Heads, Hearts, and
Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories
Chris Morris - Author of Woodford Double Oaked
In a recent conversation with Chris Morris, I may have asked him a question that he has never been asked before, or at least not in a long time. I could tell by the pause before his answer that he thought it an odd question, perhaps not even a real question. But, it’s a question I ask every distiller that I meet.
Do you love whiskey?
“Yes, I do” came his answer. No distiller has ever answered “No” to that question. But several, surprisingly, have given me answers other than “Yes”. I have received answers like, “I love making whiskey,” or “I love owning my own distillery,” or even “I love this industry,” all following a pregnant pause. I believe those answers to be honest statements, but they’re not answers to my question -- Do you love whiskey? I have learned that not all distillers of whiskey do.
But when I asked this same question to Chris Morris, I already knew the answer. Maybe more so than any other distiller that I have ever asked this same question to. In spite of the fact that I didn’t know Chris and we had never spoken before, I already knew he loved whiskey, and that had little to do with the fact that he makes great bourbon; it had everything to do with the story his whiskey tells.
Chris Morris is the Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. He is only the second to hold that distinction. There, he and his crew make Woodford’s world--famous Kentucky Straight Bourbon along with their only slightly less known Rye and Malt whiskies, but there are other whiskies crafted at Woodford -- elusive, unique whiskies that some might describe as unconventional or odd. The kind of whiskies that only true lovers of whiskey could find interest in, and only a true lover of whiskey would create.
One such whiskey is their Double Oaked Bourbon. This begins as their aged bourbon that is then finished in a second barrel that has been deeply toasted and then lightly charred. This bourbon is deep, full and sweet -- worthy of reflection. This type of innovation is just the beginning. Since 2006, just a few years after Chris became Master Distiller, they have been releasing a very limited collection of whiskies that they call Master’s Collection. This collection changes each year like chapters in a book, never repeating, and compels enthusiasts in and out of liquor stores across the country in search of these rare releases. Unusual, imaginative whiskeys such as a Sonoma--Cutrer Chardonnay Finish, a Four Grain whiskey, a Maple Wood Finish whiskey, a Cherry Wood Smoked Barley whiskey, and the release that first brought my attention and fascination to the collection, New and Aged Cask Rye.
New and Aged Cask Rye was released in 2011 and was not just one whiskey but actually two 375ml--bottles of rye whiskey that were packaged together. I fell in love with this release and wrote about it, (look for the link to that article at the bottom). My fascination with this set was that these two ryes were exactly the same whiskies in all but one factor – the barrels they were aged in. One of the barrels was a brand new charred oak barrel, but the other was a used barrel. There are thousands of whiskies available on the market for one to explore the endless differences between, but to be able to taste two whiskies that differ in only one single trait, to focus and steep in the subtle nuances that such a slight deviation in the process can produce, is a very rare and exciting opportunity. When I shared the excitement I had for his twin rye release with Chris he laughed and said jokingly “I’m so glad to hear that, you and I were the only two people in the country that understood what I was trying to do -- It was not well understood.”
There were, and always will be, people that just don’t get the concept behind Chris’ annual unconventional Master’s Collection releases. But that has never stopped him from continuing to make them. In fact, the idea was expanded with the addition of the Distillery Release range. This is an extremely limited release of as few as 6 barrels a year and is only sold at the distillery and a few local retailers while it lasts. This Distillery Series range, being smaller than the Master’s Collection, allowed Chris even more latitude to experiment with tradition to create some fantastic twists on Woodford's bourbon, rye, and malt whiskey. One such variation was the Frosty Four Wood in which Chris aged his bourbon in American oak and then finished it in maple wood, sherry wood, and then port barrels. This intricately finished whiskey was in barrels when the record--cold winds of the polar vortex of 2013 ascended on Kentucky and thus contributed an even more unique flavor to that release.
Why, I asked Chris, would a distiller expend the amount of resources and effort that goes into such small experimental projects such as the Distillery Series for such a small, rare yield?
