Experiments Gone Right with Woodford Reserve’s New Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall

Experiments Gone Right with Woodford Reserve’s New Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall

Elizabeth McCall

When she was named Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller in February 2023, Elizabeth McCall knew she was in for a challenge.

But that doesn’t mean she feels alone in taking the brand forward. She inherits the role from Chris Morris, who began mentoring McCall to take over the job around 2015. And while McCall and Morris spent the better part of a decade preparing for the transition, Morris isn’t exactly retiring from the bourbon industry, instead staying on in an emeritus role that will keep him an integral part of the Woodford distilling team.

McCall joined parent company Brown-Forman in 2009, where she served in a series of R&D roles — including running tasting panels and working directly with production — before becoming Woodford’s Master Taster in 2015. Since then, she’s been an instrumental part of developing the brand’s more experimental expressions. Her new title gives her the dual responsibilities of continuing to push the envelope for special releases while maintaining consistency in Woodford’s core expressions.

We sat down with McCall to talk about witnessing the bourbon boom, her five and ten-year goals for Woodford, and the big mistakes that paid off in surprising ways.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: How has the brand evolved during your tenure with Woodford Reserve?

Elizabeth McCall: I joined the company in 2009, and in my original role, I was a sensory technician and focusing on quality control. Part of my job that was kind of quiet, nobody had really worked on in a while, was this marker program, where we go to all of our production facilities and train people on how to properly nose and taste our products. And we’d spike some of those with some quality issues, and hopefully we’d teach people how to pick those up. I was like, “This is really important. We need to focus on this!” So eventually I was going out to Woodford Reserve to do tasting or training on our products.

By around 2010 or 2011, we were bottling twice a week. There were just the original four fermenters, three pot stills. It was a quiet, sleepy place that was just this giant secret that nobody really knew about yet, but you could feel things were happening. People would fish in the pond there, you had time to do those things! And then we got two new fermenters, then we had more shifts on bottling. And then by the time I was working out there in 2016, we were bottling on three shifts, five days a week, sometimes six days a week.

We had expanded to then having a dumping facility. So we’ve got a separate facility where we dump all of our batches of Woodford Reserve. And when I first started going out there, we dumped every batch of Woodford Reserve on our little teeny tiny dump trough in the bottling hall.

It’s just been this explosion in my time there, and it’s really amazing and impressive and crazy to see. And I love hearing the stories from people who were there at the beginning. We used to take really long lunch breaks and could bring a six pack of beer and hang out. And now it’s like, oh, we’ve got our big boy pants on. We’ve grown up.

Drinkhacker: I think for a lot of folks who found bourbon outside of Kentucky, when they visit now, it’s difficult for them to realize how quickly things have changed.

Elizabeth McCall: I think that it’s hard for people to understand that we weren’t always this big. Woodford Reserve wasn’t sold outside of the state of Kentucky when we were introduced in the late 1990s. And that lasted for quite a while. Chris Morris talks about how we sold Woodford Reserve one drink at a time. And now we’ve got a different mentality altogether. So I’ve been a part of it since the boom began, basically.

Drinkhacker: Let’s talk about your new role. I would love to hear about your priorities for your first year in the position. But given that it’s whiskey, perhaps the first five years would be more appropriate?

Elizabeth McCall: Exactly. Whiskey’s a very slow process. I like to think of it as Chris Morris had been in the driver’s seat, and I was in the passenger’s seat. And now I’m coming over, I’m in the driver’s seat, but he’s still in the passenger seat. He’s not retired, he’s not going anywhere. So he is still going to be able to give me the counsel I need to navigate through any issues that may arise. And I’m really excited about that consistency in leadership for this brand as we transition to me being the main leader. With our core brands, with our bourbon, rye, malt, wheat, Double Oaked, we want to keep those the same. I don’t want see them shifting in flavor profile. They need to stay.

And so keeping the consistency in quality is going to be my main focus on those brands. And then continuing what I’ve been doing on the Master’s Collection and Distillery Series. Chris gave me the reins a few years ago to start dipping my toes into this space of trying to innovate. And now I get to really sit in the driver’s seat, and I get to decide if we’re going to try a new, crazy recipe.

And what’s wonderful is I’ve worked at Woodford Reserve and with the production teams that I’m going to ask to do weird things. The next grain recipe I want do is not easy. It’s got a lot of small grains in it, it’ll be a big flavor, kind of a fun bourbon. But it’s going be demanding physically because we’ve got to carry 50 pound sacks up to our mash cooker, just because of the way our distillery is designed.

And then also with the Distillery Series, we’ve got a lot of interesting things planned, and we’ve got everything laid out for the next couple years because that’s a great outlet for us to look in our warehouses and go, “What weird things do we have that’s just a few barrels of this and a few barrels of that?” I’ve been managing that, too. It’s been interesting, but when I think about when any Master’s Collection will be out, it’ll be like 10 years from now! Want to try it? We’ll have to wait 10 years!

Drinkhacker: What are some Distillery Releases or Master’s Collection releases that you are particularly happy with, and that you consider triumphs over the last few years?

Elizabeth McCall: I definitely think our biggest triumph is the Woodford Reserve Double Double Oaked. That is one of those fun things where we had some Woodford Reserve Double Oaked that normally ages in that second barrel, up to 12 months is our max. And we had barrels in a warehouse that went past that. So we thought we’d let them sit for 24 months and see what happens. And it was a big learning experience, because we opened that sample bottle up, and it was so different from regular Double Oaked. It just proves how maturation time and barrels can shift the flavor of a whiskey so quickly. You have to be monitoring, you have to constantly be checking on things, because just one month can really shift it.

People went nuts for Double Double Oaked, and it’s only released in Kentucky. We have hopes to one day expand that when we have the capability to bring it to the world. What that taught me is that there’s really no such thing as a true mistake that can’t be fixed when you’re doing production. So when our operators reach out and go, “Oh, the scales were way off, and we added too much rye to this batch, what should we do?” Let’s just mark it in our database. We will find a way to use that and leverage it. That’s been triumphant in a lot of ways for me.

It’s also a relic of an earlier era, before bourbon was as popular as it is now, when you couldn’t really afford to let things go to waste. These days, you do something weird, and people like it. When Chris Morris was doing it back in the early 2000s, he got a lot of pushback. And now these experiments have become standard practice, and they’re celebrated. So it’s just interesting to see the evolution, and it’s wonderful because it makes my job easier in a lot of ways.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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