A Delta flight attendant asked us once what we were celebrating when she saw us clinking our glasses of Woodford Reserve. We answered, “It’s Thursday.” We were on our way to or from a work event (can’t remember which, but we enjoy them all) and we were together, so why not celebrate? But some days are especially worthy of celebration, like February 13, 2020, so we got in the car and headed to Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Woodford Reserve

It has become a tradition with us to go out on Valentine’s Day Eve. We avoid the crowds—and it’s just the type of quirky thing we do. Kentucky is, of course, famous for horses and bourbon. Having visited several whiskey distilleries in Ireland and Scotland (whisky) it was time to check out a distillery in our own back yard.

Woodford Reserve is located about 8 miles from Versailles, Kentucky, in the middle of horse country. Our guide told us that the water used to make Woodford is naturally filtered by the limestone deposits under the property making it iron-free and mineral rich, a combination ideal for both bourbon and thoroughbreds. Which means, on the drive to Woodford Reserve, you’re going to see horses.

We had booked the 3 PM Distillery Tour but got there early to grab a bite at the Glenn’s Creek Cafe. Great decision. We tried the Bourbon BBQ Brisket sandwich and a couple of cocktails—Spire and Horse’s Neck—served in souvenir cups. We finished with tasty Bourbon and Honey ice cream.

We gathered for the tour near a wall with photos and memorabilia tracing the founding of the distillery in 1812 by Elijah Pepper, later passed on to his son James as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery. The property was sold and became Labrot & Graham Distillery in 1878. It was sold to Brown-Forman in 1941, sold and again repurchased by Brown-Forman with the Woodford Reserve brand making its appearance in 1996.

For all that, the distillery maintains a vintage feel. The main distillery building was built in 1838 and is designated as a National Historic Landmark for its role in the development of the bourbon industry.

Our guide Rob did a great job of explaining the “five sources of flavor” used to make bourbon, starting with Woodford’s grain recipe, a combination they believe builds the base for the “world’s most flavorful bourbon.” Rob explained that the fruit flavors you detect when drinking are a byproduct of the process—there is no fruit used—and we did clearly pick up the scent of bananas as we leaned over the fermenting tanks.

As we moved on to the pot stills, we saw something familiar to us from our tours of Irish distilleries, but apparently unique to Woodford as a US distillery: three large copper pot stills. Rob explained the process, which we always find fascinating along with wondering how anyone came up with this in the first place (though one of us can trace a line back to family members operating stills in the hills of West Virginia).

Then we saw something really cool—for us, anyway—new, charred, white oak barrels waiting to be filled. By law, Rob explained, bourbon barrels can only be used once. Even the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon is matured in new barrels the second time around. So, where do the old barrels go? Well, we know the answer to that because we’ve seen a lot of them in Irish and Scottish distilleries. In fact, being from Kentucky gives you a bit of a “special status” when you tour an Irish or Scottish distillery:)

When we first entered the distillery building, we had noticed “train tracks” coming from the building. We soon found out what they are for. The (quite heavy) filled barrels are moved to the warehouse using the most elementary of means: gravity. Placed on the tracks, they simply roll to the warehouse. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any barrels rolling. Maybe next time.

Inside the warehouse, Rob explained that they craft, toast, and char barrels at their own cooperage. Maturation in the barrels contributes a great deal to the flavor. He passed around a barrel stave so we could see how deeply the bourbon penetrates the wood. The selection of specific barrels for creating the final product is, as Rob explained, both an art and a science, requiring years of experience. At Woodford, it’s a task performed by Master Distiller Chris Morris.

The most interesting thing about the bottling process is the bottles themselves. You don’t need to read the label to identify a bottle of Woodford Reserve. The distinctive shape of the bottle was carefully planned.

From there it was on to the tasting room where we sampled three bourbons. We started with the Distiller’s Select Straight Bourbon Whiskey that we always enjoy on our Delta flights. Rob showed us how to properly take the first sip, to “chew” the whiskey, and pointed out flavors to try to pick out (listed on the provided flavor wheel). The Double Oaked was twice barreled, “the second barrel deeply toasted before a light charring – extracts additional soft, sweet oak character.” We could definitely pick up the slightly sweeter flavor. Before our second sip, Rob suggested we take a bite of the provided Dark Chocolate Bourbon Ball to further enhance the flavor combination. The Rye was interesting, in part because it used a preprohibition ratio of 53% rye “to pay homage to history’s original rye whiskeys.” All three were excellent.

After the tasting, we headed to the gift shop where we picked up a bottle of the Rye, a bottle of the limited edition Personal Selection “Elizabeth’s Pick” Double Oaked, selected by Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall, and a bottle of the Wheat Whiskey, which we were told was the closest to Irish whiskey.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Woodford Reserve and plan to return, but as it is one of 18 signature distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we clearly have more bourbon adventures ahead of us.