Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall and Master Distiller Emeritus Chris Morris have experimented with various grains, maturation techniques and flavor profiles to create new innovations in bourbon-making. (Woodford Reserve photo)

Liquor store shelves in 2024 yield a seemingly unceasing parade of bourbons and whiskeys finished in alternative barrels or flavored with other products. Once upon a time, however, bourbon was essentially a singular spirit with a mostly singular flavor profile.

The roots of that modern innovation were largely planted and cultivated by Chris Morris, master distiller emeritus for Woodford Reserve.

Years of experimenting with the whiskeys he distilled has led to special series like the Master’s Collection, which affords Morris and Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall to experiment with various grains, maturation techniques and flavor profiles. Similarly, the Batch Proof Series presents various blends of Woodford bourbons bottled at cask strength, rather than the standard 90.4 proof of the core Woodford Reserve release.

What led Morris to seek new paths boils down to, as he puts it, seeking “concepts that would compete with white spirits.” In the 1980s, vodka (and to a less extent gin, rum and tequila) had taken over as the best-selling distilled spirit in America, leaving bourbon and whiskey in its crystal-clear wake. Morris sought to create a shift.

The key problem was that laws dictating what bourbon is at its core were—and remain—fairly restrictive: at least 51% corn in the mash, a barrel entry proof of 160 or less, aging in charred new oak barrels at 125 proof or less, and no additives, among many other stipulations.

Meanwhile, Morris noted that whiskey journalists of the late 1990s were writing that bourbon distillers would never be able to become innovative like their Scotch-making peers.

“Quite frankly, that made me mad,” said Morris, who Distiller.com in 2017 called “bourbon’s mad scientist.” “I began looking for the loopholes implicit in the standards as a way to be creative—and found them.”

While early on Morris toyed with what he termed a “blonde bourbon” concept, he also delved into everything from grain recipes to charcoal processing to alternative forms of filtration—one method of which would have seen whiskey filtered through crushed mussel shells. But a big idea was coming.

Oak and more oak

One of the earliest and most notable product innovations that made it to market was the now-ubiquitous Woodford Reserve Double Oaked—essentially, aging classic Woodford a second time in a new, charred barrel. The result was a rich, chocolatey, fruit-forward dark spirit that woke up American palates like few other whiskeys had until that point.

Of course, Double Oaked is a bourbon that, unlike today’s special series releases, can be found on shelves pretty much anytime. And that is by design.

By around 2010, Morris said, Woodford Reserve had begun to build a loyal audience but Morris was hearing feedback that they wanted “the next level.” Having spent time in Scotland and become interested in Scotch finishing products, he came up with the idea to finish Woodford’s core product to create a different product—much like Scotch distillers do with port and sherry casks.

“I thought that was the way to go,” Morris said, “but to do it like no brand had done before: finish fully mature Woodford Reserve in a second barrel, a barrel that was new and crafted uniquely to finish Woodford Reserve in. No one had ever done that before and, as they say, the rest is history.”

Obviously, Double Oaked stuck. In fact, it gained enough popularity that in 2015, it spawned an offspring of sorts: Woodford Reserve Double Double Oaked, as part of the brand’s Distillery Series. That expression, which now is released annually in smaller quantities, gets an additional year in a new, charred oak barrel. And it’s highly sought-after by bourbon seekers, usually selling out in a day or so.

When the 2024 expression was released, McCall referred to it as Woodford’s “most treasured and exclusive annual bourbon release.”

As master distiller of Woodford Reserve in 2015, Chris Morris began mentoring Elizabeth McCall to eventually become master distiller there, a role she assumed in 2023. (Woodford Reserve photo)

Creative futures

McCall, who was named master distiller by Woodford Reserve in February 2023, promises there is more innovation to come.

Morris began mentoring McCall to become master distiller in 2015, and by 2018, she was named assistant master distiller. As master distiller, she has hit the ground running, being named last year to Worth Media Group’s list of Groundbreaking Women.

