Tom Freston once said that innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way. But what Freston refrained from saying is that sometimes the story doesn’t work out very well. Like for example a certain flying car, the Ave Mizar. The Mizar was proof that the sum of two bad things always results in something much worse.
On the other hand, the result of bringing together two good things – by a creative mind, combining technique and knowledge – usually becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This is the case, for example, of the hamburger. And, in the bourbon whiskey industry, a range of Woodford Reserve products. The mind behind the hugely renowned brand is Chris Morris.
Chris Morris is not just any master distiller. He is the creator of amazing products like the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and the Woodford Rye. He is also responsible for the Master’s Collection – a series of limited editions from Woodford Reserve that introduce innovations to the world of American whiskey, such as a single malt aged in virgin barrels, a bourbon finished in red wine barrels and a bourbon with smoked barley in its mashbill.
Chris began his career in 1976 at Brown-Forman, the multinational that owns Woodford Reserve. In 1997, he became a student of Lincoln Henderson, Woodford Reserve’s first Master Distiller. In 2003, he became the second – and this is the position he occupies to this day.
Interviewing Morris isn’t exactly easy. The temptation is to ask about all the innovations already produced, and about plans for the future. Even more in an exclusive chat. After all, Woodford Reserve is that kind of brand that sets trends – that makes innovation tangible – and, well, palatable. You can check the result of the interview below.
You are one of the most respected master distillers in the Bourbon industry. How does one become a master distiller? How did you begin?
Chris Morris: Serving as master distiller at Woodford Reserve is a great honor and a great responsibility. My journey began in 1976, when I started my career in our analytical and sensory laboratory at the distillery. From there, I worked in the bottling part, our barrel cooperage, distillery, in the aging and barrel storage warehouses, as well as in sales and marketing.
In other words, I’ve had a wide range of experiences in our industry. During this journey, I was also privileged to work a significant amount of time at scotch, irish whiskey and tequila distilleries. My last role before being named master distiller was “Master Distiller in Training”. This allowed me the opportunity to devote 100% of my time preparing for my current role. It took 28 years of preparation and experience, two postgraduate degrees, and participation in several seminars before my promotion to master distiller in March 2003.
Woodford Reserve is part of Brown-Forman, which also owns Jack Daniel’s. However, Woodford is seen as a “craft” distillery. How do you maintain the “handcrafted” characteristic even though you are part of such a large company?
Chris Morris: Woodford Reserve is able to remain “craft” within a large global company, Brown-Forman, due to the company’s structure. At Brown-Forman, each brand and its distillery operate as an independent business within the larger business. Woodford has its own brand management team, production team and specific local sales and marketing teams around the world. The Global Brand Director and I are partners charged with maintaining the brand’s quality and business performance. This allows us to follow our vocation, which focuses on presenting the flavor of the product.
As a member of a multinational company (Brown-Forman), Woodford Reserve benefits from its (Brown) global distribution network. This allows us to show Woodford to a wider range of consumers around the world. It also helps us make accurate assessments of the volume of market demand by country. This is needed by us as we build our long-term distillation plans and barrel inventory.
What makes Woodford Reserve so special, in your opinion? In other words, how would you convince someone to drink Woodford over another bourbon?
Chris Morris: Woodford Reserve is special and stands out from other great Kentucky bourbons for a number of reasons. Key to its success is our Five Sources of Whiskey Flavor concept and the resulting balance of the Five Areas of Whiskey Flavor. Our distillery is the first in the United States to use triple distillation in copper stills (made in Scotland), ferment twice as long as the others, use the Woodford Reserve yeast strain and mature in custom barrels from our own cooperage . These unique production characteristics allow Woodford Reserve to have a complex balance of sweet aromatic notes, fruits and florals, spices, wood and grains.
I even apologize in advance for the statement – but I love mixing Woodford Reserve. I think it’s a great base for cocktails. What do you think of cocktails with Woodford?
Chris Morris: I’m a big fan of using Woodford Reserve at cocktail parties. The best way to make a great cocktail is to use the best foundation in that cocktail. Beginning in 1999, when Woodford Reserve was named the first “Official Bourbon” of the Kentucky Derby, we became perfectionists in Mint Julep. Mint Julep has acquired a rather bad image over the years and was rarely served in bars and restaurants, for very long. Due to Woodford’s efforts, it is now possible to enjoy a Mint Julep in the United States and many other countries.
Woodford also established the Woodford Reserve Manhattan competition 12 years ago. This has become one of the most prestigious whiskey cocktail competitions in the world. Recently, Woodford was named the “Old Fashioned Week ” official bourbon, on a global platform. Thus, it is evident that Woodford Reserve played an important role in the return of “Classic Cocktails” to popularity.
Woodford Reserve has a Single Malt, right? Is it like a Scottish single malt or are there differences in production and palate?
Chris Morris: Woodford Reserve launched Kentucky’s first Single Malt Whiskey (Kentucky Single Malt) in 2009 through our Masters Collection product line. It was offered in two expressions – one aged in barrels previously used to mature another whiskey, like many Scottish single malts and the other aged in new barrels. For me, virgin barrel-aged malt was the more complex of the two.
Since then, the new micro-distillery movement in the US has championed Single Malts. I didn’t want us to look like a follower rather than the pioneers that we are, so we created Kentucky’s first and only single malt. The use of corn and rye in the recipe, as well as a charred virgin barrel, resulted in a flavor profile that I consider unique in the whiskey universe.
I could not agree more! Now, about finishing. Glenmorangie and Balvenie pioneered the technique of “finishing” (transferring a whiskey to a different type of barrel to add sensory complexity). Woodford Reserve is a pioneer in this technique in the United States – with chardonnay cask. How did you come up with this idea? AND…. is still bourbon?
My interest in finishing (barrels, finishing) started with my experience in the Single Malt Scotch industry. I noticed that the use of fortified wine barrels (port, sherry, wood etc.) was quite common. Why was no one using varietal wine barrels, I wondered? This led me to purchase barrels of chardonnay, pinot, cabernet, zinfandel and others to test the finish.
After much trial and error, we put our learning to the test with the release of the Chardonnay Finish from the Masters Collection in 2007 and despite the storm it caused among bourbon aficionados, it was a huge success. Since then, we’ve also pioneered the Pinot Noir finish and, with our established finishing credentials, we’ve moved on to the less controversial fortified wine finishes.