In part one of this Woodford Reserve overview, I focused on my attempts with the standard Woodford Reserve, and my hopes that Seasoned Oak or Double Oaked may hold the key to a Woodford I liked. It was not to be, unfortunately.
Maybe this was, again, my misguided attempt to force something into being something it wasn’t. Woodford is a sweeter bourbon; perhaps I needed to see if they could dial up the sweetness in a way that agreed with me.
I don’t know what it is about sweet bourbons that fail to be more than a ground rule double for me. They’re nice; they frequently have a great mouthfeel. Some even get amazing notes that remind me of decadent desserts or sweet syrupy breakfasts. I think it’s because the taste tends to be fairly simple and doesn’t have a lot of intrigue beyond the first impression. And, as I said last time, as I’ve gotten older I’ve lost a little more of my taste for sweet things. They’re nice, but they need to be balanced by something to keep it interesting – bitterness, sourness, perhaps even extreme spice. Sweet on top of sweet is something I overindulged in back in my trick-or-treating days. I’ve had plenty that I’d drink at length, but they just never get into “wow” territory for me.
However, I was willing to concede that I should see if sweetness, which is more part of the core Woodford character, could be coaxed into something I liked in the Master’s collection. This led to a pair of interesting sweet experiments: Maple Wood and Sweet Mash.
Maple Wood was an interesting one. Bourbon barrels, as we recall, are made out of white oak. Woodford’s Maple Wood expression took the aged bourbon and then finished it in a toasted maple barrel. Maple has a higher amount of sugar in it, so the theory goes, it should be noticeably sweeter. The nose didn’t betray a lot of difference – there were the expected notes of banana and marzipan, with a touch of maple syrup. I also noticed some vegetal corn and raw sugar notes. The palate was unexpectedly light and sweet, with turbinado sugar and corn, and settling down with some toffee. There was grain and earthiness, but it was also slightly bitter and astringent. There was also a medicinal note on the palate (more Robitussin than, say, the Chloraseptic of Laphroaig). The finish was light with butterscotch, earthiness and the medicinality again. There was a little maraschino cherry and some turbinado sugar throughout the whole finish.
I was kind of surprised. It was sweet but not overtly so. I didn’t find myself having a huge preference on taste versus the standard Woodford profile, so on price alone, you’ve got to go with the standard version.
Another opinion on the Maple Wood was offered by David Perkins, proprietor of High West. We were talking about the various Woodfords at one point last fall, and I mentioned the Maple. He responded, “My favorite was the maple barrel whiskey! There’s no accounting for taste. I lived in New Hampshire a couple years and developed a fondness for maple syrup and can’t get enough in my diet nowadays. Maybe that’s why.” So, there’s another take on Maple Wood.
So, with Maple Wood being largely same-ish, the next option was the Sweet Mash. Now, to review, virtually every bourbon produced is using the sour mash process. What it means is that when a distillation batch is run, some of the spent mash is retained for the next batch. This helps control the pH of the mash and results in a more consistent product from batch to batch. The press release from Brown Forman on Sweet Mash said that the sweet mash process resulted in a higher pH on the mash (expected) and that it revealed “a layer of aromas and flavors which aren’t commonly found in sour mash bourbons”. Seems like a reasonable claim.
The nose bore this out – it was intensely sweet with a slightly vegetal undertone, some turbinado sugar, toffee, maple syrup, and a low-level wood influence. A little time and air coaxed a little vanilla out, but this was unmistakably sugary and sweet. The palate was again somewhat thin, with a strong alcohol presence, syrupy sweetness, and maple syrup. Again, Sweet Mash had a bit of a medicinal note, and some distant notes of plum. Despite all the sweetness, it was still sort of bland. The finish had a huge alcohol kick at first, but was not nuanced – just toffee, raw sugar and corn. The real surprise was that each subsequent sip seemed sweeter than the one before, to the point that I was hoping it would end.
