Meeting the Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve and Bourbon Sweet Potato Biscuits

The are several reasons that Woodford Reserve is a very different bourbon.  One is that it is a sour mash bourbon and is made with more rye than other brands. The sour mash procedure was actually discovered right in their distillery (then known as Oscar Pepper Distillery) in 1840 by a Scotsman, James Crow, who was the Master Distiller at the time.

So what exactly is a “mash”? A mash is a combination of grains (corn, rye, barley, wheat) that are coarsely ground and mixed with water (at Woodford Reserve it is well water).  It is heated to convert the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars.  This in turn allows the yeast to consume and convert to ethanol.

The yeast barrel sits next to the bottom of the fermentation vats

A sour mash bourbon is made almost like making a bread with a “starter”.  Most of the spent mash from the fermentation process is dried out and given to local farmers to feed their animals (just as it has been done since the distillery first started in 1812). However, they will reserve 500 pounds of the spent mash and put it back into the next cycle of the distilling process to create a consistent product. It also keeps the pH level at a 7.0, which is neutral (like rain water). The cypress vats where this mashing process occurs are over 100 years old and are made from wood that originated in South Georgia.

This is the beginning of a whole lotta bourbon!

When alcohol is present and you are making a mash, it becomes a distiller’s beer. Their beer is very fruity. The process at Woodford Reserve makes the bourbon very complex and you will find lots of green fruit on the nose of their beer (like apples and grapes). Because their bourbon has a high rye content, it is not the typical bourbon. The breakdown for their bourbon is 78% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley.

This is the Distiller’s Beer

We put our hands a few inches above the fermenter during our visit. First of all, it was incredibly warm. The second shock was that when we put our faces down to smell the mash, we almost fainted! It was like we had sniffed a whole jar of wasabi! It literally took our breath away, we could not breath and it burned all the way down our chest. This is because there is no oxygen as the yeast eats the mash. We were told ahead of time about this intense reaction but, count us as stupid because we just had to smell and see this for ourselves.

Do not put your face close to this vat. Trsut me!

On the 6th day of fermentation, the distiller’s beer is drained from the fermenter (cypress vats) and in turn goes into a beer well to ultimately be run through the distiller. Their distillers were made in Scotland (they might know a thing or two about making whiskey) and they actually have three distillers that they run their bourbon through. The first is Low Wine, the second and third is High Wine or White Dog (sounds like moonshine to me!). To read the complete description of how bourbon is made, you might want to check out this link .

There are three stills at Woodford Reserve

We are now going to drink some moonshine!

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