It’s not often that an idea comes along in the whiskey space that makes you pause, take a moment to reflect, and ask “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?”
First, though, I must admit a bit of negligence—I somehow completely missed any headlines or announcements about Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey when it first hit store shelves in the summer of 2018. I’m not sure how, but it passed me by, and at the same time the first batch completely sold out, which explains why I never ran across it in the wild. Now, with the second release incoming, it’s time for a belated reaction to what is an intriguingly novel concept.
Suffice to say, malt whiskey is an ascendant trend in the American whiskey market, but we’ve never seen anything quite like Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey before. The majority of malt whiskeys being produced by American distilleries fall into the still nebulous category of “American single malt,” which is to say, 100 malted barley whiskeys that are being aged in newly charred oak, unlike scotch or Irish malt whiskeys, which are employing used oak. Woodford Reserve Straight Malt Whiskey, on the other hand, makes a choice that is shockingly obvious in hindsight—it obeys the American definition for a “straight” whiskey, such as “straight bourbon” or “straight rye,” but simply switches the dominant grain to malted barley. The final mash bill: 51 percent malted barley, 47 percent corn and a mere 2 percent rye. As far as I know, it’s the only example of its type on the market.
“Straight,” within the context of the American whiskey market, of course means the following:
1. A distilled whiskey containing at least 51 percent corn (for straight bourbon) or 51 percent rye (for straight rye), distilled to less than 80 percent ABV and aged at less than 62.5 percent ABV.
2. Aged for at least two years in newly charred oak, and bottled at a strength greater than 40 percent ABV.
The folks at Woodford Reserve (and Brown-Forman, by extension), then, simply hit upon an obvious question that nobody had asked: What would this format be like, as applied to malt whiskey rather than bourbon or rye? Would it be like a malt whiskey for bourbon fans? Or a bourbon for malt whiskey fans?
Let’s hit up our sample and find out.
On the nose, Woodford Reserve Straight Malt is very grain-forward and toasty—a combination of toasted bread, grain and caramel impressions that caused me to write “caramel oatmeal” on my tasting notes. Floral impressions, cinnamon spice and notes of cocoa dance around the periphery, but the strongest impressions are doughy/grainy in nature, with a considerable suggestion of richness.
On the palate, I’m immediately getting plenty of toasted malt and baking spice. There’s a black tea-like maltiness here that gives this dram a good sense of structure, which is nicely complemented by a very silky, full texture. It’s different from Scottish or Irish malt whiskeys in the same ways that most American single malts tend to be—more caramelization from the newly charred barrels, with more notes of cocoa and char as well. As I return to this one, I’m getting more roastiness over time, with plenty of caramel and touches of sweet vanilla. Overall, it’s certainly on the sweeter side, although nothing cloying, with a respectable level of heat—perhaps a bit more than you would expect for the 90.4 proof.
All in all, this experiment absolutely feels like success to me. The end result is a whiskey that bridges a gap between an entrenched part of the market (bourbon) and an emerging one (American single malts). This offering is more likely to be appreciated by lovers of sweeter, richer bourbons, or charred American single malts, but it stops short of being a dram that is exclusively for “desserty” occasions.
If you fall into the bourbon/malt whiskey intersection target demographic, this is definitely an interesting bottle to check out. And at roughly $35-40 in terms of MSRP, it’s quite a reasonable value as well.
Distillery: Woodford Reserve (Brown-Forman)
City: Versailles, KY
Style: Straight malt whiskey
ABV: 45.2 percent (90.4 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35-40 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.