The Surprising Versatility of Bourbon

Parmesan? Sorghum? Who knew? Woodford Reserve's master taster gets ambitious with the pairings.

(Peter Lawrence Kane)

Woodford Reserve master taster Elizabeth O’Neill McCall is getting over a slight cold. She blames this ailment on a recent vacation to Antigua where there was no bourbon to be found.

“They did not have Woodford at our resort, so I was forced to drink rum and I got sick.”

We’re doing penance in the form of a bourbon tasting on a Wednesday at Cafe Flore in the Castro. McCall — who is also the company’s senior quality-control specialist — observes that in spite of the 20-year-old brand’s success, the name “Woodford Reserve” was originally something of a cipher.

“It was just a placeholder name for whatever was going to come along,” she says. “And Woodford just kept doing better. It just keeps growing.”

Bourbon isn’t often thought to enhance the flavor of food in any significant way, but out in Kentucky horse country next to the farm where Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred American Pharaoh lives under even tighter security than any pot stills, the distillery’s James Beard-nominated chef wants to change that perception. So, armed with a handy chart in the shape of a tasting wheel, McCall is walking me through some of the more distinct pairings.

Because Kentucky sits on a foundation of limestone, its water is mineral-rich, and because Woodford uses a proprietary strain of yeast trained for a longer fermentation (five to seven days, as opposed to the standard three), McCall and her team can extract more flavors than the average bourbon.

“It tastes like banana nut bread,” she says of the freshly fermented, unaged product. “And Juicy Fruit gum.”

As maturation in American white oak barrels provides 60 to 80 percent of the eventual bourbon’s flavor, the comparisons to gum stop there. Keeping the heat on high pulls whiskey into the wood, and the result is, McCall claims, the world’s most balanced, complex bourbon. It’s made with the intention of providing something for every palate preference.

“If you like Scotch, you’re going to find something in Woodford you like,” she says. “You can’t ever say you don’t like Woodford.”

Elizabeth O'Neill McCall (Woodford Reserve)
Elizabeth O’Neill McCall (Woodford Reserve)

 

The distillery is always experimenting, however. Since it’s easier to tinker with barrels than it is to formulate a new grain recipe from scratch — and since Woodford maintains its own cooperage — its suite of spirits mostly uses standard Woodford Reserve as a base from which to modify things during the aging process. The Master’s Collection, for instance, uses different barrels every year. It’s been Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the past, and this year’s version is brandy-finished. (That trait makes it a whiskey, not a bourbon.) But assuming they continue to keep everything a one-off, changing things up will only require more creativity as time goes on.

“I look to the future when I have to carry on Master’s Collections 20 years from now,” McCall says. “How am I going to keep coming up with something new? We’re not going to change the water, we’re not going to change the yeast or our distillation method — so it’s basically grain or maturation.”

Speculation is always fun, but the tasting accoutrements are spread out before us. So we get to work, starting with Parmesan cheese, which easily takes over one’s palate. Knowing how much sweetness and vanilla is in bourbon, I’m a little wary.

“Fat in the cheese coats your tongue and softens the alcohol,” McCall says. “It’s salty. You can do whole cheese pairings with Woodford.”

Next comes hazelnut, which plays up the sweetness with notes of caramel and spices.

“I always get peanut butter,” McCall says, although I get caramel and toffee.

Calling today “the best day of this cranberry’s life,” because its high acidity gets the juices flowing and brings out the fruitiness quotient, McCall says that raspberry, strawberry, and a jam flavor are what to look for.

“It goes really nicely with the brandy finish,” she says. “There’s so much fruit, it really makes it pop.”

Dark chocolate is more mysterious, as the Woodford seeks out the coffee and rich mocha flavors of the cacao instead of the sweetness. (My new guru suggests seeking out chocolate-covered espresso beans.) But the most fun is the two-part orange experiment, flesh and peel. The flesh is obvious: You’re going to get citrus, largely grapefruit. But the peel half is a little more cerebral. They could not be more distinct, in fact.

“I always feel like this is really attractive,” McCall says, deflecting any possible embarrassment should anyone observe us expressing oils into our open mouths or rubbing it against our teeth like peel fiends.

“They just flood your nose,” she says of the orange oils. “It makes me think of an Old Fashioned. It highlights why the garnish is important.”

To wrap it up, we spoon a little Kentucky sorghum into our mouths. Caramel-forward and a little grassy, you can use it to make your own simple syrup — for a mint julep, say — and McCall claims its smoothness enhances “everything Woodford has to offer.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever had sorghum paired with anything, and at this point, I wonder what foods wouldn’t play nicely with bourbon. Broccoli, she says. Bold vegetables. Anything astringent.

And while the Double-Oaked, a pricier variant of Woodford Reserve’s base model, would probably strike most novices as something advanced, McCall disputes that. It’s deliberately out of balance, she says, to play up the butterscotch, brown sugar, and vanilla. You might call it a gateway bourbon.

When not tethering it to tasty nibbles as part of a tasting, how would she, a trained professional who consumes it almost every day, drink this bourbon? It wouldn’t be politic of her to encourage adulteration into a cocktail, but McCall doesn’t necessarily recommend having it neat, either.

“I love a big ice cube,” she says. “Letting that melt, it subtly changes. I would say if you’re still enjoying a bourbon the more watered down it gets, you’ve got a good bourbon.”

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