Woodford Reserve: The Good (Part I)

Woodford Reserve is great for the bourbon market and one of my least favorite bourbons ever.

I note my opinion upfront so that I can’t be accused of not disclosing a deep personal bias. It’s not that it’s undrinkable – it’s certainly better than most Beam products I’ve tried – it just has that generally disappointing profile I get from virtually every Brown-Forman product I’ve tried.

I’ve admitted recently that I was perhaps not as enlightened a whiskey connoisseur as I might hope to be. I don’t think that this is what drives my distaste for Brown-Forman whiskeys. Yes, there’s a chance I might be enthralled by crazy, one-off strange whisky experiments. Perhaps that colors my bias – but even then, with its Master’s Collection, in theory, Brown-Forman would have me covered. I wonder if an astute observation by Josh at Sipology isn’t on point here: “I think the people running Brown-Forman really just don’t care about enthusiasts. Buffalo Trace maybe cares too much.”

It’s certainly not price snobbery. I think Evan Williams at $9 is a solid bourbon and the $12 Very Old Barton (100 proof please) is a heck of a great one too. I certainly don’t need to be seen only quaffing rare Glendronachs or Pappys. I just care about what’s in the bottle.

Nope, this is all about the whiskey for me. And no matter how many variations I’ve tried, I just find that I cannot get into Woodford Reserve in any of its forms to save my life. It’s not for lack of trying, as you’re going to see. The profile is too strange with its occasional syrupy sweetness (different, of course, than the beautiful caramel sweetness of some whiskeys), marred by flashes of banana, marzipan and sometimes a little peanut flavor.

I said Woodford was a good thing. I think it’s an excellent gateway product to a better appreciation of bourbon. Most people have an initial encounter with bourbon in their young, “get drunk as cheap as possible” days. Bourbon certainly provides a hell of a value in that category. Over time though, and as the wallet gets a little fatter, some people start going upmarket and trying things that aren’t just paint stripper with caramel coloring. Others don’t, and they end up like some of my college friends who still see the 30 pack of Miller Lite as the apex of the beer drinking experience: enough to get you wasted but not enough to cut into your lotto and smokes budget.

For those who trade up, Woodford can be an a-ha moment. This stuff has taste! I can actually enjoy it! Suddenly paying $35 for a bottle of liquor doesn’t seem like it’s ridiculous because the value is there. Combine that with it being the house bourbon on some cooking shows, and it’s easy to see Woodford being in the vanguard of bourbons that show America that our local spirit can be worthy of standing in the company of high-quality food and drink.

However, I hope they make the jump to other bottles – Four Roses Single Barrel for instance – to see that not only can bourbon be good, it can be really, really good. Woodford just manages to fall short.

For a while, I thought it was the sweeter profile that wasn’t doing it for me. Generally I find really sweet bourbons to be good but never great. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found I like sweet flavors less and less. But Woodford, strictly speaking, isn’t “just a sweet bourbon”. Woodford’s nose is sweet, but has some rye spice on it and vanilla. It also has a marzipan note that dominates, but I find it becomes waxy in the glass after a while, and not in that great apple skin, old wood and wax way some whiskeys get. The palate is sweet but with a rye kick and some wood, comes in syrupy but goes strangely thin. It’s got the marzipan thickness, a little vanilla, a little toffee, and a flash of black cherries, but it’s just not particularly impressive. The finish goes sweeter – brown sugar and creme brûlée, and it lasts and lasts, but then it dries off strange and bitter. It’s not that kind of straightforward sweetness that I found in spades in BTSO 4 which I enjoyed but didn’t love.

Fair enough – this one just isn’t for me. But as I looked around, I found they had a bunch of premium-price, “small run” (15,000 bottles does kind of test that a bit for me) experiments released as the Master’s Collection. Well then – maybe I’d find my particular slice of heaven here. The Master’s comes out yearly, and has generally been a bourbon, though the last release was a pair of ryes. The one that was of immediate interest? Certainly it had to be the Seasoned Oak, which would right the wrongs of a sweet palate and bring a stronger oak note into the mix.

Seasoned Oak had immediate wood presence on the nose with rye; molasses and maple syrup rounded it out, and it smelled like it had a little more age and less youthful fire on it. The palate was syrupy as usual, and a bit sweet with some of the waxiness of Woodford. It also had toffee, brown sugar, molasses, and wood (which wasn’t overpowering), rye, and later on some cereal and grain notes. It finished big and strong like the regular Woodford, with apples and black cherry notes, but it had a strangely medicinal tang. There was some orange and cinnamon, but the wood caused it to dry pretty heavily. At the time I first opened it I thought this bottle was better than the standard Woodford, but the wood was definitely starting to push into being too overbearing. With several months in the bottle and some oxidation, I found it had gone firmly into the “too much wood” column unfortunately. Yet another reminder to enjoy those whiskies when they’re good.

Had Woodford not announced the Double Oaked line extension this spring, I would have posted this pan-Woodford discussion much sooner. However, the announcement stalled me until I could try it and see if, indeed, Woodford had heard the call for more wood and nailed it. For an additional $15, I was hoping they would, because $50 for a mediocre bourbon just pushed into depressing territory.

