The world of bourbon whiskey can be daunting if you do not know what you are drinking. The different expressions under one brand can be mind-boggling, and the struggle gets tougher when you face the various brands available. It is, therefore, a privilege to speak with Chris Morris, one of the most experienced Master Distiller under the Brown-Forman umbrella. Chris is the Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve, a whiskey that proves its mettle with its flavours.
Chatting with Chris Morris
We were unfortunate to miss the event hosted by Chris during his visit to Singapore a couple of weeks ago, but he was still kind enough to agree to an email interview with us.
Chris Morris’ Background
Chris is the seventh Master Distiller at Brown Forman since the company began in 1870. Woodford Reserve, of course, is a brand under Brown Forman. Chris grew up in Louisville in a Bourbon family. Chris is one of the three generations in his family to work in the Bourbon industry. His father worked at Brown Forman before him. As a kid, Chris watched his mother enjoyed a glass of Old Forester while preparing dinner and played at the Old Forester Distillery whenever his dad brought him in during the weekends. These particular interactions with the Bourbon industry gave Chris a lasting impact, and he naturally went into the industry when he came of age.
First Foray into the Bourbon World
Chris started his career as a trainee in the grain receiving lab and the sensory lab of Old Forester in 1976. His job included setting up barrel samples for the Master Distiller to taste besides running tests for the grains received. While the job sounded simple, it is essential because of the ingredients for the whiskey must be checked before the production team could use them. We asked Chris if much has changed since his time, considering the improvements in technology. Interestingly, he said that nothing much has changed except minor adjustments to improve the processes.
Moving on from Brown Forman
Chris moved on from Brown Forman after 12 years and joined Glenmore Distilleries Company in 1988. He then joined United Distillers when the firm acquired Glenmore in 1991. Chris gained experiences from these positions and became better at what he did. After nine years, he returned to the fold at Brown Forman.
Becoming the Chosen One
His return proved to be the perfect timing. With his experiences, Chris was the forerunner as a candidate for the position of a trainee of the Master Distiller. He became the first Brown Forman Master Distiller designee to receive a formal training program. The course includes both academic and work experience requirements. It wasn’t the easiest course to train under, but it provides all the essential skills for a Master Distiller to become an expert in his role.
Chris mentioned that the program had been expanded to include a few additions that reflect the changes in the industry. This is the template for all future Master Distillers for Brown Forman. The current Assistant Master Distiller, Elizabeth McCall, is following the course.
Understanding the Bourbon Tree
Recently, there were debates about the Bourbon Tree, and what it meant for the Bourbon industry. We asked Chris for his opinions. “The Bourbon Tree is very interesting because it contains [several] inaccuracies that only an industry insider would recognize. It is also very simplistic in its portrayal of the diversity of Bourbon flavour development.” Chris said. He encouraged Bourbon lovers to research how the various brands crafted their bourbons, and judge the whiskey by its flavours, not its category.
Understanding the Woodford Reserve
Chris showed his passion for the Woodford Reserve when we began to ask questions about the bourbon. We came to understand that the bourbon is unique amongst the various brands because of its focus to flavours. The approach allows the brand to showcase flavour development and presentation that may not be possible in other brands. Woodford Reserve also created the Five Sources of Flavour production process philosophy to bring a balanced presentation of the Five Areas of Bourbon Flavours. This is why Chris is so proud of what Woodford Reserve has achieved so far.
The Different Expressions of Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve has various expressions and families within its portfolio. Every expression brings a different flavour to the palate. Each bottle creates a unique experience for the bourbon lover. The expressions exist to showcase the different characteristics of bourbon, and are designed to be unbalanced on purpose. The Distillers Select range provides distinctive flavours for the drinker, and the bottles are probably not for someone who is looking for a balanced dram.
For the drinker who is looking for a balanced dram to enjoy, look out for the Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. It is the most balanced of all Bourbons and will provide hours of pleasure for the Bourbon lover.
If you are interested in wood finishes, check out the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. This expression explores the flavours of barrel finishing and provides an insight into how wood influences changes the liquid. Finally, for the curious and open-minded, the Masters Collection and Distillery Series showcase unique flavour presentation through modern whiskey innovation.
The Future of Bourbon
We asked Chris for his opinions on the future of Bourbon. His simple reasoning resonances with our understanding of the current market sentiments. He said, “The future of any consumer product category is hard to predict. But based on a value system that places great store on extreme age claims, I don’t see Bourbon reaching the price levels of the select Malts and Cognac.”
The fact remains that whisky drinkers placed much emphasis on age statements – perhaps too much. However, just as Chris said, the future is hard to predict. It may come a day where the market matures far enough to focus on flavours more than age statements. We see much improvements and acceptance of younger whiskies now, so maybe that day is not that far away after all.
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