Many of the big bourbon brands find themselves with roots of generations of distillers or a brand that had ties to the early days of bourbon, but the story of Woodford Reserve is unique. It is a new brand, owned by a company with pre-Prohibition roots that distills in a historic distillery. Being a relatively newer brand does not take away from the history that the company has made and will continue to make as it has become a highly successful brand in the bourbon industry and available on almost all liquor stores’ shelves.
In 1996 Brown-Forman introduced the world to Woodford Reserve. Brown-Forman was a company that was very familiar with the bourbon industry and a long history of success. Brown-Forman got its start in the whiskey industry long before the opening of Woodford Reserve and was a well-established company by its opening. George Garvin Brown and his half-brother John Thompson Street Brown, Jr. started out with $5,500 and founded J.T.S. Brown & Brother. John Jr. was the older of the two brothers and was born on Monday June 8, 1829 in Hart County, Kentucky to John Thompson Brown Sr. and Elizabeth Creel Brown. Elizabeth was John Thompson Street Brown’s first spouse. John Sr.’s second marriage was to Mary Garvin Brown and together they had George on Wednesday September 2, 1846 in Munfordville, Kentucky. Together they created the brand Old Forester in 1870. Old Forester is known for starting an important movement in the bourbon industry by being the first bottled bourbon on the market. The company was formed with quality in mind and wanted to ensure it. The bottles would be sealed with the signature of personal guarantee of quality from the Brown brothers. In the early days of Old Forrester the brothers did not distill their own products. They frequently purchased stock from Mattingly Distillery, Mellwood Distillery and Atherton Distillery. They would take these barrels of whiskey and blend them together, proof down to 90 proof and then bottle the distillate.
After just a few years of being in business, J.T.S. Brown Jr. decided to leave the company and start his own venture, JTS Brown and Sons. In 1873 after the departure of his brother, George went to his old employer, Henry Chambers. Henry bought into the company and it became known as Brown, Chambers and Company. In 1876 George reached out to his cousin, James Thompson, who was from Ireland to join the firm. In 1881 Henry retired from the business and the firm became known as Brown-Thompson. In 1890, James left the firm to start his own company, James Thompson & Bro., with his brother Frank. James sold his shares of Brown-Thompson to the company’s accountant, George Forman. In 1901 the Brown-Forman name was officially incorporated and to this day the company still goes by that name. In 1901 George Forman passed away and his ownership in the company was purchased by George Brown. Brown-Forman went on to purchase their own distillery to begin their own distillation, obtain a license to produce whiskey during American Prohibition and purchase the Early Times Distillery and Jack Daniel’s Distillery.
Although the Woodford Reserve distillate is new, the distillery it is produced at holds centuries of history within its walls. The distillery was first built in 1812 along the Glenns Creek in Versailles, Kentucky by Elijah Pepper. The Pepper family had several generations of distillery knowhow and was a very influential family in the bourbon and rye industry. Elijah was born on Monday December 8, 1760 to Samuel C. Pepper, Sr. and Elizabeth Ann “Lady” Holton Pepper in Culpeper, Virginia. He married Sarah Neville O’Bannon and together they had eight children: Presley, Oscar, Elizabeth, Samuel, Nancy, Amanda, William and Matilda. Sarah was born on Monday September 17, 1770 to Captain William O’Bannon and Presley Neville O’Bannon. Around 1780 Elijah first began distilling in Virginia, starting the generational distilling tradition in the Pepper family. Around 1790, the Pepper family along with Sarah’s brother, John O’Bannon, traveled to Kentucky settling around the area known today as Versailles.
After settling down, Elijah and John built a small distillery near a spring around the town’s courthouse and began producing whiskey. In 1812 Elijah was able to open a new distillery on a tract of land near Glenns Creek in Versailles which is the home of Woodford Reserve. On this land he also constructed a log cabin to move his family into. Elijah ran the distillery operations until his death. His actual date of death is up for debate as there are many varying dates, however we can pinpoint it to around the 1830’s. A couple days before his death Elijah’s will was drawn up and to his wife he left most of his assets including the distillery and his slaves. Despite inheriting the distillery, Sarah did not have the interest in it, so her son Oscar began to run the operation.
