People

A rye character

Stuart Maclean Ramsay chats to Lincoln Henderson, a whiskey vetern with 37 years of knowledge and experience
By Stuart MacLean Ramsay
For a gentleman who has sampled whiskey from around 400,000 barrels, Lincoln Wesley Henderson looks mighty fine. Trim and professorial, with silver hair and goatee beard, Lincoln exudes the confidence and contentment of a man at the peak of a career he loves.His job is tasting whiskey, he’ll casually tell you, but his official title at Louisville-based Brown-Forman Corporation is Master Distiller and Director of Whiskey Development and Maturation. These days, he spends about 70% of his time roving the globe as the company’s bourbon ambassador, dispensing a wealth of knowledge and passion accumulated from over 37 years in whiskey production. And he does so with discreet southern charm and wry humour, now and then unleashing a volley of shoot-from-the-hip candour. With a twinkle in his eye, of course.During his years at Brown-Forman, Lincoln has evaluated just about every batch of Old Forester bourbon, Early Times whiskey, Jack Daniel’s, Canadian Mist, Pepe Lopez and Don Eduardo tequila, and super premium Woodford Reserve bourbon. His posts at Brown-Forman have included Grain Chemist, Technical Distillery Supervisor and Manager of Sensory Evaluation. The group he heads as top taster is responsible for the colour and taste standards of every whiskey produced at Brown-Forman. And he’s one of just three American judges invited each year to London’s International Wine and Spirit Competition. So if you want to discover what flavours abound in a glass of spirit, Lincoln’s the person to ask.That’s what I did when I met up with Lincoln in a Louisville bar earlier this year. He promptly ordered two glasses of Old Forester with two ice cubes in each dram. “This is the flagship of Brown-Forman,” he explains, “and if I had to choose any bourbon, it would be Forester. This is what whiskey should be, with lots of body in the beginning, plenty of fruit from the yeast, and vanilla and all the right notes from maturation. The most important element in a whiskey’s flavour is the oak barrel,” he continues, “but the yeast is also critical, and for a consistent whiskey you have to control the special yeast culture. In the old days the consistency wasn’t there. Every strain gives its own character and we use a different strain for every line of whiskey. Brown- Forman whiskies are robust and bold at the beginning, before maturation, and there’s lots of fruit in Old Forester.”I ask Lincoln how he got started in the whiskey business. “I was hired to work in bourbon and that’s the heart of what I’ve been doing for 37 years,” he tells me. “I graduated from the University of Louisville in 1965 and went to Brown-Forman looking for a job. My father told me that if I was applying for a job I should keep calling the company and tell them it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I did, and I got the job. I started in 1965 as a chemist at Early Times, back when Garvin Brown and Robinson Brown would greet you in the hallway.”“The new distillery in Louisville was built in 1967,” he continues, “and I went to work at Old Forester. I was in management training and then took over maturation. The Master Distiller back then was Dan Knopf and he was a very knowledgeable person about bourbon. In those days you had a standard that didn’t change, but today you need to be more flexible. Our current Chairman, Owsley Brown, says that as long as our product standards are met, nothing is sacred. I think that sometimes the industry can be too inflexible.”I ask him his thoughts on the bourbon business. “Thirteen years of Prohibition wrecked the industry,” he replies. “And after it, the bourbon companies were tentative. But it eventually came back and the mid-1970s were glory days, but it went into decline when the white goods – vodka, gin and light rum – kicked in. By the end of the 1980s, the white goods had taken over. It was tied into health and social issues,” hegoes on, “and for some reason vodka and white rum are not perceived as hard liquor.”“Today, we’re back to the glory days and the image of bourbon has changed, thanks to super-premium whiskies like Woodford Reserve. People are drinking quality whiskies moderately and I believe the likes of Woodford will drive the industry forward. It has the industry and the consumer excited about bourbon again, and that certainly makes me happy. What’s great about bourbon is that the production end is such a small fraternity. I can call Jimmy Russell over at Wild Turkey if I need advice. We leave the fighting to the marketing people.”With his involvement in new product development for Brown-Forman, Lincoln has been responsible for bringing Gentleman Jack, Country Cocktails, Forester 1870 (a premium bourbon distributed in India) and Woodford Reserve to the marketplace. He is one of a rare breed of Master Distillers: a production man who creates spirits from a consumer’s perspective. “Country Cocktails and Gentleman Jack were introduced in the late 1980s,” he explains. “Gentleman Jack was the first new whiskey to come out of Jack Daniel’s in over 100 years. Our goal was to make a product that was better than Crown Royal and Chivas Regal and that’s why we did the second charcoal mellowing, to make it sweeter and smoother.”“I’d say the most important new development was Woodford Reserve,” he goes on. “I was asked to produce what was done in the old days, to create a whiskey that could compete with single malt Scotch. This started in 1992 and our super-premium Woodford Reserve was launched in 1996. With bourbon, 100 barrels of the same whiskey are all different, but around 10 of these are wonderful. Perhaps it’s the moisture in the wood, but the colour, texture, aroma, taste, sweetness and the after-taste of these whiskeys make them special. We call them honey barrels, and I saw these great honey barrels and decided these were the ones for Woodford Reserve.”“Woodford is fun to taste and we have younger people drinking it who show tremendous loyalty. It has already won four gold medals and we’ve found that Woodford, with its classy bottle, encourages the awareness of bourbon in general.”Although passionate about bourbon and his brands, Lincoln has an international appreciation for spirits. “I enjoy Scotch, tequila and Irish as much as bourbon,” he says. “It depends on how you feel when you’re ready for a drink. There’s great spirits in every category, and my company has learned so much from our partners in Scotland, Ireland, Mexico and Japan. I was responsible for approving Ushers blended Scotch years ago, and I’ve always been impressed with how conscientious the Scots are with their whisky.”“I was also responsible for getting our company’s tequila.” he continues. “Brown- Forman bought Pepe Lopez 25 years ago, and in recent years we have introduced Don Eduardo 100% agave tequila into the United States. With Don Eduardo, there’s a confidence in quality tequila again, and a huge pride in how tequila is consumed. There’s tremendous family involvement in Mexico and their personalities and feelings go into the spirit. And it can’t hurt that the Don Eduardo añejo is aged in freshly dumped Old Forester.”At the age of 64, Lincoln is a year or two from retirement. He and his wife of 37 years, Cecilia, have a son, a daughter and nine grandchildren. “Maybe I’ll learn how to play golf,” he says, not very convincingly. “And Cecilia and I enjoy travel and history, and we’ll certainly spend time in Mexico. But I don’t know if I can cut off my involvement with bourbon completely.”Does he have any advice for the industry? “There’s so many potential consumers out there,” he answers, “but we have to let them know what’s available. I’ve seen it with Woodford Reserve when I travel around the world. People are looking for something new. They’re looking for products to adopt.”How about some words of wisdom for Chris Morris, Lincoln’s successor as Master Distiller at Brown-Forman? “You just have to remember that you’re in a very unique position with a large corporation,” he says. “You’ll be left alone. If you’re developing new products and there’s politics involved, the politics will go away. And don’t ever think about costs – the company will worry about the money. Your job is to make
the best.”With that, Lincoln orders two more Old Foresters at the bar. “And now it’s time to taste the best,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.