People

In conversation with BC

Charles Maclean talks to the General Manger of America's oldest (and youngest) distillery.
By Charles MacLean
CM What was the background to the idea?
BC Well, we felt that American distillers had not done all they could to develop connoisseurship amongst their consumers. You only have to look at what Robert Mondavi has done for Californian wines, or the Scotch malt distillers - and we have been closely interested in this through our involvement with Glenmorangie since the late 1980s - to see the huge interest out there in premium products and the story behind them.
CM How long did it take you to come up with Woodford Reserve?
BC Six of us with backgrounds in production and marketing, led by a very senior manager, were locked away in a hotel for three days to discuss how to get into the category. We established three principles. First, we needed a home-place for the brand and an authentic home-place, not Disneyland. Second, we identified an opportunity to educate and inform about Bourbon. Third, we stressed that it must be a long-term commitment. We had the full support of the top brass at Brown-Forman, including Bill Street, President of Beverages, and Owsley Brown, our Chairman and CEO.Then we hired an architecture student and told him to find us a site in Kentucky which had plenty of heritage and a good story to tell. After seven months he came up with the Labrot & Graham Distillery, in Woodford County, about an hour from Louisville, where Brown-Forman’s HQ is located.
CM I am surprised it took him so long. The Labrot & Graham
Distillery is one of the oldest in the States, and was once owned by Brown-Forman. Am I right?
BC Yes. It’s the oldest distillery in the U.S, founded in 1812. It pioneered a lot of important developments in distilling during the 1830s, when it was run by a Scottish physician and chemist, Dr. James Crow. He is thought to have perfected the sour mash technique and was the first person to see the importance of charring barrels. Brown-Forman bought the distillery in 1940 for its 30,000 barrels of maturing whiskey. We were very low in inventory at the time, indeed the company’s former Treasurer says that had it not been for the purchase of L&G at that time, Brown-Forman would probably not be in business today. We sold it in 1972 to someone who wanted to make industrial alcohol, but he never got this venture underway and it never opened. When we bought it back in 1994, all the old Brown-Forman signage, letter-heads, etcetera, were still there. We spent $13 million restoring the distillery.
CM Is it very traditional?
BC It sure is. We have gone back to how Bourbon was made in the last century - with cypress wood fermenters and copper pot stills; very long fermentations, batch production, triple distillation and so on. There are other distilleries that still use some cypress fermenters, but they are replacing them with stainless steel. L&G is the only distiller that has committed 100% of its production to cypress fermenters. Our stills were made for us by Forsyths of Rothes, on Speyside. We needed a lot of help in how to run the damn things, and Edwin Dodson, manager of Glen Moray Distillery in Elgin was really helpful.
CM Is Woodford Reserve currently being made there?
BC No, it’s not. We wanted to launch the brand before we had finished work on the distillery. So we aksed the Master Distiller at our Early Times Distillery in Louisville to select some of his ‘honey barrels’, the top 1.5% of his inventory, and ship them down to finish their maturation at Labrot & Graham. This was originally intended as a stopgap, but the success of the brand now means that we have to reproduce the exact character of the whiskey in the new distillery.
CM Is Woodford Reserve your favourite whiskey?
BC Sure is! In the winter I like it as a Manhattan (on the rocks, with a minimum of two cherries) and in the summer I like it long, with ice and lemonade and another one backing it up - especially after a game of golf: the better I played, the quicker the first one goes down. I also enjoy it anytime poured over ice with a splash of water.