Oscar Neville Pepper was born on Thursday October 12, 1809. He married Nancy Ann “Nannie” Edwards in 1845 and the two had six children: James, Ada, Mary, Oscar, Dixie and Thomas. Oscar is credited with taking his father’s business and growing it. One of the greatest additions to the family business was the hiring of Dr. James Crow. Dr. James Christopher “Jim” Crow was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1789. He studied chemistry and medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland and graduated in 1822. After his graduation he emigrated to the United States of America. He first settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania only staying there for a brief period of time before moving to Kentucky. He began working at Glenns Creek Distillery. Here he was able to start putting some of his knowledge of science to the test on the distillation of alcohol. He began to measure the acidity of the mash with litmus paper, measure sugar content with a saccharometer and perfecting using the sour mash technique. Dr. Crow did not create the sour mash process, but he is known for perfecting it by applying his science knowledge to it. Sour mashing is the process of taking some of the leftover backset from a previous batch of mash and including it in the current mash. This practice helps to encourage a good fermentation process and help prevent the growth of bad bacteria.
During the 1830’s Dr. Crow took his talent and joined the Pepper family as their distiller. Here at the distillery the legendary Old Crow brand was born and distilled. Formulated by Crow himself, the brand turned into a very popular choice for many bourbon consumers. The distillery ran under Oscar’s control until his death in 1867. Oscar was buried at the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. The distillery was to be inherited by his son James, however at the time James was just a minor so he could not take ownership of the distillery, instead Nancy was to be the owner until he became of age. James E. Pepper was born on Saturday May 18, 1850. Eventually James would take his mother to court for the ownership. James was taken under the wing of the legendary Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor, Jr. E.H. Taylor Jr. at the time was already successful in the liquor industry and was a good friend of the Pepper family. He became James’s guardian after Oscar’s death and was going to help him with his family’s distillery business.
James and Colonel Taylor Jr. were successful in gaining ownership of the distillery. James wanted to expand the operations of the company, so the Colonel helped him secure financing to make the expansions. With the borrowing of money comes the necessity to repay the debts. Taylor had intertwined the debts of James Pepper with his own, and soon the Colonel hit financial troubles. Taylor Jr. had also been improving his Old Fire Copper Distillery on credit and became unable to repay the debts. His debts were purchased by a St. Louis, Missouri liquor firm Gregory and Stagg. The firm that was taking over Edmund’s whiskey ventures was made up of James Gregory and the legendary George Thomas Stagg. As a payment for his debts, Taylor Jr. sold his ownership in his distillery and the Oscar Pepper Distillery went up for sale. The distillery was purchased by James Graham and Leopold Labrot in 1878 and the distillery was renamed Labrot and Graham Distillery. Just as quick as James gained his family distillery, he lost it.
The Labrot and Graham Distillery operated successfully until the beginning of Prohibition in the United States. Like many distilleries, the Prohibition of alcohol production crippled the distillery. It was shut down during the years of Prohibition and reopened once it was repealed in 1933. Brown-Forman purchased the Labrot and Graham Distillery in 1941. However, World War II was approaching and many distilleries had to cease production again, but this time to save resources to produce products to aid in the war efforts. By 1959 the bourbon industry was in a downturn and Brown-Forman sold the distillery to a farmer. A little over three decades after the farmer purchased the distillery, Brown-Forman purchased the distillery back in 1993 and began to restore it for the opening of Woodford Reserve.