As for innovation, McCall sees the growth across the bourbon industry as being market-driven—or, as she words it, “the tolerance has become much greater” for products like whiskeys finished in exotic barrels or using experimental mash bills.

“Consumers now seek out the whiskey brands that are pushing the envelope,” she told The Lane Report. “Woodford Reserve has been at the forefront of innovation: In 2007, we released our Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay Finish. At the time, this was ridiculed: ‘How dare we put bourbon in a wine barrel?’ Now this type of innovation is celebrated and has been adopted or replicated by many brands. I think the recent surge in innovation is what is continuing to keep consumers engaged and always seeking the next new shiny thing.”

As McCall shapes the future for Woodford Reserve and its releases, expect her to follow her mentor’s lead while also forging her own path along the way. She speaks glowingly about her love of distilling, and simply to hear her talk about the job tells you everything you need to know about how much she hopes to push the envelope.

“I fell in love with the magic of flavor creation in bourbon; that is what drew me into the role of master distiller,” McCall said. “It still amazes me how so much flavor is created through the natural process of making bourbon. Every time you taste a barrel, you get something unique. It’s such a fun job.”

She concedes, however, that  innovation,  has its limits. In her mind, that begins with brand discipline. The key to creativity at Woodford Reserve is making sure to “circle back” to the core bourbon, a concept Morris has also followed during his time at the distillery. In other words, don’t expect her to chase any trends or to push experimentation too far in any one direction.

“Each brand needs to define what is ‘too far’ when it comes to innovation,” McCall said. “Innovation has always been at the core of Woodford Reserve; we will continue to innovate. This core foundation of innovation is what drives it for me, and we have no plans of slowing down.”

“She will build on the foundation we have established,” Morris said of McCall, adding, “I can’t wait to see what she will come up with.”

McCall teases, “We have a lot of exquisite whiskey in our warehouses looking for its perfect time to shine.”

Whiskey isn’t what it used to be

While Woodford Reserve may take credit for being one of if not the first bourbon innovators, distillers and blenders alike have taken those early inspirations and moved them in a wide variety of directions.

Woodford Reserve’s sister brand at Brown-Forman, Old Forester, is an example with its recurring small-batch products in the 117 Series. The expressions can vary from blends to finished whiskeys. The recent High Angels’ Share, for example, was a blend of barrels that had lost a greater than usual amount of whiskey during maturation. Another was a bourbon finished in Scotch barrels.

Old Forester Master Taster Melissa Rift believes the Scotch-finished expression may have been the first of its process to the market.

“We like to be the first,” Rift said. “It’s been a fun one for our team to get into.”

Meanwhile, over at James B. Beam Distilling, Freddie Noe is working on innovating an American single malt, a style of whiskey that is still securing its footing in the marketplace. Last year, the first single malt to come from the Fred B. Noe Distillery, the experimental arm of Beam, was called Clermont Steep.

Created with a 100% malted barley grain bill, Noe is creating his own production guidelines, as there haven’t been such parameters created in America—in contrast to bourbon and its stringent guidelines.

“I’m always looking toward the future of American whiskey and the boundless runway in this category intrigued me,” Noe said at the time of Clermont Steep’s release. “We don’t just want to participate in American single malt whiskey; we want to help define it for the future of the category.”

In terms of major distillers, it puts Beam ahead of the curve as Noe focuses on this relatively new style, although a number of other distilleries around the country are producing American single malts. Bulleit and Maker’s Mark are major brands to release single malts in the last year or so.

In recent years, the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission has begun moving toward establishing basic guidelines via the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, having gotten the style recognized as a formal whiskey category. Look for more innovation ahead.

Getting back to bourbon, look for Morris and McCall to stick to what they do best: innovate within Woodford Reserve’s own established brand parameters.

“Everything we do is based on the core Woodford Reserve Bourbon product,” Morris said. “That is our guidepost. It will not change, but it gives us a foundation upon which flavor exploration can be judged. Therefore, I don’t think we will ever go too far from the beaten path. We owe it to our loyal consumer base to deliver the best offerings in terms of taste that we can.”


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