When you think about Kentucky you think of rolling hills of bluegrass, miles and miles of four board fences, thoroughbred horses and bourbon, lots and lots of bourbon. A visit to the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Ky delivers on all of these things in a big, bold and beautiful way.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” That’s exactly the way you will feel as you drive off the interstate and take the 10-15 minute ride from the highway and up Grassy Springs Road. Be forewarned, a drive up this road can be dangerous, not because of bad traffic but because there are so many places to stop for photos that you may be late for your tour. The day I traveled up there was a crystal clear blue sky day. You can see it in some of the photos below.
Grassy Springs Road – Versailles, KY
“The Woodford Reserve Distillery is the only place in the world where you see Kentucky’s two most famous products – thoroughbred horses and bourbon whiskey maturing side by side.”
The Road to the Distillery – Thoroughbred Horse with Walker
The Road to the Distillery – Thoroughbred Horses Napping in the Sun
The Woodford Reserve Distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in the U.S. Elijah Pepper began crafting whiskey at this location in 1,812. Because of its importance in American history, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2,000 by the National Park Service. The distillery has changed hands a few times over the years. In fact, Brown-Forman liked it so much that they bought it twice. Brown-Forman owned the distillery from 1940 through 1970. When brown spirits were out of favor for a while, they sold the operation to a farmer who used the land for farming. In the early 90’s, Brown-Forman bought the distillery back and introduced the world to Woodford Reserve in 1996. The brand will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.
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Woodford Reserve Distillery Welcome Center
The tour starts with a sharing of headsets. This is a working distillery so it can be a bit loud at times. The tour guide is miked up and ready to share the story of Woodford and this 200+ year old distillery operation. I have mixed emotions about the headsets. It’s great so you can hear and the guide doesn’t have to yell but, I don’t think there is as much interaction between guests and the guide.
Woodford Reserve Distillery – The View from the Welcome Center
Woodford Reserve Distillery – National Historic Landmark
Before you enter the distillery building the first thing you see is rolling barrels of newly birthed bourbon. They still roll their own here. These barrels roll from the distillery down the path to the warehouse to gently age. If you look close at a bottle of Woodford you won’t find an age statement. That’s because all of its bourbon is at least four years old and therefore does not require an age statement on its bottles. As you enter the distillery, the first thing you notice is the unmistakable smell of the mash fermenting. This is a clear sign you are in the right place. From here, you get introduced to the five things that make up bourbon.
Five Sources of Flavor
- Water – Calcium rich and iron free Kentucky limestone water. Makes for better whiskey and builds strong bones in those thoroughbreds.
- Grain – Woodford uses 78% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley.
- Fermentation – Most distilleries go 3 to 5 days. Woodford goes at least 6 days.
- Distillation – Woodford is triple distilled.
- Maturation – You won’t find an age statement on any Woodford product, it’s all ages a minimum of four years.
The Master Distiller’s “Rule of Thumb” on Flavor
Moving upstairs you’ll see, hear and smell the fermenting process happening in 7,500 gallon cedar tanks. Each tank will make about 20 barrels of bourbon. Most distilleries let their mash ferment for three to five days, one of the unique things that Woodford does is let their mash sit for at least six days. From here we moved on to the distillation process where the mash goes through not one but three 1,650 gallon Forsyths copper pot stills.
Three Copper Pot Stills
Woodford Reserve Spirits Box
After the still, it’s on to barreling. Brown-Forman has its own cooperage where they make their own 53 gallon oak barrels. Woodford barrels are toasted then lightly charred. There is no numbering system used for charring barrels here, that classification is actually specific to one barrel company, not the industry. There was no bourbon being poured into barrels during our tour.
Woodford Reserve Warehouse
Every distillery needs a distillery cat. The barrel warehouse is often the place where you will find Oscar, possibly the most photographed cat in Kentucky. Oscar was introduced to the distillery this summer. He’s a rescue cat from the Woodford County Humane Society named after distiller Oscar Pepper. The previous cat Elijah, named after distiller Elijah Pepper passed away in June of 2014. Unfortunately, Oscar was nowhere to be found the day of our tour.
The barrels make the journey from the distillery down a gravity fed track to the old stone warehouse. The barrel warehouse next to the distillery holds about 5,000 barrels. The rest of the barrels are being stored on top of a nearby hill. You can see one of the newer warehouses in one of the photos above. All of the Woodford warehouses are heat cycled using steam that emanates from the bottom of the warehouse during the cold months of the year. This heating/cooling cycle helps to replicate that hot and cold of the Kentucky summers that help with the bourbons maturation process.
Steam Heat Cycled Warehouse
Rickhouse or Rackhouse? Woodford has neither, they simply go by warehouse.
Part 1: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Know Your Casks
Part 2: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Maturity is Not Age
Part 3: Understanding Oak Barrel Maturation – Location, Location, Location
Bottling of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
After years of maturation the brown liquid is ready to move from barrel to bottle. In case there was any question if Woodford is “made by hand” or not, I can tell you, the bottling of the spirits, applying of the labels and boxing is done meticulously by hand.
And no distillery tour would be complete without a tasting. After touring the warehouse we headed back up the hill for a tasting. The laws for tastings vary state by state. In Kentucky, guests are allowed a maximum of two tastings of 1/2 ounce each per visitor per day. On this day, guests got to taste Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon. And the final stop on the journey is the gift shop where fans can purchase a bottle of their favorite spirit.
3 Things to Do Nearby
While you are on the distillery trail there are plenty of other things to do, see and taste. Here are three things that are just minutes away from the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
- Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah – It’s not every day you get to see a living legend in sports but, just around the corner from the Woodford Reserve Distillery is Coolmore Farms. Coolmore is the new home of one of America’s greatest athletes, Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah. After retiring from racing, he’s transitioning into his new life as a stallion at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud. The farm welcomes horse racing fans to see American Pharoah at Coolmore America, but call ahead because it is a working thoroughbred horse farm and tours are scheduled around the routines of the horses. And, if you are interested, according to their website, his stud fee is $200,000. You can watch a short film about his arrival at his new Coolmore home here.
- Rebecca Ruth Candy: Bourbon Balls – Operating since 1919, Rebecca Ruth is another Kentucky Bourbon classic. The idea of mixing candy and bourbon together was accidentally suggested by a dignitary, Eleanor Hume Offutt, at Frankfort’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1936. Mrs. Booe worked on the recipe for two years before perfecting the still-secret process for blending bourbon and candy. This unique confectionery operation is known worldwide as “The Inventor of Bourbon Candy!” and is located in downtown Frankfort, KY. The tour highlights the story of Ruth Hanly Booe and includes “Edna’s Table,” antique candy furnace and hand-stirred copper kettles that are still used to this day.
- Kentucky State Capitol – Just off of Interstate 64 is the capital of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. You can take a tour of the majestic state capital, see legislatures in action or just watch time pass on the gigantic floral clock.
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