Distillery Focus

Mixing it up with George Washington

The distillery at Woodford Reserve is like nowhere else on earth
By Dominic Roskrow
This is truly surreal. Kentucky’s youngest master distiller, Chris Morris, is standing over a single barrel which is full of a liquid that looks like concrete mix and has the consistency of gruel. His mentor and boss Lincoln Henderson is pouring a large bucket of icein to the mix.And Chris is wielding what looks like two bits of wood stuck together – and indeed, that’s exactly what it is. He plunges it in to the mess and starts to stir frantically, pausing only long enough to inform us that his paddle is the only one of its type to be made this century.We’re not surprised.We’re standing in the shade in a small courtyard between the maturing warehouses at Labrot & Graham and the dinkiest bottling and labelling plant you’re ever likely to see. It gives new meaning to the expression ‘small batch.’At the end of the courtyard is a disconnected pot still, just to remind us what these gentlemen are meant to be doing here.A small group has gathered now, and is offering advice.“This better work,” says Chris.“It’ll work,” says Lincoln with admirable confidence. And as if to convince himself he says it again.Someone produces two containers bubbling with yeast. More ice is added while Chris starts to turn red with stirring. And all the time myself and London Telegraph journalist Andrew Catchpole stare at the scene in disbelief. Andrew, bless him, is determined to remain focused and continues to ask questions.“How many people actually work at the distillery?” he asks.“About half of ‘em,” comes the reply, and our hosts crumple up with laughter. Not for the first time.“We might have to put a rock on top of the lid to keep the racoons out,” someone suggests. “Once them yeasts get going we’ll have drunk ‘coons all over the place. One might fall in.”It’s getting more surreal by the minute. And then Lincoln takes pity on us.“What we are doing here is trying to make whiskey to an original recipe that was used by George Washington when he distilled,” he explains.“We’re mixing 60 per cent rye, 35 per cent corn and five per cent barley. Once the yeast has been added it’ll sit here for about six days then we’ll put it in the back of a truck and drive it up to Jim Beam.“They’re going to try and distil it using a replica still and they’re going to do it in the car park just in case something goes wrong. The plan is to see if we can collectively make a whiskey to George Washington’s recipe.“We’re going to take it up to Mount Vernon (his estate) where we’re going to drink it in October at the ripe old age of one month old. At least that’s the plan…”Satisfied that the temperature has come down enough, the yeasts are added.“Come on,” says Chris. “Let’s go and find your casks.” And with that he and Lincoln set off towards the warehouses, smiling like Cheshire cats.This is work, Kentucky style.“They just won’t believe this back home,” I mutter as we follow the two distillers in to the cool and gloom of the warehouses. And now, writing it all down, I’m not sure even I do…There had been nothing conventional about the whole journey to the Woodford Reserve distillery at Frankfort. From the moment that Andrew and I had arrived in America and been detained in customs and missed our connecting flight to Louisville there had been something slightly not normal about our trip.We had been picked up by chauffeur and driven directly to Steam, a super-cool – in every sense – restaurant in downtown Louisville to meet cocktail king Dale Degroff and Brown-Forman representative Mark Jordan.Our accommodation that evening was the Seelbach Hilton, as near as America ever gets to history; a hotel that can boast nine Presidents among its residents over the years, that has waited on Muhammed Ali on visits back to his hometown at the height of his fame, and which gets a reference in The Great Gatsby.And on the day of our visit to Woodford Reserve we had visited the Bluegrass (but of course) Cooperage, where about 1800 barrels are made each day, to service not just Brown-Forman’s distilleries but those of a range of local whiskey producers including Maker’s Mark.Finally we had been driven down to Frankfort to the Labrot & Graham about an hour’s drive from Louisville.We had turned in to Grassy Springs Road, passed by the greener than green paddocks with their pretty white fences and almost English stone walls built by slaves in another lifetime, the fields occupied by the most stunning looking thoroughbred mares and their new foals.And finally we’d passed through the gates of the distillery – simple white buildings contrasted against the deepest blue sky in the tidiest and immaculate surroundings imaginable, barrels placed neatly around to remind you just exactly where you were, wall plaques to give you some of the history.If ever there was an image of somewhere come to life, this was it.Did you ever take exams in the summer? Do you remember that feeling of being escorted out of the sun and in to the execution room, where the weight of education dripped off the walls and you found yourself sweating even more than you had in the heat?That’s what it felt to be led by Chris Morris in to the old scales room and be greeted by Lincoln Henderson, a large collection of sample bottles and a table with paper and pens on it.They’re nice guys down there, but messing around with a man’s whiskey is no laughing matter, and we were at the business end of the trip –taking part in our own personal selection programme.Few have beaten this path before, which just adds to the enormity of what we were doing. And our mingling session was forme, at least, an ordeal.We were given 10 samples of Woodford Reserve, all previously drawn by our hosts and all of them good enough to go in to the mix. The colour varied massively across the 10, but we were told we were looking for something with a colour of around 12.5 Lovivond. Right.And then we were asked to put them in some sort of order and choose up to three of our favourites for our own whiskey.Not easy at all. Sample 1 tasted great to me, and went to the front of the queue. But so did sample 2. With the odd exception, they all did. By sample 4, my palate was struggling despite the fact that the cask strength whiskey had been significantly watered down.I bumped out number 1 when I reached number 9, concluding that they were bringing the same qualities to the party. So sample 1 went from hero to zero just like that.I managed to get rid of four entirely but Dale was displaying a whole different level of confidence.I’d like to claim that the whiskey we finally came up with owed a great deal to my skill and ingenuity when it came to mingling. But only Chris had any time at all in his selection for sample 9.My second choice did make it in to the final three, but I selected the other two whiskies in sixth and in the reject pile. Mark Jordan successfully picked all three and both Dale and Andrew claimed a better success rate than me.But our whiskey is gorgeous – sweeter than the standard product but overflowing with all the fruity spicy qualities that make Woodford Reserve such a marvellous drink. They’re going to bottle it for us to use for promotional purposes, so if you’re very, very lucky…You shouldn’t do Kentucky in 48 hours because it doesn’t allow you the time to kick back in to Kentucky time and to revel in the state’s awesome inbuilt hospitality.That night though, we drank cocktails with names such as Dawn at the Downs and Kentucky Longshot, Dale demonstrated some of his cocktail magic and regaled us with anecdotes from his time at New York’s Rainbow Room.And best of all, we dined in the Seelbach’s Oak Room on a menu prepared specially for us and which used Woodford Reserve throughout and we were introduced to the sommelier and the hotel’s general manager. It was a stylish and fitting end to a quite amazing 48 hours.But as jet lag finally got the upper hand and wiped us out at about 10.30pm we admitted defeat and headed to our rooms. I went to bed with a head full of special memories, and with too many highlights to pick any single one out.But I remember my last thought as I drifted off to sleep.It was of inebriated racoons desperately trying to pull the lid off a barrel of George Washington’s whiskey as it trundled across the Kentucky countryside on its way to the distillery at Jim Beam.As someone once observed: you couldn’t make it up…