By James Natsis
Woodford Reserve may very well be the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s most complete package — surrounded by horse farms snuggled in the luscious bluegrass of Versailles, easily accessible from a major interstate, boasting a historic campus with many buildings dating back to the 19th century, and maintaining a singular, quality trademark known to bourbon drinkers around the world.
Everything about the Woodford Reserve tour experience is a display of Kentucky at its most comfortable, confident and charmingly “belle.”
The Woodford story begins with a man named Elijah Pepper, who moved from his native Virginia to Kentucky circa 1797. In 1810, Pepper established his first distillery in Versailles behind the Woodford County Courthouse. In 1812, he acquired an expanse of land along Glenn’s Creek where he set up his first operation on the present Woodford Reserve location.
The oldest actively used distillery today was completed on the same grounds in 1840 by Elijah’s son, Oscar Pepper, and his master distiller, Dr. James C. Crow. It was during this period that Crow developed the sour mash process and other innovative methods. Crow’s legacy lives today through his namesake Old Crow bourbon that is produced as part of the Beam Suntory portfolio.
Woodford Reserve operated under several names over the years and eventually was sold to Brown-Forman in 1941. After a change of hands and an eventual complete closure, Brown-Forman repurchased the property and introduced the Woodford Reserve brand in 1996.
Brown-Forman recently completed extensive renovations and additions to improve its bottling line and enhance capacity, efficiency and productivity to the facility. The most notable change was the $1.9 million makeover of the 7,500-square-foot visitors center, which included a dedicated tasting room, updates to retail shops, new displays and other infrastructure improvements.
A standard tour of Woodford Reserve includes the essentials of the bourbon-making process — the grain composition, mashing and distilling, maturation/storage houses and bottling. Tours are large during the peak season, and our group consisted of the maximum 30 people.
The former bar area in the back of the pre-renovated visitors center now serves as a large tasting room that seats 30 guests. A glass each of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select and Double-Oaked Bourbon, a Ruth Hunt Candies Bourbon Ball and a tasting wheel await guests as they file in for the tour’s finale. Guests receive a tutorial in proper nosing technique before tasting each of the two bourbons in three small sips.
The newly renovated visitors center has a rural vacation lodge ambience that entices guests to hang around after the tour to browse and have a beverage or a bite to eat. The building’s exterior also is alluring, and a stroll around the historic structure and the well-landscaped grounds is a must during warmer months.
The overall environment of Woodford makes one want to mingle with others who have come together for the common experience of bourbon.
Just in my short time there, I met a group of French friends on a bachelor party escapade, a trio on motorcycles from Wisconsin stopping off to visit a Kentucky friend, a couple from West Virginia on a weekend getaway, a carload of buddies from Montreal visiting a friend in the area, a sibling from Colorado Springs visiting a brother in Lexington, and many others.
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999, and Woodford is one of nine legendary member distilleries. In 2012, the KDA added a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour to showcase the state’s burgeoning craft distilling industry. Total attendance for Bourbon Trail distilleries has continually grown and reached an all-time high of nearly 900,000 guests in 2015. Woodford Reserve has enjoyed consistent visitation growth as part of this trend.
Woodford Reserve offers tours seven day a week except on certain holidays. Tickets for the standard one-hour tour are $14 per person for those 21 years of age and older (under 21 is free). The staff recommends reserving in advance for weekend tours. The more in-depth, reservation-only “Corn to Cork” and “National Historic Landmark” tours last two hours and cost $30 per person.
About the author: James Natsis, Ph.D, is a history professor at West Virginia State University in Charleston, W.V., though he resides in Louisville most of the time. Natsis is a world traveler and former Peace Corps volunteer.