The Master’s Collection at Woodford Reserve is typically a yearly, limited release series focused on whiskey innovations and novelties—often batches that have received unique finishes, or mash bills, or unusual aspects that make them superlative in their own way. However, for this year’s 2020 Master’s Collection release, the Brown-Forman brand decided to go back to its roots, as it were, in order to deliver a classic bourbon that pays homage to the decade and a half that Master Distiller Chris Morris has spent with the brand.
This release, dubbed Woodford Reserve Very Fine Rare Bourbon, is a blend of Woodford-distilled Brown-Forman bourbons, and includes some of the oldest whiskey to ever bear the Woodford name, at 17 years old. Note: This is not an age-stated bottle of bourbon, but rather a blend that features an unknown portion of this very-old distillate. Judging from our own sampling, though, the percentage of well-aged bourbon here is pretty significant. Although future Master’s Collection releases will return to primarily exploring innovation, this one instead explores the history of what Woodford Reserve has done to date. These 17-year-old barrels represent a portion of the oldest aging whiskey stock in Woodford’s possession.
“What a fitting tribute to use these oldest barrels of Woodford Reserve to celebrate Chris Morris’ legacy while also looking to the future,” said Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall.
Sharp-eyed drinkers will also note that the Master’s Collection bottle design is also changing this year, ditching the “pot still”-shaped bottle that made the series unique from Woodford’s regular releases. This redesigned bottle is closer in shape to the flask-style bottles that contain year-round Woodford brands, but are a bit taller and less wide. It’s also the first Master’s Collection bottle to bear the name of McCall as Assistant Master Distiller. Like previous Master’s Collection releases, this is bottled at Woodford’s typical, relatively lower proof point of 90.4 (45.2% ABV).
So, what will extra age do to the Woodford profile? Let’s get tasting on our sample and see.
On the nose, the extra age is immediately apparent in the form of spicy oak, which is also pleasantly sweet rather than suggesting overt tartness or dryness. Stone fruit and apple combine with spice to give strong impressions of cinnamon applesauce, along with substantial cocoa and a melange of additional brown spice/baking spice notes. Over time, I’m also getting more hints of red fruit, particularly strawberry.
On the palate, this Woodford bourbon is a pleasant combination of sweet, oaky and spicy all at once. The spice from the nose is substantial; a combination of pepper, sweet cinnamon and allspice that pairs well with caramel apple and a bit of molasses. There’s also something a bit more exotic in the spice/the way it combines with oak, suggesting root beer and something a bit more herbaceous. Unusually, this one actually seems to get a bit more dry to me over time rather than sweeter, with oak tannin that grows in authority. That tannin contributes some dryness, but none of the bitterness one might be fearing, although I have no doubt this would still likely end up as a bit too oaky for some.
Still, at this low proof point the bourbon drinks very easily—the ethanol is all but entirely absent on the nose, and is very light on the palate. As whiskey observers often seem to wonder with Woodford’s Master’s Collection releases, you can’t help but want to know what this would be like at a proof point of 100 or beyond, and if that additional heft would contribute more sweet balance and appreciable intensity.
Regardless, this is one of the more interesting Woodford releases I’ve had in recent memory, especially in terms of its spice and oak profile. As with all Master’s Collection releases, it carries a steep price tag in the $130 MSRP range, but the allure of containing Woodford’s oldest bourbons to date will likely make that price point easier to justify for whiskey collectors.
Distillery: Woodford Reserve (Brown-Forman)
City: Versailles, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 45. 2% (90.4 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $130 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.