Woodford Reserve: The Ugly (Part III & Conclusion)

In the first two installments of this survey of the whiskeys Woodford Reserve has produced over the years, I looked at the standard Woodford Reserve expression, the oak variants (Seasoned Oak and Double Oaked), the sweet experiments (Maple Wood and Sweet Mash) and the Four Grain idea. None of them managed to connect in a big way for me. All that remains in the Woodford universe are three substantial deviations from normal Woodford: the Sonoma-Cutrer finished bourbon and the two rye whiskey experiments.

This may seem like an obsessive length to go to – both writing about and experimenting endlessly with – for a whiskey I’ve already admitted I don’t like. This reveals a character flaw of mine: I don’t like to admit that I can’t do something. In this case, I don’t like to find food or drink that I can’t enjoy in some manner. A similar struggle for me for a long time was eggplant. I’ve tried eggplant a million different ways over the years, and I just can never like it. I finally threw in the towel and had to admit I couldn’t find something that worked for me after trying every conceivable preparation.

I think it’s a broader desire for me to understand and appreciate that drives this. Sometimes our first exposures to new things are so strongly colored by how different they are compared to the things we like. If I don’t respond well to something it’s almost a red flag for me to dig deeper and try and find what people like about it. Usually a few variants will get me there and give me a broader appreciation. Woodford seems to strike the same nerve: Yes, it’s bourbon, but it’s just sticky and thick and sweet in a way I find hard to like. Clearly, my reasoning goes, I must be missing something that has drawn people to it.

I get why people like it and as I’ve said, I think it’s a great thing for bourbon in a broader market sense. At the same time, it does absolutely nothing for me. It’s this desire to understand it that leads me to these least-likely expressions.

The Sonoma-Cutrer experiment was one of the earlier bourbon-finished-in-wine experiments. These have been of mixed success — Hooker’s House finished in pinot noir and it was great. Angel’s Envy was masked by the port influence, and so on. Sonoma-Cutrer eschews the conventional approach of a red wine and instead used a California chardonnay cask for additional aging. If nothing else, this change of pace could be interesting.

The nose did not go as expected. It immediately had a very funky fake grape note – like grape Kool-Aid. There was a strong prickle to the nose even though it was only 43%. There were some dusty, farmy notes and a light wood influence. The palate had a hint of marzipan as would be expected, and a hint of toffee, but it ran up against a heavy, syrupy, fake grape note. There was a chocolatey note vaguely present, some light wood, and a lot of heat for the ABV. Trying to get past the grape note was a challenge but it was unacceptably sweet. The finish continued with the syrup and alcohol notes, was still quite warm. The wood was bitter and drying, tending toward astringency. The finish lasted longer than was welcome and had the fake grape note coming on strong.

I really didn’t enjoy anything about the Sonoma-Cutrer. In fact, I think it’s in my bottom five whiskeys of all time. It seemed young, impossibly sweet, and dominated by a fake grape note. It made me think of grape Kool-Aid mixed with vodka. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say I would probably rather have Loch Dhu given the choice.

So, the inescapable conclusion: Woodford doesn’t have a bourbon I like. But the last Master’s Collection was a pair of ryes – perhaps they had something to offer? The Master’s Collection ryes were two variations on a theme: a new cask rye (an unused cask) and an aged cask rye (basically, a refill cask). Both came in at 46.2% ABV.

The new cask rye was darker, due to the wood influence the new cask was able to impart.  It had a thin, piney and slightly resinous nose, and some prickle from the alcohol. A little white pepper and cinnamon completed the nose. The palate was thin and bitter, with a pretty heavy wood influence. The rye had some light floral notes, but the heat was picking up and there was a slightly metallic taste. The finish was dry, slightly bitter, with light cinnamon and faint cherries. The wood toned down and wasn’t overpowering. Unfortunately overall, the wood was out of balance and fought the good rye tastes. The metallic notes weren’t overpowering but really tainted the experience.

The aged cask rye, conventional wisdom would state, would have a less pronounced wood influence and let the spirit shine through more. It was a touch medicinal and generally estery on the nose, with some light floral notes. Rye started to peek out a bit and was accompanied by a vanilla note. The palate was surprisingly sharp with a bitter wood presence. There was some vague rye notes but the wood killed it. It was highly medicinal, with a menthol kick to it. There was also a metallic tang to the palate. The finish was sharp and alcoholic, with a faint hit of rye, but mostly a medicinal and grainy tone. It was just objectionably bitter. While the nose opened up, I just kept thinking that this was something that should be rubbed in a cut, not drank.