Those two were disappointments. There was one left that I thought could be interesting as a slight variation on a theme – the Four Grain. Unlike most bourbons which are three-grain recipes (corn, barley, wheat or rye), Four Grain uses both wheat and rye. There were two releases of Four Grain: a Kentucky-only release and a wider release a year later. I managed to try the Kentucky-only release. Again, it had the very distinctive Woodford nose – thick with marzipan and banana. It was also a little sour and grainy, with some oiliness. There was also a solventy, cleaning product, Pine-Sol smell happening – perhaps some young rye? I also noticed something metallic on the nose. The palate was again thin, with oiliness and solvent notes; pine and funky rye. There was a little vanilla and toffee, but they were struggling to be tasted. There were some late marzipan flavors, and it seemed to move towards sweetness but it was too all over the place. The finish dried out and showed some wood and a bit of caramel; it was bitter and had some turbinado sugar.
I thought the four grain was absolute chaos on the palate. The nose was too sour and seemed young between the turbinado sugar notes and the piney, solventy rye aspects. The nose seemed like a step down from the standard Woodford, unfocused and sloppy.
I had hoped that following the sweet side of Woodford to an extreme might yield something I liked. Unfortunately that was not the case. All that remained to try were a pair of deep-end experiments: a bourbon finished in Sonoma-Cutrer casks, and the two rye experiments released last fall. Maybe one of those would connect.
We’ll look at those whiskies tomorrow and wrap up the survey of Woodford Reserve as well.
At a glance:
Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish 47.2% ABV
Nose: Close to the regular Woodford – definite banana and marzipan notes, some maple syrup. A lightly vegetal, corn and raw sugar note.
Palate: Light mouthfeel – very sweet, bringing up turbinado sugar and corn, settling down with some toffee notes. Fairly warm, some grain and earth notes, light wood but slight bitterness and astringency. Moderately drying, with a medicinal note (Robitussin to Laphroaig’s Chloraseptic).
Finish: Reasonably light, alcohol, butterscotch, slight earthiness, and a low-grade medicinal note. Some maraschino cherry early. Turbinado sugar throughout.
Comment: Of all the Master’s Collection, this one shows the least influence on taste. It’s fine, slightly sweeter, but not overtly objectionable in that direction. Since I don’t have a strong preference on taste vs the standard Woodford, it comes to price, and that’s pretty clear-cut – just go with the regular Woodford.
Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash 43.2% ABV
Nose: Sweet – corn note in abundance, a slightly vegetal undertone, turbinado sugar, toffee, maple syrup sweetness, some light wood. With a little time in the glass and some air it opens to give a little more traditional vanilla note.
Palate: Thin-ish, surprisingly strong alcohol note, syrupy sweetness, medium heat, some slightly bitter wood. Maple syrup, almost a medicinal hint. Some very far off notes of plum. Despite the sweetness it’s still kind of bland.
Finish: Big alcohol flush, not particularly nuanced. Toffee, raw sugar, corn.
Comment: This is one-dimensional and tastes young. There’s not a lot of complexity to the whiskey. There is an odd bitterness that clashes with the strong sweetness. It just doesn’t hang together coherently. Thank god for the sour mash process. The longer you drink this, the sweeter each subsequent sip tastes.
Woodford Reserve Four Grain (KY Only release) 46.2% ABV
Nose: There’s the distinctive thick nose which has the expected elements of marzipan and a hint of banana. It’s a little sour and grainy, with an oily smell. There’s a solventy, cleaner smelling thing happening too – a little Pine-Sol. It’s kind of like a recently emptied grain elevator – definitely something metallic in the background.
Palate: Surprisingly a little thin on the palate. Again there’s the oil and solvent, a little pine, funky rye note. Way in the back is a little vanilla, a little toffee, both trying to peek out. Not particularly warm and late there’s a note of marzipan. It wants to settle on a little sweet note but there’s too much to distract.
Finish: Dries out, shows a little wood and lasts reasonably long. There’s some hints of caramel. It’s also a little bitter. Some turbinado sugar for good measure.
Comment: The palate is completely chaotic to me. The sour nose and unrefined sugar makes it seem relatively young. The nose is a really unfocused, sloppy Woodford nose. As with the vast majority of the Masters Series, this is not an improvement.