Think of a distillery. Any distillery. If I was a betting man, I'd say the place you're thinking of is a beautiful, idylic, whitewashed, walled place, hidden in some nook either by the sea or in a lush grassy glen with small, hand-made copper pot still puffing away, producing small batch white spirit ready to spend some time in oak. Am I right?
Well, think now of an American Bourbon distillery, and you can almost think the opposite: yes, surrounded by grass (this time the iron-rich 'blue grass' rather than lush heathery tones of Scotland or Ireland), and yes, producing a wonderful white spirit to be rested in oak. However, the majority of Kentucky Bourbon is distilled in large facilities using tall column stills, rather than the copper pots we might be so used to in Scotland and Ireland.
In the period during The Great Experiment in the USA, American Bourbon distilleries weren't mothballed, most were simply destroyed - torn down, ghosted, never to operate again. When Prohibition ended, it gave rise to a new wave of American distillers who took advantage of the most modern technology available to them in the early 20th Century: efficient, tall column stills and large, often warmed warehousing.
And why not? If you were to go and open an office today for a new business, you wouldn't buy a fax or telex machine, you'd get a state-of-the-art laptop, a laser printer, set up a website, Twitter and Facebook page. In the same way, the fathers of today's top Kentucky distilleries bought in the best technology available to them and went at spirit production full tilt.
It is against this backdrop of large column distillation and multi-brand production facilities, which makes the Labrot & Graham distillery such a unique and, quite frankly, a very beautiful proposition.
Located in Woodford County, off Interstate 64 which runs between Louisville and Lexington, and just south of Frankfort, right in the heart of Kentucky whiskey production, it is home to a premium pot still American Bourbon which takes its name from the location: Woodford Reserve.
Founded initially as the Old Oscar Pepper distillery, which became home to Dr. Chris Crow, the man credited with inventing the sour mash method, the proof system, the hydrometer and, some say, the concept of charring barrels before maturation (quite the inventor!) it has real history, and real heritage. MGP this isn't.
Later, the distillery was renamed the Labrot & Graham distillery, after Leopold Labrot and James Graham who took over the site in 1878. They operated the distillery until the early 1940s, when it was purchased by Jack Daniel's owner Brown-Forman.
In 1968 Brown-Forman sold the distillery as farm buildings, and it fell silent for a quarter of a century, until the former owners purchased it back from the farmer to whom they originally sold it, to restart distilling at the site in 1993 (production starting again in 1996).
Of course, the temptation here would have been to follow in the footsteps of other 20th Century American distillers and install column stills, but that wouldn't have been the Woodford way. Three copper pot stills were commissioned from Forsyths of Scotland, something unusual for the Bourbon industry and a challenge when it comes to distilling a mixed mash bill of corn, rye, wheat and malted barley which, after brewing in their open-top vats, isn't filtered before distillation.
"We have to clean the beer still [the first of the three stills] quite a lot, as the unfiltered mash can really stick to it," I'm told by Woodford's Master Distiller Chris Morris.
Morris is immensely proud of the set up at the Labrot & Graham distillery, and quite rightly so. His lilting local Louisville tone raises and quickens when he starts talking about it.
"We're unique in what we're doing here. We distill all types of mash bills. At the moment, we're doing our single malt. That's not like a single malt from Scotland, but just one where the malt content of our mash bill is higher", he explains as the filled barrels roll past in the open air, on a special track, freshly filled, from the still house to the warehouse.
And their mash bill is key for their core product, the Distillers Reserve, which is made up of 72 per cent corn, 18 per cent rye and 10 per cent malted barley.
"I'm really excited about our rye whiskey," Morris continues. "It has 53 per cent rye, with the 33 per cent corn and 14 per cent malted barley and it really kicks through."
During distillation, Chris Morris cuts his white dog at 155 proof, well below the 160-proof legal cap on the strength of American Bourbon whiskey new-make, and they barrel at 110 proof, coming in 15 degrees under what is legally allowed in the region.
Coupled with heated warehousing, this makes for a wonderfully smooth and rounded Bourbon, and a spicy yet balanced offering in their rye whiskey. Their double matured whiskey, also a real innovation for the region, adds an extra layer of laid-back flavours.
"Innovation doesn't stop at Woodford," says Morris. "We're constantly experimenting, and we love it. Although we don't shout about it, and certainly not all of it will ever see the light of day. We'll only release those that work, the best of the best."
And this is an ideal that seems to seep through the Brown-Forman family. With a recent purchase of Slane Castle in Ireland where they'll be building a new distillery, and the purchase of Scottish distillers The BenRiach Distillery Co. (who own three distilleries in Scotland, most notably GlenDronach and BenRiach) for nearly £300m, it seems as if the ideals of pot still distillation learned over the decades at Woodford Reserve can be tested out on a global scale. Learnings, for the benefit of Woodford, are sure to be taken from the experience of distilling in Ireland and Scotland, too.
All this leads to a very exciting future for Woodford Reserve. 'Born in Kentucky, raised in Manhattan', they say. Add to this the distillery's new pen-pals in Scotland and Ireland and I'm sure Woodford will become not just the oldest, slowest distillery in Kentucky, but the most cultured too.
- Mash tun: 7,500 gallons and are open top
- Fermentation: can be 5 to 7 days
- Beer still is 2,500 gallon capacity, high wine and spirit stills each 1,600 gallons
- Mash bill: 72% Corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley for Bourbon and 33% corn, 53% rye and 14% malted barley for rye.
Woodford ReserveDistillers Reserve 45.2% ABVNose:
Over ripe banana, toasted almonds, peach melba and blood orange.Palate:
Oak spices are complimented by banana split (with loads of cream and chocolate sauce) and mandarin.Finish:
Sweet, medium in length and full of vanilla.
Woodford ReserveKentucky Straight Rye 45.2% ABVNose:
A bright and spicy nose of rye, cedar and cracked black pepper.Palate:
Big oak dryness mixes with vanilla, rye spice, mint and molasses.Finish:
Medium-dry with hints of 80% cocoa dark chocolate and cigar boxes.
Woodford ReserveDouble Oaked 45.2% ABVNose:
Fruit cake in a Swiss mountain cabin, banana bread and leather.Palate:
Delicate cocktail cherries and rich toasted vanilla.Finish:
Sweet and long, like a good Bourbon cocktail. Apple pie.