Serious Eats: Drinks

We Try the New Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Releases

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Woodford Reserve's annual Master's Collection limited releases have a history of thinking outside the traditional bourbon box, including experiments with a maple wood finished whiskey, a four-wood whiskey blend, and some rare 100% ryes. Their latest release is way outside of the comfort zone: two 100% malted barley whiskeys. Not technically Scotch since they are not produced in Scotland, they join the recently proliferating ranks of American malt whiskeys, but with an interesting twist.

The two whiskeys, dubbed Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Classic Malt Whiskey and Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Straight Malt Whiskey (let's just call them Classic Malt and Straight Malt), are the exact same distillate, made with malted barley. However, the Classic Malt spends its time in used bourbon barrels (like Scotch), while the Straight Malt matures in new charred oak barrels (like Bourbon).

They offer an intriguing opportunity to taste the effect that the barrel truly has on the spirit, as Woodford has stated that age isn't a variable—these two whiskeys "are only one week apart in age in the barrel." But how do they fare?

The Classic Malt

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Aged in barrels that were used for bourbon, the Classic Malt pours a light golden straw. It starts with a grassy, earthy scent, lots of green notes, and a hint of musty hay bales. It's pleasantly fruity, though not a terribly complex aroma. The whiskey's texture is thin but creamy, with heavy golden malt dominating faint hints of honey and heather. It also tastes a bit young, with the alcohol presence fairly noticeable. The finish is short and falls off quickly, with leaving just a mild impression of oak spices.

Adding water or ice spreads out the flavors but ultimately breaks the structure of the whiskey and it falls apart. Overall, the Classic Malt tastes like a Scotch that's not quite ready for prime time.

The Straight Malt

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Aged in new barrels, the Straight Malt is a marked improvement. Pouring a deeper amber, there's the same scent of grass and hay in the background, but it's overshadowed by clove, vanilla, and oak. There's also a little bit of sweetness but nothing approaching the bourbon scale. The flavor is malt-forward, but the oak presence and baking spices round out the character of the whiskey, and a nicely weighty body helps give it more depth. It finishes quite spiced and more mellow than the Classic, but still a bit quickly. A drop of water rounds the edges and makes it softer and sweeter, but less gripping of a drink. It's an interesting hybrid of a Scotch and a bourbon, but in the end it's more of an experiment than a success.

These are very interesting whiskeys conceptually, and tasting these experiments side by side is an experience that will educate any whiskey aficionado. If you come across them at a friend's house, definitely take the plunge. However, listing at $100 a bottle each, it's hard to see where the value lies.

About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films as an independent producer in Brooklyn.

Tasting samples provided for review consideration.

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