Woodford Reserve is to whiskey, what Churchill Downs is to horse racing. It’s hard to talk about one without discussing the other and they both represent the pinnacle of Kentuckian quality and ingenuity. As Assistant Master Distiller, Elizabeth McCall is one of the Versailles-based brand’s most impactful characters.
We sat down with McCall to get a better understanding of what is involved in her role as Assistant Master Distiller, how her background shaped her career, and to get a more insightful view of the inner workings of a Kentucky legend, Woodford Reserve.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, can you tell us about your first experience with whiskey and how that moment shaped how you approach Woodford Reserve?
Elizabeth McCall: The first time I consumed whiskey on the rocks, not as a cocktail or with a mixer, just pure bourbon goodness and ice was with Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. It helped me understand that whiskey should be something that is enjoyable on it’s own but also have the ability to stand out in a cocktail. The flavor of the whiskey should be complex and interesting to your palate. It should take you on a flavor journey from nose to finish. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked does just that. It draws you in with its sweet aromatic nose, keeps your palate interested with its multitude of flavors and leaves you excited to take your next sip.
SZ: How did you get into whiskey and make your way into the Assistant Master Distiller position?
EM: When I was getting ready to graduate from graduate school at the University of Louisville and looking for jobs, I was told about an open position in the Research & Development Sensory Group at Brown-Forman. I thought that sounded like a job I might enjoy. I submitted my resume, interviewed, and landed the position. As a new Sensory Technician for quality control taste testing, the main focus of my job was washing dishes, setting up tasting panels, entering data, and writing reports. I was promoted to Associate Sensory Scientist, still focusing on quality control taste testing. I traveled to each of our global production facilities to train our teams on our sensory methods, how to pick up defects, and how to properly nose and taste. In 2014, I took an internal class on spirits, where I made a positive impression on our Master Distiller Chris Morris. Unbeknown to me, he was looking for someone to train to be a Master Taster. A few months later, Chris asked if I wanted to train for the role. I said, yes, of course! That’s where the journey to my current role really began. In January 2016, I was promoted to the role of Sr. Quality Control Specialist and Master Taster for Woodford Reserve. I gained invaluable production experience in this role. In February of 2018, I was named Assistant Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve.
SZ: What does an Assistant Master Distiller do and how do you impact the final whiskey that ends up in bottles?
EM: As an Assistant Master Distiller I feel that I have 4 main areas of responsibility; innovation, quality, brand ambassadorship, and development. My role in innovation is to work with Chris Morris and our innovation team on developing future Master’s Collections and Distillery Series. I lead this team and make sure we are meeting the necessary deadline and sometimes I go rogue, under the guidance of our master distiller, and create unique whiskies using local grains or changing up the grain recipe. When it comes to quality, not only is the brand’s reputation on the line but my reputation as well as Chris Morris’s reputation is on the line. If the whiskey doesn’t meet the gold standard set by myself and Chris then we have to figure out what is wrong and deal with the negative feedback, if there is any. Brand ambassadorship, another major part of my job, is sharing the Woodford story with consumers, media, trade, etc. I love sharing how we make our whiskey and taking Woodford fans through tastings of our different expressions. Nothing makes me happier than helping someone who was a whiskey skeptic learn how to enjoy a glass of Woodford. Development is all about learning and training to one day hold the title of Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve. I appreciate the fact that Chris Morris has laid a development plan to become a master distiller, it’s not just a job you apply for, it’s a job you earn and develop into over many years…like our whiskey.
SZ: You work a lot in R&D and on the development of new products within Woodford Reserve. How do you approach concepting a new release?
EM: When I am concepting a new release, it really just starts out with dreaming. I spend time thinking about flavor and how to bring interesting flavors to life through the whiskey making process. I may also use history to help shape these ideas or even look at whiskey trends. The problem with looking at current trends is that I’m making a product that won’t even enter a bottle for another 5 years minimum. I also lean on my relationships with local farmers to see what interesting grains I can grow with them to create unique whiskies.
SZ: What do you look for in a barrel when you start putting together a new expression?
EM: When I am starting to put together a new expression I first decide what I want the expression to be, what area of flavor, or flavors, do I want to bring to life. Then I get to tasting the individual barrels to see what their personalities are, next I batch them together until I find the batch that expresses the profile I’m looking for. It’s a tough job having to taste through all the samples but I enjoy the challenge.
SZ: What’s your favorite bottle of Woodford Reserve? Why?
EM: I have a soft spot for our Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, it’s the friendliest “hello” you’ll ever get from a bourbon whiskey. It’s caramel butterscotch nose is enticing and the flavor tantalizes your tongue, while the long finish hangs out like an old friend. You just can’t wait to take your next sip.
SZ: Do you feel that whiskey continues to be somewhat of a boys club? How do you look to open this world up to women moving forward?
EM: I feel that whiskey has moved forward from the “boys club” mentality. I host a lot of tastings with women whiskey groups and they are just as knowledgeable as the “boys” and just as interested in how the whiskey is made. I believe the world has already opened up to women and we are in an era of whiskey being enjoyed by all.
SZ: What is one piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to get into the whiskey world?
EM: Don’t sell yourself short. If you are passionate and interested, then apply for the job, say yes to the opportunity, you never know where it might take you.
Earlier this month, Woodford Reserve unveiled its 2022 commemorative Derby bottle. As the Presenting Sponsor of the Kentucky Derby, the brand honors “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” each year with the release of a special bottle of bourbon.