Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Woodford Reserve's Reserve

The other week I received a call from one Mr Dan Woolley. Woolley is the manager at Star City's latest bar venture Rock Lily, but more than that - he's a man who knows his liquor and the biz. He told me he had a very special tasting for me to attend - the first of its kind in Australia no less. The catch? I needed to be ready to taste barrel proof spirits at Star City at 7:45am.

I'm very rarely functioning in any useful capacity before 10am on any given day, but Woolley isn't the sort of man you like to say no to - especially when he's this excited about a project. Fortunately I deemed the early start doable as thankfully I live right across the road from Casinoland

Bleary eyed, and with my usual criminally strong takeaway cup of Joe, I'm escorted through the inner workings of the Star City machine to a brightly lit board room. I was told we'd be doing a live cross with Chris Morris - the Master Distiller from Woodford Reserve Bourbon whiskey and sure enough there he is in his office in Kentucky waving at us from the other side of the world.

The eight barrel proof samples
We take a seat. In front of us lie eight Woodford Reserve full strength barrel samples with the same eight in front of Mr Morris. We are given the task of creating a special Woodford Reserve Private Selection blend for Star City - only the third time this has ever been done in the world with Woodford and an Australian first.

Before we get started Morris gives us an introduction to his Bourbon and warns us about the proof. Each of the samples, from various distillations from the 2004 distilling season, entered the barrels at 110 proof. Unlike Scotch whisky which gradually loses proof from the aging process Bourbon gains a significant amount of alcoholic strength. We're told that the minimum proof would now be at 118 (59% abv) but also go as high as 140. Despite this Morris insists that we avoid adding water at this stage.

"Forget the alcohol," he says. "We want your personal preference. If we add water at this stage you'd start to lose the characteristics that make each barrel unique." 

Thirsty work - cutting down eight samples to our favourite four
As it turns out each sample is worlds apart despite be distilled in exactly the same manner, with the same mash bill, entering the casks at the same strength each with exactly the same char level on the barrel. I'm astounded. The samples vary from marzipan, pecan and walnut dominated tones, to softer honey, tea and star anise like samples through to ballsy, banana and tropical fruit with spicy, chocolate and port like characters abound too.

I can see why Morris said: "Remember too that it's all about flavour and not age. Each barrel is a voice in the choir that is Woodford reserve." These barrels all of similar age have matured in completely different ways - often it's to do with where they're placed in the ageing warehouse. We've certainly got any number of possible harmonies to work with from the samples in front of us - and the first step was to eliminate four.

Samples 3, 4, 5, and 7 make the cut after a round of voting. I'm pleased as sample 4 which displayed loads of interesting characters like pecan pie, maple syrup, tobacco, leather and green nuts was one of my top picks as too was sample 7 - a bold, rich and high octane sample with a rich port, chocolate and a dried fruit like profile. From these four samples we had to create six different blends one of which would become Star City's Woodford Reserve Private Selection.

3 and 4 were both marzipan like samples and together they developed a toasted hazelnut and cookie dough like blend.

3 and 5 (being a the sample which displayed honey tea and star anise) produced a blend with peach and apricot flavours and aromas balanced by leather, tannins and creamy vanilla.

3 and 7 made a blend with almost Cognac-like fruit and spice characters.

4 and 5 developed a delicious combination of pecan, honey, black tea and stone fruit. My favourite blend so far.

4 and 7 offered stewed prunes, and a big chewy spirit with a lick of pipe tobacco.

Our final blend (5 and 7) - and ultimately the winner on the day - showed an interesting combination of rose petal and floral notes with ripe banana, heather and honey - the boldness of the number 7 sample perfectly offset by the more subtle notes of number 5. The decision to go with this sample was unanimous.
Here we are celebrating with our chosen blend
Morris informed us that these two barrels would be married together, proofed, diluted, filtered (through paper not charcoal or chill filtered) bottled and shipped over to Sydney. The last update I received from the Star City team is that this whiskey would be available in about six weeks.

I'm proud that I was able to be a part of creating this blend and will be popping into Rock Lily as soon as it arrives to give it a whirl. I highly recommend you do the same. 

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