A Glimpse Inside
Woodford Reserve with Master Distiller
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Chris Morris, Master Distiller for Brown-Forman, about the brand he has helped become so popular.
From humble beginnings to its rise as an international brand, Chris has been there overseeing and designing Woodford Reserve whiskey. With a career spanning nearly 50 years in the bourbon industry he has seen his fair share of ups and downs, and learned a lot along the way. From his experience as the 7th master distiller at Brown-Forman to creating the bourbon tasting wheel many of us use to review bourbon, he has been deeply routed in the world of whiskey.
Chris was nice enough to answer a handful of questions and tell some quite enjoyable tales about the bourbon world he has involved with so much of his life.
Let's ease into things a bit, what makes Woodford Woodford and how does your distilling process help set you apart from other companies?
Being part of the Brown-Forman distilling process, I see Jack Daniels, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve products the most. Jack is Jack, it goes its own unique way and follows the Tennessee style of whiskey making. Old Forester is old fashioned and is made as close to that style as possible.
When we came up with the idea for Woodford Reserve, we wanted to be new and global, using finishes and fresh ideas, as well as innovation, to help craft the brand. The idea was to have our own distillery and, at a time when everyone was closing their doors, we decided to start Woodford Reserve. In 1996, it was the 10th distillery to open.
Growing up in Louisville, I was always around the bourbon industry and had family who worked in it, including my dad. I grew up playing at the distillery, believe it or not. At 18, I went right to work in the lab nights, weekends, holidays - it was a lot of work. My background in biology and chemistry was very useful and helped me on my journey. I also have a masters in marketing.
What got you into the whiskey business personally?
Where did the concept for the double barrel bourbon come from?
(Chuckles) You see, no one wanted another bourbon first of all. We got this idea mostly from consumers, that we should do something special, something that would make a good gift.
We already had the 90.4 proof flagship bourbon doing well and we wanted to make something that wouldn’t take away from the production of our typical product.
We also thought we can't do something with 8-9-10 years of turnaround we need to do more like 1-3. Woodford Double Oaked is unique in that it was the first bourbon to touch two new oak barrels. The first barrel is done like our normal Woodford Reserve, but the second is heavily toasted to bring out deeper flavors in the whiskey and it's left at 95 proof.
About Chris Morris:
Chris Morris is Master Distiller for Brown-Forman Corporation, the seventh since the company began in 1870. A Louisville native, he has spent his working life in the Bourbon industry. He is responsible for maintaining the award-winning taste of the whiskies produced at the Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Distilleries. Additionally, he serves as a brand ambassador for Brown-Forman at numerous trade and consumer functions.
Morris grew up around Bourbon as he is one of three generations of his family to work at Brown-Forman. His career began in 1976 as a trainee in the central lab working for the Master Distiller. In 1988 he went to work for Glenmore Distilleries Company and joined United Distillers through its acquisition of Glenmore in 1991.
In 1997 he returned to Brown-Forman and was chosen to begin training as Brown-Forman Master Distiller, a position he has held since 2003. In 2002 he developed the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon product and more recently the brand’s Whiskey Row Series.
At Woodford Reserve he developed the Masters Collection, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Rye and Distillery Series products. In 2015 Morris was given the additional responsibility of Vice President of Whiskey Innovation for Brown-Forman.
As a student of the industry Morris authored the Society of Wine Educators Certified Spirits Specialist program, introduced the use of taste notes for Bourbon in 1992 and developed the Bourbon Flavor Wheel in 2004.
Morris has served on the Kentucky Distillers Association and Kentucky Bourbon Festival Board of Directors, is Chairman of the Order of the Writ Society. He has served as a Whisky judge at the IWSC and ISC competitions and Co-chair of the DISCUS Master Distillers Committee.
What led you to decide it was time for a master's collection? Tell me about the process of picking what you wanted to make for that collection including the grains?
It was largely important to me to have a philosophy, and #1 for me was to be innovative. The five sources of flavor in bourbon include the grain recipe, water source, fermentation, distillation, and maturation - all are crucial to making bourbon. When messing with the grains you can change any one thing and change the bourbon, the same goes for barrels and proof.
The Masters Collection is special to me, but it isn't feasible every day nor is it sustainable. When we work with grains that are produced on a limited scale, we have to spend more and do more work not to mention halt production of Woodford Reserve bourbon while we make whatever the new product is. The Masters Collection is all about extremes of innovation and we have many fun things we hope to bring to the market over the years to show case this innovation.