With that, I’ve surveyed pretty much every offering that bears the Woodford Reserve name. Unfortunately, none of them really did it for me – some disastrously bad in the case of the Sonoma, some just off-balance like Double Oaked.

At this point, I realize it’s a fruitless pursuit for me to try further with Woodford. I’ve tried every major version of their whiskey they’ve released, and nothing has really come close to the mark for me. While I would have been happy to find a Woodford that I liked, it just didn’t happen. And I’m alright with that.

One of the odd things about this whole experience was researching other peoples’ take on Woodford. I noticed one blogger who talked about going to the distillery and making bread with Woodford’s master distiller, as part of a class that showed the contribution of grains to the flavor of whiskey. Remember, the grains in whiskey are the same grains used in most of our breads.

This ended up being an experiment that I wanted to try. I ended up baking the Woodford beer bread, which combined rye, barley and corn with some beer. Unfortunately, like the Woodfords, this ended up not being a hit for me either. To me it tasted like a slightly yeasty cornbread (which it was, in effect). What I took away from it though was an ever-growing love for baking bread that has been a big hobby lately.

And I think that’s why I say Woodford is a great thing. While I don’t like it per se, I think it has a great ability to enlighten the bourbon drinker who’s never had a premium bourbon. Subjectively I think there are better bourbons in the price range, but if Woodford is the whiskey that leads people to a broader enjoyment of bourbon then I think it’s done a great thing. Maybe Woodford will be the one for some of those people.

For me, as much as I didn’t like the whiskey, it did provide for me a connection to my past – bread baking. I used to love making bread with my dad at home when I was younger. It’s something I hadn’t done in probably close to 25 years at this point. And Woodford has reignited that passion and perhaps made it something I will share with my son in time. So while I never enjoyed the whiskey itself, the whiskey has led me to a broader appreciation of something else in my life.

I think that’s a great thing.

At a glance:

Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish 43.2% ABV
Nose: 
Funky – grapey (like grape kool-aid, not actual grapes) and kind of sour. Strong alcohol prickle even though it’s not particularly strong. Dusty, farmy notes. Light wood.
Palate: 
Syrupy. Fake-grape. Quite hot for the ABV. Some wood. Sweet. Hint of marzipan. Distant hint of toffee which collides horribly with the fake grape. Vaguely chocolatey note. Unacceptably sweet once you get past the weird grape note.
Finish: 
Alcohol – tastes like cough syrup. Wood. Bitter and drying, slightly astringent. Still quite warm. Lasts longer than is welcome and manages to bring the awful grape note to the fore.
Comment: 
This is terrible. It’s impossibly sweet and yet has a high alcohol burn – must be fairly young. There is nothing to like about this unless you are tired of mixing grape kool-aid with vodka. I would rather drink Loch Dhu and that’s not hyperbole.
Rating:
D

Woodford Reserve New Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
Nose: 
A bit thin, piney and slightly resinous on the nose. Some prickle from the alcohol. White pepper and cinnamon.
Palate: 
Thin. Initially bitter. Wood is pretty strong on this one. The rye comes up with some light floral notes after a few seconds. The heat keeps picking up too. Faintly metallic.
Finish: 
Dry, slightly bitter. Light cinnamon, faint hint of cherries. Woody but not overpowering. 
Comment: 
The wood is out of balance on this one and really pushes against the better parts of a rye whiskey.
Rating:
C

Woodford Reserve Aged Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
Nose: 
A touch medicinal and generally estery. Lightly floral nose. Some rye peeks out and there’s a slightly vanilla note to it as well. 
Palate: 
Sharp, bitter wood. There’s something vaguely rye there but the wood kills it. Medicinal, menthol. The ever-familiar woodford metallic notes.
Finish:  Sharp and alcoholic. A faint hit of rye on the finish but it’s medicinal again. 
Comment: 
Objectionably bitter on the palate. The nose opens up after a bit but this just tastes and smells like something I should rub in a cut, not drink. 
Rating:  
C-

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