Classification: Straight Bourbon Finished in Brandy Barrels
Distillery: Woodford Reserve / Brown-Forman Distillery
Released: November 2016
Mashbill: 72% Corn, 18% Rye, 10% Malted Barley
Every year, Brown-Forman’s Master Distiller Chris Morris releases a special edition of Woodford Reserve called the Master’s Collection. For each release, Morris changes some aspect of the whiskey making process (e.g. barrel type, finish, grain, fermentation process, aging location, style). The Brandy Cask Finish is the 11th release of the Master’s Collection.
For the 2016 Master’s Collection release, fully matured Woodford Reserve was finished for two years in used brandy barrels. According to Brown-Forman, “brandy, a spirit distilled from wine or fruit, is often aged in oak barrels. Unlike bourbon, brandy does not have the new, charred barrel requirement allowing their barrels to be used multiple times. Therefore, this release is technically not a bourbon but rather a finished whiskey.”
This is a one-time release.
Lush fruits instantly jump out the moment I bring the glass to my nose. Warm spiced cherries mingle with berry filled cobbler topped with a hint of cranberry. Cinnamon bark, baking chocolate, and hints of light oak form the base. The nose is very warm and inviting and makes me wish standard Woodford smelled this way.
It’s not as grain forward as standard Woodford Reserve, but instead has a quick burst of light berry sweetness that is followed by a drier oakier taste. It presents the usual thin mouthfeel I find in standard Woodford Reserve, however in this case, it’s an actual fault of this whiskey. It’s too delicate and in a way it feels like the whiskey is purposely trying to not coat my mouth. I feel I’m trying to wrestle this whiskey to even taste it, which is a bit of a shame since there are traces of good flavors here if only they could be pinned down easily.
While the nose and palate do a good job of helping highlight the brandy finishing on the whiskey, the finish reminds me more of a standard Woodford Reserve finish. Gone is the berry sweetness found in the nose and palate. Instead, a lingering buttery finish is present that provides a quick hit of green apple, hay, grass, and dried raisins before slowly mellowing out to light oak. It peters out into a drier astringent note, which almost ruins the whole experience. Thankfully whiskeys aren’t determined after just one sip. After sitting with it for a while and getting acclimated to it, the astringent note becomes less and less overpowering and more a slight flaw rather than something that really takes away from the experience.
Barrel finished whiskey seems to be all the rage with many distillers using it as a way to help launch new and unique products in the market. That said, barrel finished whiskeys aren’t anything new to the Woodford Master's Collection. Sometimes it’s worked well and sometimes it hasn’t, as was the case with the 2014 Woodford Master's Collection: Sonoma-Cutrer Finish. What makes this release more unique is the fact that they chose brandy barrels, a finishing type that is still rare to finish whiskey in.
Flavorwise, this year's Brandy Cask Finish delivered a pleasant surprise. The flavor profile is one solidly rooted in the Woodford’s lineage, but enhanced to pull a more fruit forward flavor profile vs the more predominant grain found in standard Woodford Reserve. While Woodford Reserve is usually nothing to write home about, the brandy finishing ever so slightly enhances it into a more exciting product. It may not blow you away, but in a side by side comparison to standard Woodford Reserve, it’s definitely a more pleasant drinking experience.
Credit should be given to Brown-Forman for keeping the price consistent for the Master’s Collection since its initial release. That said, a major downside to the Woodford Master's Collection has always been its price tag. Coming in at a $60+ premium over the standard Woodford MSRP, the Master’s Collection has offered an inconsistent experience from year to year making it difficult to justify the price.
While the whiskey in this year’s collection is actually enjoyable, it’s not spectacular enough to justify the price tag unlike recent additions to the barrel finished category; High West A Midwinter Night's Dram, 1792 Port Finish, or Angel's Envy Rye. Take 1792 Port Finish for example. It was also aged for two additional years, except in port barrels, but still offered up a great tasting experience for only $40. Maybe brandy barrels cost more to acquire, but surely the price difference isn’t enough to justify a $60 price differential.
While overpriced, this year's Woodford Master’s Collection offers a pleasant change of pace from recent lackluster releases.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for the Woodford Master's Collection. The 2005/2006 Four Grain Master’s Collection was released when I was still living in Kentucky and it was one of the first limited edition bottles I bought. Every year since, I’ve bought a bottle of the collection, with my expectation for the line slowly decreasing as the releases have become more and more lackluster over the years. This is to say that I went into this tasting with very low expectations.
Surprisingly, I’m walking away from my experience slightly pleased. Sure the whiskey in this year’s release isn’t mind-blowing, but it isn’t too bad either. It takes standard Woodford Reserve and pulls out more fruit-filled flavors than what you normally find. It may not be the best example of how barrel finishing can enhance a whiskey, but it’s at least much better than recent Master’s Collection releases. Here’s hoping that this sets a precedent for future releases and things start looking up for this series.
That said, while the bourbon market is on fire, and barrel finished products may be taking the market by storm, this is one product line that could greatly benefit from a reduction down to $70-$80 MSRP. Saying that it’s one of the better Master’s Collection releases in recent memory does nothing to justify the over inflated price tag. If you’re a huge fan of the Master’s Collection series or a big Woodford fan, you might be able to justify your purchase of this year’s release, but everyone else should realize you’re rolling the dice with this collection. That shouldn’t stop anyone from giving this year's release a shot, just know what you’re getting yourself into.
The sample used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Brown-Forman. We thank them for allowing us to review it with no strings attached.