Chris replied, “Outside of the Master's Collection, which you know we release once a year, we didn’t have anything special from Woodford on a daily basis. Sometimes there’s a need for an extra special gift for someone, and they can’t go out and just pick up a bottle of Master's Collection, ‘cause once it’s gone, it’s all gone. People would ask me, what do you have for me? And I didn’t have anything. That got me thinking, what can I do? And I can’t wait 8 years to do it. There were literally a crescendo of requests that just started piling up.”
I asked Chris where these ideas come from? What inspired you to create the Double Oak, for example?
“I was literally taking a walk thinking about this one evening down a country lane and it popped in my head, Oh, I’m going to finish Woodford Reserve in a second barrel. But the second barrel will be brand new, never used before. We will create a unique barrel, because we’ve got the Brown Foreman Cooperage at our beck and call and that began the Double Oak process to create a new barrel to finish fully matured Woodford in”. Chris went on, “So, now how long do we finish? Because we are now using a brand--new barrel created specifically for Woodford Reserve. It turns out that about a year is perfect. We started making Double Oak, and it was a huge hit on a small scale.”
Then there is the Double Double Oaked Bourbon. That is not a mis--type, there are two “Doubles” in the name. With this expression, Chris took the wonderful oak=-aged notes that so define bourbon whiskey, and that are accentuated in the Double Oak expression, and brought them to a level of exaltation by aging the Double Oak an additional year. The extra year of aging has given the second barrel more time to excite and yet mellow this bourbon, bringing forth notes of cinnamon and paprika drenched in lingering cherry and dark brown sugar which slowly retreats into a chocolaty--oak finish.
I inquired from where did the idea for the Double Double Oaked come?
Chris said he remembers thinking, “What happens if we keep [Double Oaked] in the barrel for two years? What happens if we keep it in the barrel for three years? Or four years? That’s just our normal experimentation mindset. So, let’s put away some barrels for longer periods of time and let’s just see what happens. Double Double Oaked was a result of that. Two years in the second barrel and it was just awesome because now it starts to develop some spicy notes. It’s still sweet, but it’s spicy. It’s a whole new expression of Woodford Reserve. And then the 3 and the 4--year just didn’t work out. They became completely different animals, so the Double Double was the perfect mix of that sweeter aromatics, but now the oak spice notes start coming in that second year.”
I asked Chris if there is stress operating outside of the normal conventions of the bourbon industry, being the stoic community that it is?
“Oh yes, it’s very, very stressful. Going back to when we released our first Master's Collection, it was Kentucky’s only release of 4--grain. I mean, it was terrifying. That’s why we only released it in Kentucky, and we only had 1,000 bottles. We were putting our toe in the water. What will people think? Will they like it? It was 69 dollars, will somebody pay 69 dollars? And it was nerve--wracking. What happens if no one buys it? It will be humiliation. Thank goodness that did not turn out to be the case. But every time it comes out, your reputation is on the line. You’re only as good as your next release."
If that is the stress, what then is the exhilaration, what is the purpose?
“The Master's Collection and the distillery series are always historic whiskeys; they’re the first of their kind, they’re the only whiskies made in three pot stills in Kentucky. So, the whiskey itself is always a story, the first of their kind. Our whiskeys are historic. They’re meant to tell a story of production, and that production is how we change the five sources of whiskey flavor to create this unique whiskey. So, there’s a story; don’t just say it’s another bottle of whiskey, appreciate it for what we’ve done.
Now, I hope you’ll like the whiskey, but you may not love its flavor, or you might, or you might absolutely love it. That, of course, is part of the story. We want the whiskey to be enjoyable, but go beyond the sheer drink itself and appreciate and explore the story behind it. Because we are telling a story, making whiskey history, and if that turns you on, you should be fifty--thousand watts turned on! Because that’s what this process is all about -- exploring where flavors come from and how we deliver those flavors.”
And, like an author writing new chapters of a novel each season, Chris keeps us, his “readers of fine whiskey,” riveted and enchanted as he distills his Woodford Reserve whiskey--story. And just as any author must love his work and the characters which he brings to life, Chris’ love for his creations is evident as one sips. Yes Chris, I already knew you loved your whiskey, and because of that… so do we.