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Getting a whiskey education from Brown-Forman’s master distiller

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Woodford Reserve Double Oaked debuted about two years ago, and it’s already the second best-selling American whiskey over $50.

The Brown-Forman Corporation, a major force in the whiskey world, prides itself on firsts. And for one evening at the Palazzo’s Lavo, master distiller Chris Morris showed how the company continues to explore new territory.

Morris, master distiller at Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve distillery in Kentucky, held court last Wednesday night, educating those in attendance about Brown-Forman’s history, its mission, and where’s it’s going. Along the way, everyone sampled from the corporation’s plentiful options, including Woodford Reserve’s Double Oaked, Straight Malt and Classic Malt, Old Forester, and Collingwood, a Canadian whiskey.

“First off, we don’t buy or sell whiskey to anyone,” Morris said with great pride. Indeed, the bourbon world is increasingly becoming one in which stocks are bought, or “sourced,” from other distilleries and sold under a different label.

The number of firsts for Brown-Forman is impressive. Founder George Garvin Brown was the first man to bottle bourbon in America in 1870 (Old Forester, named after one of his customers); he was the first to advertise whiskey; and Brown-Forman was the first company to offer a single-barrel expression. And Brown-Forman is the only whiskey company that makes its own barrels, Morris says.

The company makes Jack Daniel’s, the best-selling American whiskey on the planet, so it could easily rest on its laurels, but Morris says the company is always looking for ways to accommodate as many consumers as possible. For example, the Woodford Double Oaked was a response to the fact that more drinkers are buying expensive products. It starts as fully matured Woodford Reserve, and is then put in new double-oaked barrels, charred like cognac barrels. Its warehouses are heated in winter, and the result is a 90.4-proof product that is 40 percent darker than Woodford Reserve.

The Double Oaked launched in March of 2012, and the company sold out in three months. Morris says it is now the second best-selling American whiskey above $50 (Booker’s is number one).

The Master’s Collection, which includes the Straight Malt and Classic Malt, was a response to bourbon writers saying that bourbon was in a corner—that it can’t go anywhere like Scotch can. “That ticked us off,” Morris says. Brown-Forman’s limited-edition products since that statement include a Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish (Chardonnay barrels), Sweet Mash, Seasoned Oak, Maple Wood Finish and more.

Both the Straight and Classic malts were a unique tasting experience—not quite bourbon, not quite Scotch. Both had a pleasant sweetness, with the Straight Malt hinting at cocoa and fudge and the Classic Malt having more of a shortbread character. Both have one thing in common—you will probably have a tough time finding them.

Morris says the next in the Master’s Collection series will be something similar to the Sonoma Cutrer, but in pinot noir barrels.

One of the evening’s highlights was tasting the Collingwood Canadian whiskey, a product of the Canadian Mist distillery, which Brown-Forman purchased in 1971 (It is now the longest-running Canadian whiskey producer). Collingwood is produced with grain and a maplewood mellowing process. It’s triple-distilled and then matured in white oak barrels. It’s got a tang of Irish whiskey, sharp with some fruit. It’s not currently available in Nevada, but Morris assures that it should be soon.

To cap off the evening, everyone was served a Manhattan using the Collingwood whiskey. For a company founded on innovation, finishing off with something so traditional seemed oddly appropriate.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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