Touring Woodford Reserve Distillery
Bourbon and Spring, A Great Combination
When th spring weather in my Kentucky neck of the woods finally straightened up, I set my sights on Woodford Reserve Distillery, about sixty miles north of my home. For me, part of the fun in visiting a Bluegrass-area distillery is getting there. The scenic and winding backroads between Lexington and Frankfort replaces the monotony of traveling the main roads with the distinctly beautiful scenery of central Kentucky. Imagine miles of stone walls, plentiful trees and myriad horse farms in a panoramic vista of sensory stimulation. Each season stamps it's own beauty on the region, but spring is a particularly special time to take it all in.
The Visitor's Center
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the newly upgraded visitor's center. My last visit to Woodford Reserve had been a little over ten years ago, in that period of time, world-wide bourbon sales exploded, and just about all of Kentucky's major distilleries have reflected that fact by upgrading and expanding their physical locations and the tours they offer. Bourbon has gone big time in a big way in Kentucky.
The new visitor center is a slick yet comfortable layout that wouldn't feel out of place in any major city or ski chalet. With a designer fireplace, leather sofas and hardwood floors, there's a definite urban sophistication that coexists nicely with the rural surroundings.
In another change from the past, the basic tour, that was once free, now costs ten dollars. There are also expanded tours for a more in-depth look at bourbon-making on offer these days. Since I'm a cheapskate, and I've had my share of tours at other distilleries, I opted for the basic tour.
Once our tour guide assembled us on the veranda of the visitor's center, she assigned each of our party of thirty some odd folks an audio receiver we were instructed to hang around our necks by the lanyard attached to the devise. This was also a new twist from my last visit, and it turned out to be a good one as we could all hear our guide perfectly above the clatter of bourbon production. Once we got our audio system working, we boarded a small bus that took us down the precipitous slope to the bottom of the hollow where the production buildings and aging warehouses stood. This was yet another addition from the early days
Our first shop was the handsome stone building that housed the cypress fermentation vats and the beautiful pot stills imported from Scotland. We got to see the amazing fermentation process in an up close and personal way. I say amazing because it looks like the mash mixture of corn, rye and barley appears to be boiling, but it's actually the natural process of fermentation that's converting sugars and yeast into alcohol. Our tour guide told us that Woodford Reserve didn't encourage visitors to stick their fingers into the bubbling mash like other distilleries. From visits to those "other" distilleries, I can confirm that the mixture itself isn't hot, even though it gives off a bit of heat just above the surface. Just a mind bender when you stick a digit into something that looks like it's boiling, and it feels a little cool to the touch.
We then went down a few steps into the still room where three magnificent and tall pot stills sat in all their majesty. They all had the amber patina that's a by-product of age, and I can actually remember when the copper was still shiny and pristine. I guess that's a by-product of age as well. Because of demand, the distillery has recently added some pot stills to increase production, but we didn't see them on the tour.
We then walked a few hundred yards to the cool interior of Warehouse C, another splendid looking stone building. We got to see barrels of bourbon and rye in various degrees of maturity, and we got the nice aroma of the "angel's share", the whiskey that escapes into the environment through the porous white oak barrels.
We then went through an open air space to the very noisy bottling room in full swing. The ten or so workers were executing their various tasks in a manner that would make Henry Ford proud. We then boarded the bus, once again, that would take us back up to the visitor's center where we would sample some of the product.
Aging Warehouce C
At the conclusion of the tour, we're treated to samples of two distinctly different Woodford Reserve bourbons. The Distiller's Select is the distillery's main flagship bourbon that put them on the map when they began producing it back in the nineties. The Double Oaked version is relatively new and billed as the "world's first dessert bourbon". It's easy to detect the differences between the two. Visually, the Double Oaked is noticeably darker that the Distiller's Select, and the Double Oaked does have a more pronounced oak-influenced nose. On tasting, the Distiller's Select has a refined clean yet complex flavor profile while the Double Oaked version has a powerful component of sweetness that I haven't encountered in any other bourbon thus far.
Considerations and Suggestions
If you decide to visit Woodford Reserve, there are a lot of places you might want to check out while you're in the region. If Lexington is your starting point, the Marriott Griffin Gate and Embassy Suites, both on Newtown Pike, are both close to Bluegrass Airport and Interstates 75 and 64. If you arrive in Louisville, The Seelbach Hilton, The Brown and 21c Museum Hotel are great high-end options. Both towns have ample lodging options in every price range.
Louisville is home to the Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of restaurants and bars that stock a multitude of bourbon selections. In Lexington, Bluegrass Tavern and Parley Social have a wide selection of bourbons. If you're in the mood for craft beer, Bluegrass Brewing in Louisville and West Sixth in Lexington have excellent ale selections.
Winter, spring and fall tend to be the best times to visit most distilleries. Some distilleries actually shut down their production in the summer because the high temperatures have an adverse effect on fermentation. In my opinion, winter is one of the best seasons to visit because the crowds tend to be much smaller, and the visitor gets much more one-on-one time with the distillery personnel. Having said that, any season is a pretty good one to take in the inner workings of a Kentucky distillery. You won't be disappointed.
Do You Like To Drink Bourbon?
To get a deeper impression of the Bluegrass Region, some excursions to some fascinating small Kentucky towns are well worth the time and effort. Just a few miles down Highway 68, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a great way to experience what life was like for the strict Shakers of another era. Journey a few miles down 68 to Harrodsburg to Beaumont Inn to sample excellent Kentucky cuisine. The Beaumont's Old Owl Tavern stocks a plentiful supply of premium Kentucky bourbons as well. For the craft beer enthusiast, Danville's Beer Engine is the place to go for incredible India Pale Ales made on the premises. For wine aficionados, Jean Farris winery, on old Richmond Road just east of Lexington, has a fabulous selection of wines and regional craft beers on tap. West Sixth Brewery in Lexington is another must stop for the beer enthusiast,
One of my fondest memories from my earlier visit to Woodford Reserve was meeting Elijah, the cat who faithfully served as mouser and high profile distillery representative. He was still a rambunctious but friendly kitten when I first crossed paths with him. All the best to the cat who made Woodford Reserve his home.