We’re used to this sort of thing in wine—the complicated interplay of spice and black fruit in a full-bodied cabernet, say, or that dance between earth and bright fruit and floral notes in a good pinot noir. But bourbon? For most of our lives, it seemed that one could count the flavor notes of Kentucky’s favorite spirit on one hand, maybe two: burnt caramel, oak, vanilla, maybe a few others.
These days, it’s another story entirely: top-end bourbons can boast over one hundred flavor points. Woodford Reserve, one of the most complex and balanced bourbons ever made, has over two-hundred individual flavor points. For the folks who make it, helping you sort out all those flavors—the blackberry from the rose petal, the anise from the black pepper—is as simple as, well, inventing the wheel.
“As a student of our industry, I had long admired the flavor wheels published by the wine, brewing, and scotch whiskey industries,” says Chris Morris, Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve Distillery. “But I was shocked that our industry did not have a flavor wheel. Sometime around 2002, I developed one for bourbon, based on good science and laboratory analysis of many bourbons, in an attempt to give people a window into an entire range of bourbon flavors.”
Morris’s innovation was immediately embraced across the bourbon industry, which was in the midst of a kind of revolution of refinement. “You know when you are tasting a flavor but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is?” says Tom Fischer, founder of bourbonblog.com. “The flavor wheel helps us put it into words.”
The Woodford Reserve flavor wheel is as balanced as the whiskey itself, with five primary spokes representing the five areas of flavor in bourbon: wood, grain, sweet aromatics, spice, and fruit & floral. Within each of those sections, there are a dozen or more individual congeners, such as blackberry, walnut, pecan, butterscotch, cinnamon and clove.
Why aren't all 200-plus flavor points that can been discerned in Woodford Reserve included? Well, for starters, it’s a flavor wheel, not an eye chart. “If I put all two hundred on there, you wouldn’t be able to read the thing,” says Morris. Plus, “a lot of them have chemical names that can be confusing for the average consumer.”
At first, Morris figured that his flavor wheel—available for free from the iTunes app store—would have little application beyond academic settings and the occasional tasting. Then, along with Woodford Reserve’s James Beard Award-nominated Chef-in-Residence Ouita Michel, Morris devised an ingenious way of opening up this world of flavor to the general public, by pairing Woodford’s bourbons and rye with foods that naturally accentuate the spirits’ individual flavors.
The bourbon and food pairings are something the Woodford Reserve folks feature in their Woodford County, Kentucky, distillery but can easily be recreated at home.
A chunk of parmigiano reggiano will bring out the spice character as well as several wood notes. A few sweetened dried cranberries takes you down a path of florals, fruits, and esters. Toasted hazelnuts wake up the wood and nut flavors. Dark chocolate calls up both spice and the sweet aromatics. A bite of orange brings out even more fruit, while a little bit of Kentucky sorghum pulls up yet another aspect of the bourbon’s wood character.
“People are surprised by the fact that, with the prompting of the wheel and the food, they can really taste the complexity of the bourbon and become a kind of miniature expert,” says Morris. “I don't think many people have on the top of their minds that a bourbon can be as fruity and spicy as Woodford is. That is a real revelation for most people.”
Just like you can trace your family’s impressive cheekbones to your great-grandma June’s side of the family, each one of those flavor points can be connected back to a single element or combination of elements employed in the unique process of crafting Woodford Reserve.
That blackberry flavor? Thank the fact that the crew at Woodford Reserve outdoor-age the White Oak it uses in the barrels they make in their cooperage. Those apple notes that register especially strongly in the nose come primarily from fermentation and are further developed and evolved during the bourbon’s unique-in-the-industry heat-cycled maturation process.
Similarly, those caramel flavors can be sourced first to malt, used as part of the mash (along with corn and rye), and then to its aging inbuilt-to-specification toasted, and then charred, White Oak barrels. The higher-than-industry-average content of rye in the mash is responsible for most of Woodford Reserve’s spice character.
Ask any bourbon expert what makes Woodford Reserve such a singular experience and they will tell you that it’s not merely the sheer number of flavors, but the way they balance together so perfectly: “Woodford has some signature characteristics that are all its own,” says bourbonblog.com’s Fischer, who hosts bourbon tastings throughout the country. “It’s a bourbon that, if you put it in a blind tasting, you can almost always identify it, because it is so singular. There is a really caramel, spicy and very luscious flavor to it. It is wonderfully unique experience, and that has everything to do with the way that they make it.”