The 11th installment in Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection release is here. For 2016, standard, “fully mature” Woodford is finished in American brandy casks for nearly two years. Which brandy isn’t stated (but since Woodford’s parent company Brown-Forman owns Korbel, I have a strong hunch where the casks came from).
Woodford notes, “Brandy, a spirit distilled from wine or fruit, is often aged in oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, brandy does not have the new, charred barrel requirement allowing their barrels to be used multiple times. Therefore, this release is technically not a bourbon but rather a finished whiskey.” That’s really splitting hairs, though. Finishing barrels have become quite popular in bourbon country in recent years (see also Angel’s Envy), and the use of one does not, in my mind, disqualify this from being called a bourbon.
And in fact, there is nothing at all not to like in the 2016 Master’s Collection bourbon. Fresh from the start, the nose is moderately woody, tempered by light chocolate, cinnamon (a Morris classic), and plenty of lightly scorched caramel. Some raisin and dried fig notes come forward with time. On the tongue, the whiskey quickly settles into a beautifully balanced groove. Notes of raisin, ripe banana, and gingerbread wash over a spicy, vanilla- and caramel-heavy core. As a reprise, some gentle wood notes bring up the rear, a nice callback to the way things started.
The two years in old brandy casks have worked nicely at mellowing out a bourbon that can sometimes be overblown with wood. The brandy cask adds something in the form of those gently sweet raisin notes, but more importantly is what it takes away, which is some of the heavier tannin and lumberyard notes that standard Woodford can express. As with the Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir release, this expression is a whiskey that takes a solid spirit and elevates it even further.
Morris has stumbled upon a really magical combination here. It may be the best Master’s Collection release to date.