Double Oaked was hailed as being inspired by the Seasoned Oak, but its production differed. Seasoned Oak was standard Woodford finished in barrels that had been seasoned (left to dry and weather) outside for three to five years. Double Oaked changed this formula by “deeply toasting and then lightly charring” the wood for the finishing barrel. A slight change of recipe, then, but maybe it was a more cost-effective without sacrificing quality.

The nose led with a bouquet of spices – pepper and cinnamon and some allspice, as well as a lot of wood. There was darkness provided by black cherry that was on the cusp of being syrupy and artificial. The wood had moments of seeming green and popsicle-sticky but never quite went all the way. There was orange and vanilla present as well. The palate had a slightly charred character and a very strong wood presence, again with pepper and cinnamon. Light orange zest and heavy black cherries filled it out, but the wood presence was again right at the edge of being too bitter and too overpowering. The finish was black cherry and more oak – lots and lots of oak. It settled into a weird taste combination of tart, bitter and sweet.

Overall, it was noticeably different than Seasoned Oak, flirting openly with Woodford’s tendency to get too sweet. While I rate this the same as standard Woodford, I think I’d take Double Oaked given the choice.

While this was the latest Woodford bourbon I’ve tried, it certainly isn’t the whole story. The Master’s Collection has other profiles to look into, including ones that took the sweetness a step further. I will be exploring those and elaborate more on Woodford Reserve with those whiskeys in Part II.

At a glance:

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select 45.2% ABV (Batch 532, Bottle 02688)
Very sweet. Rye is evident on the nose, as well as vanilla. There’s a low hint of marzipan and vanilla as well. Becomes waxy with a few minutes exposure to air.
Sweet, with wood evident and rye as well, initially syrupy and thick on the palate but then feels watery and starts to warm. The thicker marzipan style note is evident; a little vanilla, some very faint hints of toffee. There are early faint notes of black cherry but they tone down quickly.
Sweet again, more brown sugar/creme brulee type sweetness. Quite a big, lasting finish. It dries off strange and slightly bitter.
It’s fine but I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to recommend this to anyone. Kind of pushes the sweet and syrupy direction. The marzipan is fairly pronounced which gives it a weightier sweet flavor and I see how this is agreeable. However, this isn’t one that I think you’re worse off for not having tried.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish 50.2% ABV
Wood evident immediately, some rye on the nose. A bit of a prickle but not out of line with the ABV. Smells older. Light molasses and maple syrup notes.
Syrupy mouthfeel. A bit sweet on the palate, revealing some waxy notes, a hint of apple, some toffee, brown sugar, molasses, definite wood influence but not overpowering, some rye, warming slightly. Later notes of cereal and grain.
Big and strong, revealing more fruit notes – apples, black cherry. There’s something vaguely medicinal on the finish. Lasting. A flash of orange and cinnamon. Definite drying from the wood on the finish, where the wood notes are most prominent.
This is really not bad despite the Master’s Collection reviews. It’s certainly better than stock Woodford to me, favoring a darker, spicier profile than Woodford which is rather sweet to me. That said the wood does start to push into the “too much” territory and can be a very mood-driven choice.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked 45% ABV
Pepper and cinnamon, a touch of allspice and a lot of wood. A black cherry darkness that is just on the right side of syrupy. The wood flirts slightly with becoming green and popsicle-sticky for a moment but doesn’t really go there. Some orange and a touch of vanilla. 
A lightly charred note, very strong wood presence. Pepper, light cinnamon. Some light orange and heavier black cherry presence. The wood is right up at the line of being bitter and too strong. 
Black cherry leads and is followed by oak. Lots and lots of oak. After a while this starts to sit on an uncomfortable triad of tart, bitter and sweet. 
It’s less aggressively woody than the Seasoned Oak, but the sweetness seems to almost get away from it a little too often. Somewhat better than regular Woodford.

5 thoughts on “Woodford Reserve: The Good (Part I)”

  1. What would be interesting to me would be an article about the psychology of why we want to go out and spend lots of our money to give a chance to the rest of the lineup from a distillery we know we don’t like.  Notice I didn’t say “why did YOU go and and but all these Woodford products knowing you don’t like the profile,” but WE.  I have a tendency toward the same thing.  I’ll know I’m not a fan of the general profile, then still want to keep giving the higher-end whisky a shot anyway.  What’s up with that?  Boredom?  Curiosity?  Or something deeper?

    1. This phenomenon applies in an even more interesting fashion to new microdistillery products. They aren’t necessarily that good, but people are often willing to pay a fairly amount of money for them because it will hopefully support the efforts to make better products in the future.

      1. I think there’s also an aspect of transference from the beer market: the micros pretty much rule the roost there on quality, etc, so surely smaller is better? Except, you know, that it generally isn’t in whiskey…

        1. Yeah. I went to the American Distiller’s Festival here in Portland last fall and found myself incredibly disappointed with what most of the new distilleries had to offer. Some of the whiskies were downright wretched and the distillers should be ashamed to be bottling the stuff. They’re all in a really tough position, because so few distillers have the capital to sit on whiskey until it’s actually good. Putting out mediocre product is a double edged sword because while it does bring in money, it could poison the brand, killing their ability to sell good whiskey down the line. I’m not sure if there’s a clear path out of that trap, but it will be interesting to see where the industry is in another 10-15 years when hopefully it will be more common to see micro whiskies with 5-8 years on them.

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