I notice from being a bourbon guy that I don't see age statements for Woodford, am I missing something or is that part of your philosophy or marketing?
For us at Woodford, we use climate controlled warehouses to age our product to maturation. There we can maintain the same conditions and every barrel of Woodford Reserve is heat cycled, meaning we heat it to 85 degrees to help with the aging process. Its not an exact science, but we feel we get 1.5 years of aging for every one year with this system. We feel our bourbon is mature beyond the age statement we could legally put on the bottle, so I guess it is marketing a little bit.
This leads me to ask you how you feel about age statements and current bourbon market?
I think there is a place for them, but the product inside the bottle is what you should focus on. If we say it's mature, it has passed our standards and the age is only so relevant.
What's your favorite aspect of the whiskey business?
This! And stuff like this; it’s the sociability of it all. Growing up bourbon was a Kentucky thing and you didn’t hear about it much outside of that. Now I get to meet people that love whiskey and the general consumer is so much more knowledgeable about the product than they used to be. I love being able to share joyful experiences and knowing that the world knows about us.
Anything secret in the works that you want share or hint at?
We're always working on something between Elizabeth McCall (assistant master distiller) and myself. She is essentially in charge of new stuff and she is doing a great job. We’ve already produced so many things over the years, but there are many options and we just have to figure out what's feasible.
Bourbon is aged in barrels, so we’ve messed with plenty of non-oak barrels for finishes such as Kentucky coffee tree, maple wood, pecan barrels, at one point we were even trying to make a whiskey that could emulate the taste of a fine cigar. Some are very good and some not so much but that’s the beauty trying to make new things. I also believe it should be done with barrels, and prefer to stay away from stave inserts, so we’re looking at woods we could produce barrels from, so sadly pecan probably won’t be an option.
Can we expect the Masters Collection to keep going and will batch proof be a yearly release, you think?
That’s the plan! Batchproof came from consumers asking for something with a bit more bite to it and we decided okay, once a year we will do this as a special treat and as a thank you to those interested. It's about 100 barrels and we heat the warehouse so the water evaporates before the alcohol allowing the proof to go up.
Walk me through a day in the life of a distiller and, from your personal experience, any things that a typical bourbon enthusiast might not think about when it comes to the job?
Lots of barrel sampling, but also a great deal of planning. That is month to month and year to year, talking about how corn and other grains are available, and how much they cost. At this point, Elizabeth is more hands on than I am. I travel and go to shows and promote our bourbon.
Finally, just for fun, outside of the Woodford portfolio, give me your top five favorite bourbons to drink?
Hmm, Wild Turkey 101 is a classic, Michter’s, Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s Old #7, and Booker’s to round it out because I know you like your high proof.
Chris and I discussed so much outside of our planned questions that I wanted to end with a story he told that made this whiskey reviewer smile and laugh.
Chris details a get together with many of the big names in the bourbon industry. He was trying to push the idea of using the tasting notes and trying to elevate bourbon to the same level as single malt scotch. He goes on to tell of Elmer T, Booker Noe, and Jimmy Russell. He mentions that Jimmy at Wild Turkey was very skeptical even though he eventually added tasting notes to his bottles.
Chris then goes on to tell the story of his interaction with a man named Ed from the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery. He served Ed some bourbon and asked for notes.
Ed tasted and Chris asked, “so what do you get?"
Ed replied, "I get mature bourbon.” Chris gave him another glass and asked again, "what notes do you get from this, like caramel and vanilla?”
Ed took a drink and said, “that tastes like mature bourbon.” Chris realized he wasn’t going to get any more out of Ed after three tries and, in his frustration, said, "will you ever say anything else about the whiskey?” to which Ed replied, "I suppose, if you gave me an immature bourbon.”
Thank you for your time, Chris Morris.
Listen to the full interview:
About Woodford Reserve:
Woodford Reserve® is crafted at the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery, tucked in the heart of thoroughbred country in Versailles, Kentucky. A National Historic Landmark, the Woodford Reserve Distillery represents craftsmanship with a balance of historic heritage and modern practices. Woodford Reserve is a product of the Brown-Forman Corporation, a premier producer and marketer of fine quality beverage alcohol brands including Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia, Korbel, Tequila Herradura, Old Forester, Sonoma-Cutrer and Chambord. Please enjoy your bourbon responsibly. To learn more about Woodford Reserve, visit www.woodfordreserve.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/