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Chris Morris of Woodford Distillery

by Gavin D Smith, 02/09

Chris Morris is Master Distiller at the Brown-Forman Corporation's Woodford Reserve distillery in Kentucky (see our distillery profile).

A native Kentuckian, Chris Morris joined Brown-Forman as an intern in 1976, and is now responsible for maintaining the award-winning profile of Woodford Reserve. He also serves as a global brand ambassador for the Bourbon brand at numerous trade and consumer functions.

An acknowledged authority on Bourbon and Kentucky heritage, here Chris Morris gives whisky-pages his thoughts on making and drinking whiskey, the history of Bourbon and even Kentucky racehorses…

MAKING IT

  
Photo by Ed Reinke, courtesy AP Photo

"We've really taken pains to make Woodford Reserve special. We have a high rye recipe for a Bourbon, and that use of more rye than may of our competitors builds a spicy foundation into our recipe. We also use quite a large proportion of malt.. Because we have a small distillery we use less sour mash than many distillers, which gives more fresh grain in every batch. We have our own strain of yeast, which is propagated at the distillery on a daily basis. We give it six or seven days to ferment the beer, which is twice as long as many distilleries.

"We also use traditional, copper pot stills to make our whiskey in, and we were the first distillery in history to triple distil Bourbon! The stills are run by an operator, who makes spirit cuts by hand, based on time, temperature and strength. There's no computer in the stillhouse. The spirit is reduced to 55%ABV for barrel entry, which is at the lower end of the strength spectrum."

MARKETING IT

"We're excited and proud of the increased perception of Bourbon around the world. You have to give credit to Jack Daniel's for blazing a great trail for American whiskey. To find Woodford Reserve and other Bourbon brands on sale in countries like the UK and Australia is really gratifying.

"Scotch malt whisky and the great blends have an international reputation that exceeds Bourbon. We need to continue to improve the status of Bourbon. We want to be on a par with the great Scotch brands. When someone thinks of the standard of a Talisker, a Balvenie or a Macallan, we want Woodford Reserve to be considered up there with it.

"Education is very important. Events like Whisky Live all over the world help a lot. You need an interface with the consumer to get people to sample it who may think they really don't like Bourbon and who don't usually drink it.


   "The biggest changes in the industry in modern times came with the introduction of single malt Scotch whisky into the USA. The US whiskey industry responded with super-premium and ultra-premium whiskeys, with small batch Bourbons. Now we have Woodford Reserve, which we consider a small batch Bourbon, and whiskeys like Jack Daniels Single Barrel. We are talking about comparatively high prices for these whiskeys, but very importantly, correspondingly high quality. It's been a big change from almost exclusively standard bottlings of US whiskey to the situation we have today."

"When I started work in the industry there were at least 25 distilleries in Kentucky, and now we're down to ten. There's been a process of consolidation through acquisition. It's the way the industry is, and that's that. Many distilleries closed at the time we were focused almost entirely on standard bottlings for the American and Japanese markets. There wasn't a global and premiumised market for Bourbon then, and that was really what led to all the consolidation.

"One of the main markets for Bourbon is Japan, which has given us good and steady support, while Australia, France, Germany and Canada all do well for us. I think we will see some of the super-premium Bourbons on sale in more countries in the future as the status of Bourbon continues to improve. If Bourbon is up there with the best Scotch and Irish whiskies, connoisseurs will want to have a portfolio containing examples from each of those producing countries.

DEVELOPING IT

"In the 1770s, Kentucky was the other side of the world to the eastern seaboard, it really was the 'far west' at that time. Settlers there grew corn and converted some of that corn into whiskey, because you can only use so much corn, and it's perishable, but if you make whiskey out of it, you've got something you can trade with and something that keeps. Some of it was sold down river to New Orleans. Whiskey effectively empowered the opening up of the west.

"The tax that was in place on whiskey paid for most government activities up to 1900, except for the Civil War period, so whiskey really allowed commerce to develop. The big, defining moment for American whiskey came with the rise of the temperance movement, with Prohibition, and with the growth of organised crime that brought. If alcohol hadn't been banned, perhaps society would have been quite different.

"During World War Two, Bourbon helped the industrialisation of Kentucky, because all the distilleries were making alcohol for use in the war effort. All the spirit was shipped directly to big works in the area where it was used in the manufacture of things like artificial fabrics."

RACING FOR IT

"James E Pepper was an early owner of the Pepper distillery, now Woodford Reserve distillery, and he was also a big man in the world of horse racing. Today, Woodford Reserve sponsors horse races in the USA, the UK and Australia.

"We have a beautiful distillery and it sits smack dab in the middle of all the horse farms in Woodford County, which is the epicentre of the thoroughbred industry in the USA. There are 20,000 people and 50,000 horses!

"Woodford Reserve is the first and only Bourbon to be the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. We currently have four horses in training, and they're either in the paddock at the distillery or in training at Churchill Downs racecourse. Racing is a key part of our image; it's contemporary and stylish, as well as having historical precedents, with James E Pepper, and a real local relevance."
  

DRINKING IT

"Classic whiskey drinkers enjoy their Bourbon neat, with a splash of water, or on the rocks, but Bourbon is incredibly versatile for cocktails. Don't forget, cocktails were born in New Orleans 200 years ago, and New Orleans was one of the earliest markets for Bourbon.

"As I travel, I see new twists on cocktails like the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan. We have seven different Manhattan recipes in the Woodford Reserve cocktail book, and you'd squint to recognise some of them as Manhattans."

"Very few cocktails have an identifiable point of origin, but the Old-Fashioned originated in the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, which was frequented by James E Pepper. He took the Old-Fashioned to New York, from where it travelled around the world."
  

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