Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: 'Tis the Season

An annual sign that the holidays are around the corner is the new release from Woodford Reserve's's Master's Collection. This year's product, Seasoned Oak Finish, is the fourth in a series of experimental, limited release bourbons, the first three being the Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish and Sweet Mash.

I had the good fortune to visit the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky to sample the new bourbon out of barrel, before it was bottled. The difference with this distillate, as was the case with the Sonoma, is the wood. Altering the wood is a significant move, since much of the flavor and all of the color of bourbon whiskey comes from the barrel. Woodford is the only bourbon maker that created its own barrels. Thus they have complete control over what sort of vessel they store their liquor in. This freedom allowed master distiller Chris Morris to pick up the phone one day and ask the coopers if they had any wooden staves that had been sitting around in the open air for a time. As chance had it, they did. They had some white oak that had been seasoning in the elements for from three to five years. By some stroke of luck, there were enough staves to make the amount of whiskey Morris needed for his Master's Collection.

And so the barrels were raised from the seasoned oak. According to Morris, the Seasoned Oak Finish uses the oldest oak ever employed in making a whiskey. The booze spent eight months in barrels, and, owing to both that and the age of the wood (most wood for bourbon is aged no more than five months), the whiskey came out much darker than is typically the case with Woodford. The method sort of takes a backwards approach to aging. Instead of letting the whiskey sit for years, it was the wood that did the time. The new dram is not technically bourbon, since the barrel is not made strictly to the government codes the rule the making of bourbon.

As Morris drilled a hole in a barrel containing the new brew, the liquid poured out a deep orange-amber. The nose was potent: maple syrup, molasses, orange, fig, pear, dark chocolate and spice. The wood has certainly done its work. The taste was robust. There was the usual spark that you get from Woodford's high component of rye, but also smoke, dark cherries, clove and molasses. The spice at the beginning smooths out at you reach the finish, though the tongue keeps tingling all along.

What I have heard among my media compatriots is that this is their favorite edition of the Master's Collection. I would have to agree that its the most successful (though I still do like the Sweet Mash quite a bit). I can certainly seeing it making a potent Manhattan. You don't even need to add the cherry; it's already in the whiskey. And the overall fruitcakey character of the liquor is certainly in keeping with the season.

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