women in whiskey
Meet the women shaping the whiskey industry
In 2018, Elizabeth McCall was celebrated for her promotion from Master Taster to Assistant Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve after almost a decade with Brown-Forman. But it was another type of celebration that kicked off her whiskey career -
her brother’s high school graduation party.
McCall was almost done with her Master’s Degree program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Louisville and was contemplating her next move. Through casual party chatter, she discovered that there was an opening at the Brown-Forman Sensory Lab and landed the job. (Fun fact: Elizabeth’s mother had also worked at a distillery with experience in sensory.)
Elizabeth applied skills from her academic training (such as research, methodology, statistics, and the ability to evaluate and assess diverse populations) towards her role as a technician in quality control and testing in the lab. She advanced to the role
of Sensory Scientist and continued to work in research and development for the Brown-Forman portfolio. She was also an “internal ambassador” visiting different production facilities in the US, Canada, Mexico, and France.
It was on one of these trips to Collingwood, Canada, that Elizabeth recalls when her personal flavor affair with Woodford Reserve began. They went for happy hour at a local bar and served her a Woodford Reserve Double Oaked with a lemon wedge. Sipping her bourbon while chatting with colleagues, it struck her how approachable this whiskey was to both new and seasoned whiskey drinkers alike.
Whiskey Geek Out: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is a non-age statement (“NAS”) expression aged in a virgin American white Oak cask followed by a second finishing in another virgin American white Oak cask which has been “deeply toasted” (it’s rumored to be twice) with a “lighter char” for several months. The data geek in me was curious about the exact figures so Elizabeth confirmed that each barrel is seasoned for ~9 months and that their char and toast levels are proprietary.
The first barrel features their standard toast (~10 minutes, char of ~25 seconds) and the second barrel, exclusively made for the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked finish features a toast for ~40 minutes, char of ~5 seconds.The barrels are sourced from their own Brown-Forman cooperages in Kentucky and Alabama (the only American distiller to do so) producing more than 2,500 daily.
This newfound appreciation for Woodford Reserve, coupled with her professional respect for Master Distiller Chris Morris, prompted her to attend a class he led for the Sales & Marketing team. It turns out that he was looking to add to his team and she joined as Master Taster, focusing on maintaining the quality standard and developing tasting notes. Two years later, she was recognized as one of the youngest female [Assistant] Master Distillers in the US and the natural successor for Morris.
Elizabeth is quick to point out that she was part of an all-female sensory team in the beginning, and Brown-Forman continued to be supportive as she rose through the ranks in her career. A typical day at work (pre-Covid) is filled with media interviews, visiting the distillery to check in with the production team and the equipment, and brand education events from internal training programs to leading tastings.
In fact, Elizabeth stated that educating consumers on “America’s Spirit” and its over 200 natural flavor notes, is one of the most enjoyable parts of her role.
“"The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”
Each year on the first Saturday of May, men in seersucker suits and women in spring dresses don fashionable hats for “the most exciting two minutes in sports” also known as the
Created in 1875 by the grandson of William Clark (yes of the explorer duo, Lewis & Clark)
Starting 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States. The signature cocktail is the Mint Julep and hits a volume of 120,000 serves over a two day period, Woodford Reserve is its official bourbon and “Presenting Sponsor” brand. (Source: kentuckyderby.com)
Since 1999, each year Woodford releases a special Distiller’s Select bottle and this year, the bottle features artwork from Richard Sullivan, a former [Atlanta] Braves pitcher with a background in art and illustration. This 1 Liter bottle has a 45.2% ABV (90.4 Proof).
WOMEN INSPIRING WOMEN
When asked to name other women that inspire her, Elizabeth found it difficult to narrow down but wanted to include:
Becky Harris: Co-founder and Chief Distiller of Catoctin Creek in Purcellville, Virginia, the first legal distillery in Loudoun County before Prohibition and appointed American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) President of the Board of Directors last year.
Fawn Weaver: Founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest honored the legacy of the man that taught Jack Daniel how to distill by launching both the Nearest Green Foundation in conjunction with the Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey brand. Learn more about their story by checking out our profile on their Master Blender, Victoria Eady Butler .
