Every year, Chris Morris releases a special edition of Woodford Reserve called the Master’s Collection. This November will see the ninth release of the Master’s Collection, and yours truly was the very first person outside of Brown-Forman to sample it.
I sat down with Master Distiller Morris last night in advance of this bourbon’s formal previewing in San Francisco for a sample and chat. The appearance of Sonoma-Cutrer in the name may have tipped you off already that this is a wine barrel-finished bourbon, and that’s indeed the case. But part of the promise of the Master’s Collection is, in Morris’s own words, that Woodford will never repeat a whiskey. Every year, the company will focus on a different grain, barrel, fermentation process, aging regimen, or other facet of whiskeymaking, but once a Master’s Collection release is sold out, it’s gone.
The second release of the Master’s Collection way back in 2007 involved a Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay finish, and it was a huge hit. The whiskey is now a bit of a cult favorite and sells for a pretty penny at auction. According to Morris, people still ask him regularly when he’s going to do it again… but given the restrictions of the Master’s Collection promise, the answer has always been “Never.”
Well, not quite. Now Woodford has put out a new Sonoma-Cutrer-finished whiskey, only this time Morris is using Pinot Noir barrels instead of Chardonnay to polish off the spirit.
The production process is straightforward: Fully matured, cask strength Woodford Reserve (roughly seven years old) is moved from its new oak barrel home to French oak Pinot Noir barrels, where it spends another 10 months. These barrels have seen three vintages of Sonoma-Cutrer (the winery is owned by Woodford parent Brown-Forman), so they’re about at the end of their life for wine barrels. Once the finishing is done, the final product is brought down to 90 proof (the same as standard Woodford) and bottled.
I tasted the whiskey with Morris alongside a glass of standard Woodford Reserve for comparison. And man, what an amazing spirit it is.
There’s a lot of DNA shared between these two whiskies, as well there should be. The standard Woodford offers strong notes of cherry, walnuts, and cinnamon, and the Pinot Noir finished whiskey builds on that. Butterscotch is the (surprising) initial rush, but over time – I worked my way through two glasses while Morris regaled me with tales of whiskeymaking – you pick up other notes, including dark chocolate, and fun licorice kick on the back end. The Sonoma-Cutrer bottling picks up more fruit as it aerates, while the standard bottling of Woodford sticks close to its nutty, woody core.
Amazingly balanced and so much fun to explore, this is one of the finest – if not the finest — Master’s Collection bottling I’ve encountered to date. It’s a whiskey that smartly starts with an already strong base, then builds upon it with a savvy finish. With 24,000 bottles produced (vs. 11,300 of the prior Sonoma-Cutrer bottling), you should be able to track some down if you give it a bit of effort, but you will have to wait until November before you start hounding your local liquor store.
What’s up next for these Woodford releases? Morris plays his cards close to the vest but he does reveal that this will be the last Master’s Collection release to feature a special finishing treatment for quite a while. In fact, the Master’s Collection releases have been fully planned out and are now aging in barrels which will cover the distillery’s annual releases through 2021(!) – so any finishing treatments will have to come after that… at which point Morris claims he’ll be preparing for his planned retirement in 2023. Why not start planning a Retirement Edition Bourbon now, I asked Morris. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied, looking off into space with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
Update 10/2014: I tried this again in its near-shipping condition and had nearly identical tasting notes. Big cherry character up front, silky chocolate/caramel sauce on the back end, with a kind of funky licorice kick. Great stuff.
A / $100 / woodfordreserve.com