Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Woodford Reserve Distillery / Brown-Forman Distillery
Release Date: December 2020
Mashbill: 72% Corn, 18% Rye, 10% Malted Barley
Color: Medium Amber
Price: $130 (2021)
According to Woodford Reserve, “this year’s expression marks the 15th release [contradictory to this, the bottle label states 16th release] of the Master’s Collection, which was created to honor the many discoveries and innovations that occurred at the 1812 distillery site where Woodford Reserve is now located. Starting with the 2020 edition, all future master’s collections will focus on modern innovation by [Master Distiller Chris] Morris and [Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth] McCall.”
While the bottle does not carry any reference to the age of bourbons used in the blend, the company press release and marketing materials state that the bourbon “includes liquid from barrels that are 17 years old and date to 2003,” indicating Morris and McCall have been “holding back the barrels to batch with other barrels for a special release.”
This release is also notable for the fact that the bottle design has changed from Woodford’s traditional pot still shaped bottle design, a nod to the pot stills used at Woodford Reserve Distillery. Instead, the new bottle represents the “classic and iconic flask-shaped Woodford bottle.”
Lively aromas of dark fruit, burnt brown sugar, vanilla, and tobacco marry with an underlying foundation of aged oak. The array of scents strikes a nice balance between its oak underpinnings and the sweeter aromatic notes. As a result, it’s quite inviting and enjoyable overall.
Sweet traditional flavors of caramel, vanilla, and honey intersect an infusion of baking spices. A light raisin note also mingles in. Like its aromas, this assembly of flavors floats above an ever-present foundation of aged oak. It presents with a medium body, and turns slightly dry as it transitions to the finish. This noticeably aged yet still lively presentation of flavors is delightful to sip.
The finish turns slightly dry, with layers of tobacco, leather, and brown sugar contrasted by developing spice. Aged oak continues to maintain its ever-present base, and the medium to long finish tapers off with a slight preference towards the developing spice making for a satisfying conclusion. From nose to palate and finish, the bourbon is quite true to its consistency and balance throughout.
Historically, Master’s Collection releases could often be characterized as unique and even experimental expressions, with unique barrel finishes and different mashbills being common. This particular expression contrasts many in the sense that it is the same mashbill, proof, and also does not have an age statement - no different than Woodford’s flagship Distiller’s Select Bourbon, a $35 readily-available ongoing release.
With Very Fine Rare Bourbon however, Woodford has included their oldest bourbon yet in this batch, a group of 17 year old barrels that had been held back to batch with other barrels for the release. While it’s not uncommon for companies to reference an age, or ages, of barrels used in a blend without disclosing percentages used, it is more common to reference the range of ages used even if exact percentages are not provided. This could be said of Four Roses’ annual Limited Edition Small Batch release, ongoing High West and Barrell Bourbon releases, and some of Wild Turkey’s releases, to name a few.
What’s a bit frustrating in this case is the fact that we only know there are 17 year old barrels in the blend. Based solely on the label, which makes no reference to age, in theory this could mean that only a small percentage are 17 years old, while the rest could be as young as 4 years. It’s a fine line to walk when it comes to a brand’s marketing strategy, though I would wager most who only skim the marketing materials might actually believe the bourbon is 17 years old. It took me a second read-through of the press release to realize it’s a blend of multiple ages, with an unknown number of barrels being 17 years old and the remainder being some other undisclosed age(s).
Label and marketing frustrations aside, the bourbon tastes quite good and certainly highlights its higher age component quite well. In fact, the balance between the higher age notes and the bright, lively notes is effective. Compared to the standard Distiller’s Select, the age is more amplified without compromising the brighter notes at all. Moreover, I often notice an unusual almost chemical-like flavor in the standard Distiller’s Select, which is (thankfully) completely absent from this Master’s Collection release.
In the greater landscape of limited releases, Woodford Master’s Collection is usually one of the easier to find at or near MSRP. At $130, what we have is a bourbon that does not have an age statement but does contain some amount of 17 year old bourbon, it’s released in a relatively limited quantity, and it sports an attractive new bottle design. Most importantly, it tastes quite good, greatly improving upon the company’s flagship Distiller’s Select. All in, I would certainly buy a bottle or two around MSRP, with specific intentions to open them up and enjoy them.
Woodford 2020 Master’s Collection Very Fine Rare Bourbon is a blend of bourbons aged as much as 17 years, offering a flavor profile that combines brighter notes with aged oak to satisfying results.
2020’s annual Master’s Collection release might represent a turning point for the brand. Traditionally one of the least sought after annually released limited editions from a major Kentucky distillery, the shift to a flavor profile that is sure to please most, eye-catching new bottle design, and of course including some 17 year old barrels in the mix is sure to turn heads. While a few bourbon enthusiasts who laser-focus on technicals will take issue with the non-specific reference to the 17 year old barrels included in the blend (myself included), most won’t give it a second thought. Instead, they’ll get a limited edition bourbon that looks, tastes, and feels a bit special...the way limited releases should. Thankfully, the flavor profile doesn’t disappoint.