Jackie Zykan: Master Taster of Old Forester was a St. Louis native that bartended while in college and had planned to go to med school. She ended up moving to Louisville, worked freelance bartending gigs, then became a beverage director for a local hospitality group. Her hustle didn’t go unnoticed, and she was asked by Brown-Forman to join the team for Old Forester.
Dr. Rachel Barrie: This Scotch icon’s career began 27 years ago at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute followed by working at several whisky companies from Glenmorangie (which includes Ardbeg and Glen Moray) to Morrison Bowmore Distillers (Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch) to her role today as the Master Blender for Brown-Forman’s Single Malt Portfolio of BenRiach, Glenglassaugh, and GlenDronach.
For any woman (or man) interested in becoming a part of the whiskey industry, Elizabeth recommends that hands-on experience from one of any multiple hospitality points, such as bars or restaurants or distributors, would be an ideal place to begin.
Finally, Elizabeth is grateful for the support of her longtime friends. She joked that they knew her back when she “drank cheap beer in school”.
Another personal factor that she credits for her professional success is her passion for horses. While an equestrian background seems typical for someone living in Kentucky, as a child in Cincinnati, Ohio, Elizabeth’s interest in horses was sparked by watching “Road to Avonlea” on the Disney Channel. Then, she participated in a work to ride program on a horse farm that helped create the foundation for the discipline and work ethic that got her where she is today. Her family’s move to Louisville in the 5th grade was fortuitous in this journey, and she took part in various equine competitions.
While her horse, Cody Ko, no longer competes, she is proud that he is part of the hippotherapy program of Green Hill Therapy, where she is a board member. (Green Hill Therapy is a nonprofit in Louisville utilizing equine assisted therapy for year-round physical and occupational therapy to children with special needs as well as aqua therapy.)
It seems almost like fate that in the same year Elizabeth became Assistant Master Distiller, Woodford Reserve would become the official Presenting Sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. That first year, her “Toast to the Derby” was broadcast to millions of people, and she has continued to be an integral part of the celebrations. (Even during last year’s virtual event as an expectant mother, she shared mocktail recipes along with Derby celebration tips for the family.)
For this year, feel free to make your own at home!
WOODFORD RESERVE MINT JULEP
2 oz Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey
1/2 oz Simple Syrup
3 Fresh Mint Leaves
Crushed (preferably pebble) ice
Optional: Powdered Sugar
Express the essential oils in the mint and rub them inside the glass. Inside the same glass, add simple syrup, bourbon, and crushed ice. Stir. Garnish with more ice, fresh mint, and powdered sugar (optional).
While Woodford’s grain recipe is generally 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley for their bourbons, in addition to their Derby bottle, their 2021 special releases include:
Master’s Collection (dedicated to celebrating “innovations by Morris and McCall”) -- Batch Proof with their standard grain recipe at 64.15% ABV (128.3 Proof)
Double Double Oaked -- This is a re-release of their 2020 Distillery Series at 45.2% ABV (90.4 Proof), available only at the distillery, and features a fully matured Double Oaked which has been finished for an additional year in a second heavily toasted, lightly charred new American oak barrel.
Other expressions at 45.2% ABV (90.4 Proof) include their Wheat (52% wheat/20% malt/20% corn/8% rye), Rye (at least 53% Rye), and Malt (at least 51% malt).
When not drinking whiskey, Elizabeth enjoys a big, full-bodied Cabernet and prefers a Manhattan. And to help you introduce your non-whiskey drinking friends to their brand, Elizabeth suggests the following gateway whiskeys.
If you like this…. Try This Woodford Reserve Whiskey:
Vodka Soda Rye Whiskey
Cosmopolitan Wheat Whiskey
Gin & Tonic Rye Whiskey
Tequila Bourbon Whiskey
Mezcal Malt Whiskey
Red Wine Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey
White Wine Bourbon Whiskey
For their 25th anniversary, Woodford recently announced a distillery expansion with construction starting this spring for completion in 2022. To learn more about it, read Julia Menn’s article in our latest Barrel Report!
Join us next month as we chat with Louis McGuane, Ireland’s first Modern Whiskey Bonder!