

She says that both the promotion and the pregnancy have been important milestones for her personally, and that she is proud of her employer for its relaxed but pragmatic approach. “It was not even a question [for Brown-Forman], it was not an issue at all – I’m having a baby, no big deal,” she says. “It does not make me less capable to do my job.”

 

Knowingly or not, Brown-Forman may have set a significant precedent here. Not only did the company allow McCall to carry on working in her new role through her pregnancy, but this decision was taken without fuss, and nor was it turned into a PR opportunity. It was completely normalised. And it is this normalisation that could ultimately have the greatest impact on improving whisky’s gender balance. It shows women that their decision to have children and their continued employment – and progression – in the industry are not mutually exclusive.   

Among the barrels in the rickhouse. Credit: Woodford Reserve
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