Woodford Reserve: A second shot at history

William M. Dowd photos

A distillery worker rolls out American white oak barrels just filled with new bourbon whiskey prior to loading them up for placement in aging house elsewhere on the grounds.

VERSAILLES, KY -- The Labrot & Graham Distillery has something probably no other bourbon maker can boast about.

No, not the copper pot stills. True, they are reputedly the only such devices among the nation's bourbon distillers, handcrafted in Scotland by A. Forsyth & Son Ltd. And, no, not the fact that the distillery's Woodford Reserve bourbon is the only triple distilled bourbon made in these parts.

What it also has is a grave containing a human torso buried with two legs, three thumbs and no head. The missing head was the result of an industrial accident; the extra thumb came from a distillery worker who lost it in an accident, didn't think there was much sense keeping it in his pocket, and tossed it into the grave before it was covered up. That, at least, is the gist of the way master distiller Chris Morris (right) tells the tale. No doubt an archaeologist in the far distant future is going to have some strange thoughts after happening on this site. And, don't even get me started on the ghost of the girl who died in a fire in the big house on the hill.

Woodford Reserve, named for the county in which Versailles (pronounced ver-sails, rather than the French vehr-sigh from which the name is taken) is located, is only the latest name for the facility that lays claim to the title of Kentucky's oldest bourbon distillery. It has been that since 2003, although the Labrot & Graham name that preceded it still is alive in some aspects of the operation.

It is located in the heart of Kentucky's famed Bluegrass country and maintains a relationship with the thoroughbred horse racing community through various business sponsorships, including being the "official bourbon" of the Kentucky Derby (see below).

The present distillery is largely maintained on 72 acres in a series of sprawling stone buildings, such as the distillery itself (seen above), dating from the 19th century and one reason the complex has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The original distilling works was built in 1812 by Elijah Pepper, then became the Oscar Pepper Distillery, then the Labrot & Graham Distillery in 1878 through 1941. Brown-Forman, now one of the world's largest alcoholic beverage companies, bought it in 1968, sold it in 1971, but, in a burst of renewed interest in bourbon making, re-purchased it in 1994, spending more than $7 million to restore and refurbish it.

Although much of the bourbon production work remains comparatively low tech, the whiskey quickly rose to the upper echelon of the field under Brown-Forman's second go-round. The main whiskey is a small batch product, although not a single barrel. As Morris explained it, a lot of sampling goes on to ascertain the readiness of the bourbon as it ages, rather than producing it on an unwavering calendar-only basis.

The actual making of bourbon is essentially a simple four-step process: mash making, fermentation, distillation and maturation. The differences in brands lie in water quality, grain quality, the chemistry of the yeast, the filtration and the aging process.

The chemical reactions going on in this 20,000-gallon cypress plank fermentation vat results in a substance resembling cooked oatmeal.

Whereas most distillers have converted to steel fermentation tanks, Woodford Reserve is begun in old 20,000-gallon cypress plank vats where water from a local aquifer is mixed with yeast, corn, rye and malted barley. By law, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, but distillers usually use 70% or more. Morris told me he uses 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley.

The water may be as important to the finished product as any other component. The age of glaciers on mainland North America left a huge limestone shelf extending from southern Indiana down through Kentucky and Tennessee, creating a natural filtering mechanism for water that "sweetens" it by removing iron and other impurities.

Once the grain mixture, called "mash," is joined by the yeast -- itself a proprietary strain owned by particular distillers -- the chemical process takes off. Over a period of about three days, the yeast converts the natural sugar of the grains to alcohol and CO2. The result is "distiller's beer," a slightly sour, yet overtly sweet-smelling liquid with the spent grains and yeast sinking to the bottom of the vats.

Finished whiskey flows into these receivers, then is put into barrels for aging.

The "beer" then is distilled into raw whiskey by heating the liquid, creating steam, which is cooled and forms a more refined liquid. The alcohol is removed at the top, and any fiber and other solid matter is removed from the bottom. Since most distilleries recycle virtually everything, such leftover matter -- sometimes called "wet cake" -- is sold or given to farmers to be used for livestock food.

Typical bourbons are triple distilled, although the number of individual stills, the height of them, and the tubing systems make the actual number of distillations a matter of some debate since the total length run by the whiskey often exceeds a strict mathematical equation.

Morris, a native of Kentucky, has been Woodford Reserve's master distiller since 1999. He is a judge at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, co-chairs the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) Master Distiller's Committee, and is the only American distiller named a "Keeper of the Quaich" by the Scotch Whisky Association.

------ $1,000 julep coming up ----------------------
In my never-ending quest to keep you abreast of the latest in wildly inflated cocktail prices, here's a timely entry in the sweepstakes: a $1,000 drink in honor of the Kentucky Derby.

As the official drink maker of the Derby, Woodford Reserve has come up with a blend of ingredients from around the world to top its mint julep offering of last year. Woodford is offering 132 of the special cocktails in gold cups, some of which will be auctioned off by Christie's. Each will be engraved with the name of a Derby-winning horse.

A batch of premium bourbon from the Labrot & Graham Distillery mixed with organic sugar from Australia, mint from Ireland and ice from the Bavarian Alps.

"We did try to make the ultimate mint julep, and that's something that we're striving for again this year," Wayne Rose, Woodford Reserve's brand director, said in a prepared statement. "It'll be a little bit different taste, but that's because the ingredients are a little bit different."

The auction of 11 gold cups featuring Triple Crown winners and carrying three rubies — signifying the Derby, Preakness and Belmont legs of the Triple Crown, and of two other diamond-studded cups -- for Barbaro, last year's winner, and the first Derby champ, Aristides -- is scheduled to begin at noon Tuesday. The remaining cups can be purchased on Woodford Reserve's Derby Web site. Auction proceeds will go to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which helps retired horses and disabled jockeys.

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