Breakfast With a Bourbon Expert
Chris Morris is sipping coffee at the bar. It's dark and sleepy at 9:30 am inside the Downing Street Pub, a cigar-and-mustache type of place where an imposing rack of whiskey takes up most of the back wall.
Morris jumps behind the bar like he owns it and grabs three bottles of bourbon, which he made himself: the regular Woodford Reserve and two bottled just for the pub.
The master distiller at Woodford, Morris's liquor palate ranks among the best in the world. He is one of the few American judges at the annual International Wine & Spirit Competition in London. He's also the only American distiller to receive the title of "Keeper of the Quaich" [a shallow drinking bowl with two handles] by the Scotch Whisky Association.
Woodford Reserve is a blended bourbon; separate barrels with distinct tastes are mixed together into a uniform one. Morris is mostly able to accomplish this by taste, smell and feel alone.
"Our equipment consists of a clock, a thermometer, a hydrometer and our senses," he says.
From a brown leather couch near a window in front, Morris lines up the three bottles and three corresponding glasses of bourbon. He grabs the first glass, the regular blend, and "noses it" like any wine connoisseur. Morris says the smell and taste of a good bourbon should correspond with the five main aspects of its creation.
Grains: Woodford uses all Kentucky corn. Its recipe also calls for a good deal of rye. This mixture is called the mash.
Woodford uses its own source of limestone water throughout.
Woodford also has its own brand of yeast for the fermenting process, which lasts twice as long as that at any other bourbon distillery, Morris says.
The fermented mash is then distilled using copper pots.
Finally, the whiskey spends years in barrels made of toasted and charred wood. Woodford blends its bourbon based on taste alone, so barrels of various ages can be combined. Heating the glass with the palm of your hand helps release the subtle flavors (ice, Morris warns, can stifle them). As his first glass warms, he detects orange and citrus, followed by a hint of toffee.
"And then the wood starts coming in," he says, and takes a sip. The process should replicate in your mouth.
Woodford does not release a single-barrel whiskey -- except to clients who travel to its distillery in central Kentucky and pick the barrels themselves, as three people from Downing Street did to get the two distinct bourbons. Downing Street One is very subtle. No. 2, meanwhile, is bolder and heavier on the oak -- "Full throttle. Full power," Morris says -- but with a very soft finish.
Downing Street is one of two clients in Texas with personally selected bourbon from Woodford (the other is the Houston location of Pappas Brothers Steakhouse).
Stephen Sanders, who works for Woodford, escorted the Downing Street crew during their visit and helped with the selection. Morris says he acted as referee.
"You get four guys who are passionate about whiskey, and there are some strong opinions in there," Sanders says.
The selection process involves a lot of sampling -- and, usually, spitting. Morris remembers one group of clients who drank every glass.
"Boy, we had to carry them out of there," he says.
A typical day at the distillery is simple and relaxing -- distills are heated and cooled, barrels are sampled. Some barrels might taste strongly like coffee beans, or orange liqueur -- or Morris might come across what he calls a "Snickers-bar barrel". The ones that go bad (usually from diseased wood) are sold to alcohol reclamation plants for use in pharmaceuticals.
Only ten people work in the 170-year-old building, and Morris says some days he might not see anyone but the cats. If it's nice outside he might throw a fishing line in the water out back. The distillery sits in the heart of thoroughbred country.
Morris grew up with bourbon. His mother and father both worked for Brown-Forman, Woodford's parent company. At 18 he started in its intern program. When master distiller Lincoln Henderson started what would become the Woodford brand in the mid-nineties, Morris went with him. He eventually became Henderson's successor.
"I really didn't have a choice," he says of his whiskey career. "My father told me, 'You're starting tomorrow.' And I'm glad I didn't have a choice, because I wouldn't want it any other way."
Video shot by Craig Hlavaty
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