Spirit of the Month November ’17 – Woodford Reserve Cherry Wood Smoked Barley Bourbon

Depending on which bar you’re in, Woodford Reserve is either as good as it gets or a dependable, quality pour. Either way, the brand has earned itself a veritable following for those who think whatever’s in the well tastes like glorified gasoline. That is, Woodford Reserve is not the kind of whisky you drown in soda–it’s the kind of whisky you want to taste with every sip. The name has in fact become so synonymous with classic bourbon that you’d be forgiven for not realising it didn’t enter the stage until 1996 (though the brand’s history goes back much further).

woodford reserve cherry wood upper view

In addition to their standard and even special fare, Woodford Reserve isn’t afraid to get old school or experimental once a year. Enter the Master’s Collection, where the distillery steps outside the box to see what kind of flavours it can extract from a variety of recipes and methods. Among the range of limited edition offerings is Woodford Reserve’s Cherry Wood Smoked Barley bourbon. We gave it a taste and then made it our Spirit of the Month for November 2017. Read on for some brand history and tasting notes.

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history of woodford reserve


Drive eight miles outside of Versailles in north-central Kentucky, and you’ll find Woodford Reserve Distillery nestled amidst the rolling hills and farmland. On that very same land in 1812, a man named Elijah Pepper began making whisky under the name Oscar Pepper Distillery. Pepper’s, and by extension Kentucky’s, bourbon received a substantial boost when master distiller Dr. James Crow entered the picture. A champion of his craft, Crow introduced a series of revolutionary techniques and methods that undeniably improved the quality of output. It was Crow who discovered sour mash fermentation, a method still employed to this day in the bourbon industry. Meanwhile, the distillery itself remains one of the oldest and smallest in all of Kentucky, complete with National Historic Landmark status.

make process woodford reserve

The distillery stayed in the hands of the Pepper family until 1941. That’s when they sold it to the Brown-Forman Corporation. The Brown-Forman Corportation would actually end up selling the property in 1971, and then re-buying it in 1993. By 1996, the name Woodford Reserve was in play. Nowadays, the brand is ubiquitous, and certainly a benefactor of the 21st century resurgence in whisky appreciation.

woodford reserve company logo

Meanwhile, James Crow’s name still looms large over the brand’s legacy. Likewise, the distillery stands as a testament to the timeless ritual of quality bourbon making, the Master’s Collection in particular relying heavily on old school practices. Inside the distillery you’ll find a 500-foot-long gravity-fed barrel run, copper pot stills, 100-year-old cypress wood fermenters and one of the only heat cycled barrelhouses in the world. The result is a tier of character, colour and distinction that pretty much speaks for itself.


original woodford reserve front view


Named for Dr. James Crow, the Master’s Collection is Woodford Reserve’s chance to ply their craft the old-fashioned way. On the Cherry Wood Smoked Barley statement, that means using not just some of Crow’s methods, but cranking up the dial on barley, one of Crow’s go-to ingredients. As such, Cherry Wood Smoked Barley whisky touts a mashbill with 30% malted barley, much higher than most bourbons. To deliver even deeper, richer and smokier flavours, the malted barley was exposed to cherry wood smoke during the kilning process.

woodford reserve store view

Thanks to the experimental treatment, Woodford Reserve Cherry Wood Smoked Barley bourbon is a dynamic beast. In fact, throughout the course of a whole bottle it was difficult to say any two sips were identical. On some tastings, cherry pie sweetness dominated while ingredients like barley seemed somewhat muted. On other tastings, smoke and barley exploded on the finish. That said, the whisky was by no means inconsistent–rather layered enough to diversify depending on what was going in my mouth at the time. Here’s a breakdown:

Nose: At first whiff there comes a warm, full-bodied blend of fruit and spice. Think cherry pie, spicy fruit punch and maybe even baked banana bread. Meanwhile, a pleasantly funky barley and wood element runs underneath the sweet surface.

Taste: Notes of cherry roll over the tongue, coupled with spice that’s powerful enough to tingle the lips. Also present are notes of barley, smoked almond, oak and caramel. Some sips were mellow, others bold.

Finish: On some sips, the finish was long-lasting and somewhat bitter, while other sips yielded a balanced bouquet of almond, spice, barley, chocolate and coffee. A spicy, oaky, rye-like quality lingers.

woodford reserve cherry wood plain glass bottle

Complex, versatile and satisfying, Cherry Wood Smoked Barley is the kind of whisky that needs to be explored one glass at a time. When firing on all cylinders, the notes quietly climax on the palate. On other occasions, the bourbon is classic and wonderfully pungent, but slightly offset by a bitter finish. Present on virtually every pour, however, was that spicy cherry pie essence joined by oscillating notes of smoke, wood and barley. Don’t be turned off by the experimental name. Woodford Reserve Cherry Wood Smoked Barley gets creative, but not to the point of straying too far from familiar and dependable terrain.

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Spirit of the Month August ’17 – Crystal Head Aurora Vodka
Spirit of the Month October ’17 – Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon
Spirit of the Month September ’17 – Corralejo Tequila Reposado