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A Chat with Chris Morris, Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve

Chris Morris – Master Distiller, Woodford Reserve

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

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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Event: Private Tasting of Glendronach/BenRiach by Brown Forman

Glendronach and BenRiach distilleries are no strangers to our shores, considering the vast number of fans for the Glendronach single casks releases. We attended a private tasting session at La Maison du Whisky on 23 March 2018, hosted by none other than Stewart Buchanan, the global brand ambassador of Glendronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh. Alongside Stewart were a few other vital people of the brands. We had the pleasure to meet Finbar Boyle, the General Manager of Southeast Asia, Vincent Pantow, the Area Manager in South East Asia as well as Shirley Sum, the Trade Marketing Manager of Travel Retail, APAC.

Geek Choc and I were the first to arrive for the event, and we were soon seated and served with water while we waited for the rest to show up. As LMDW scheduled the event at 6 pm, it was natural for some participants to be slightly late due to work. Anyway, the rest of the gang soon turned up, and Stewart wasted no time and started the event promptly.

The Event Proper

The initial tasting planned was to try five different whiskies. Three of the Glendronach’s core range – 12, 18 and 21, followed by two higher-end BenRiach – 30 and 35. The 30 Years Old was a peated whisky. Stewart, however, decided to add in a BenRiach 10, because he felt that it was essential for us to know how a “normal” BenRiach tastes like. We thought it was considerate of him, especially when some of the audiences have not tried a BenRiach before.

Glendronach

Glendronach distillery is one of the few fortunate distilleries that avoided a closure back in the 1900s. As a result, the distillery’s use of sherry casks did not stop, and today, it is one of the most sought-after sherry bombs in the industry. As many of Glendronach’s fans would say, “Nothing seems bad when you are sipping a Glendronach!”

For the geeky us, we were excited when Stewart started speaking of production! We understood from Stewart that the reason the Glendronach is rich and viscous is due to the way they run their production. The time that Glendronach seeps their barley, the hours of fermentation and even the way the casks are used all played a part to create the end product. Nonetheless, in Glendronach, casks are but a supplement to the rich spirit that they produce.

Glendronach 12 Years Old

Stewart started with the Glendronach 12 Years Old. A young whisky by the standard of what’s on offer, the 12 Years Old does not disappoint. With 80% oloroso casks and 20% PX casks, the 12 Years Old boasts of caramel, spice and barley sweetness. The long finish is a bonus too.

Glendronach 18 Years Old Allardice

The Glendronach 18 Years Old Allardice was up next. The word ‘Allardice’ simply referred to the founder James Allardice. The 18 Years Old is made of 100% oloroso casks which make the whisky drier and spicier. The nose also holds some leathery notes while the long finish is tannic and astringent.

Glendronach 21 Years Old Parliament

Moving on, we came to the Glendronach 21 Years Old Parliament. Now, the name Parliament has a special story behind it. It has nothing to do with the government or politics. It actually means a flock of crows! A group of crows is called a parliament. Why is there a reference to crows? According to Stewart, the men operating on the illicit stills of the past depended on the ravens to alert them of excisemen in the area. As they hid deep inside the forest, any disturbance by the excisemen would cause the crows to make noise. That became a signal to the illicit stills operators!

The Glendronach 21 Years Old is again, made up of 80% oloroso casks and 20% PX casks. The prolonged maturation allows the PX-influence to shine, making this expression sweeter and yet, rich and robust. The long finish is a balance of caramel sweetness and tannic dryness.

BenRiach

Stewart moved on to BenRiach soon enough. BenRiach sat 600 miles from Longmorn and was mothballed in 2002. Fortunately, Billy Walker bought the distillery and reopened it in 2004. Since then, the distillery has been growing rapidly and moving from glory to glory. Today, BenRiach has some of the richest Speyside spirits and excellent peated ranges that are highly sought-after.

BenRiach also used water with more minerals, which produces more esters during long fermentation. As a result, BenRiach is very fruity even at a young age. Interestingly, BenRiach also has one of the most extended middle cut in their spirit bank, which makes for a fascinating distillery tour as you get to taste the different new make at different cuts.

BenRiach 10 Years Old

The BenRiach 10 Years Old uses a combination of bourbon, virgin oak and sherry casks. Boasting notes of honey, butterscotch, vanilla, grapefruits and zesty citrus, it is perfect as a dessert whisky. The long finish helps to keep the fruitiness in the palate long after you swallow it. This is one whisky that is ideal as an introduction to a non-whisky drinker too!

BenRiach 30 Years Old Authenticus (Peated)

The BenRiach 30 Years Old Authenticus is a unique peated expression. Peated at 55 ppm, it is considered a heavily peated whisky. Now, a highland peated whisky is different from an Islay whisky, mainly because of the peat that was used. Highland peat does not produce the iodine element that you usually associated with Islay peat, making it less pungent and more fragrant. This expression is a combination of American and sherry hogsheads.

The 30 Years old boast some spice notes before a breathe of smoky peat comes thru beautifully. Sweetness than comes in before turning into dry, herbaceous notes. The finish is long and dry.

BenRiach 35 Years Old

The BenRiach 35 Years old is a sherried expression. Unlike whiskies using first-filled sherry butts, this expression used a refill sherry hogshead. Stewart shared that sherry hogsheads are hard to come by, and are usually heavily-used. Hence, the BenRiach 35 Years Old likely used one which has been reused several times before.

That probably explains the unusual notes that we get. The 35 years old is both sweet and grassy with medium spice that dissipates quickly. A yummlicious whisky for sure, and one that may confuse you just a little!

Event Ending

The event ended fairly quickly after that and Stewart did a round of autographs before bidding all of us good-bye. It was a great insight into Glendronach and BenRiach, and we look forward to more tasting sessions in the future!

 

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