When production of Woodford Reserve first began it was under the direction of its first master distiller, Lincoln Henderson. Lincoln was born on Tuesday May 24, 1938. During his childhood he would have lived in various parts of the country including Wisconsin, Alaska, Oklahoma, Kansas and North Carolina all before settling in Kentucky. He had aspirations of being a doctor so he started to study pre-med at the University of Louisville. In 1964, while still in college, he married Cecilia and the two would eventually have two children: Wesley and Stacey. The following year he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry. However, his dreams of becoming a doctor were dwindling as he was losing passion for the profession and decided he did not want to attend graduate school for medicine. He would later attend graduate school and earn his Master’s Degree but instead in Business Administration from Webster University in Missouri.
With a chemistry degree and dreams of practicing medicine forgotten, he found work at Brown-Forman working in the labs. He would work through the ranks working in many roles including grain chemist, distillery manager trainee, organoleptic chemist and sensory evaluation management. His tenure in the Brown-Forman labs allowed him to work with and help develop many notable products such as Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack and some of the Early Times offerings. In 1996 when Woodford Reserve was opened he was given the ultimate title of master distiller of the company. Lincoln held this role until 2003 and ultimately retired in 2004. After Lincoln’s retirement, he would help his son Wesley and grandson Kyle begin Angel’s Envy in 2006. Lincoln died Tuesday September 10, 2013.
With a big role to fill, the title of the company’s second master distiller was given to Chris Morris. Chris had started working for Brown-Forman in 1976 as a trainee in their lab while still attending college. In 1980 he graduated from Bellarmine University located in Louisville, Kentucky with a business degree. After his graduation he began working full time at Brown-Forman. In 1988 he left Brown-Forman and worked at Glenmore Distilleries Company. He decided to return to Brown-Forman in 1997 and began working as assistant master distiller working directly with Lincoln Henderson. Under his tenure he introduced Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection in 2005. This collection features a limited production of experimental and rare whiskey. In 2012 Woodford Reserve Double Oaked was introduced to the market. The Double Oaked offering takes the traditional offering from Woodford Reserve to the next level by maturing the distillate even further in a second barrel for a year. After aging in its original barrel, the bourbon is then transferred to a separate brand new toasted and charred barrel. The addition of the new barrel and the new oak transforms the traditional bourbon into one that boasts of chocolate, toasted oak, marzipan, caramel, honey and rich dark fruit on the nose. The palate brings notes of apple, fruit, hazelnut, caramel, spices and vanilla. Woodford Reserve also offers a Double Double Oaked version where the bourbon spends two years aging in its secondary bottle.
Chris Morris continued to introduce products to the growing line again in 2015 by introducing the Woodford Reserve Rye. The mash bill is made up of 53% rye, just barely meeting the required percentage of rye to be considered a rye which is 51%. The rye adds additional notes of spice, black pepper, pear, apple, cedar, almond, and marzipan on the nose. The spice continues on the palate along with honey, apple, clove, mint, molasses and malt.
The traditional Woodford Reserve mash bill is comprised of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley. The recipe is mashed with water that comes from limestone deposits located below the distillery. After fermenting the mixture is distilled on both pot and column stills undergoing three separate distillations. The barrels are filled with the unaged bourbon and then placed in heat cycled warehouses to age. By Woodford Reserve using heat cycling in their warehouses it allows them to heat and cool their warehouses when necessary, adding to additional aging times during the winter months where aging may be more stagnant. Higher heat drives the distillate deep into the wood bringing out more of the barrel characteristics, while colder temperatures make the distillate retreat out of the wood. The cycles of being warm then cool allows for the distillate to go in and out of the wood, thus progressing the aging process. In the months that are normally very cold the warehouses are able to heat up the temperature mimicking warmer weather and then turn it off allowing the temperature to cool back down.
Over the years Woodford Reserve has made a name for itself in the bourbon industry as it creates new school bourbon inside a historic distillery. Brown-Forman’s presence in the bourbon industry is unmatched, so whether it’s one of their brands that have been around since the early days or one of their more recent companies, there is no doubt that they have the experience in making great bourbon. So the next time you sit down and have a pour of Woodford Reserve you are drinking more than just what is in your glass, you are sipping history.