Brown-Forman Corp. has put a new twist on its premium Woodford Reserve bourbon with a limited edition variation distinct for spending a few months aging in the company’s Sonoma-Cutrer wine barrels.
The experiment blends California chardonnay with Kentucky whiskey culture.
The result is called Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, produced at the Woodford Reserve distillery in the heart of bluegrass country near Versailles.
It’s the second time Brown-Forman has dabbled in a special whiskey that’s an offshoot of its small-batch Woodford Reserve brand. The goal is to build a bigger following for Woodford Reserve in the competitive super-premium bourbon category, and this time perhaps win crossover business from wine drinkers.
“We certainly believe this has a nice connection back to Woodford Reserve, and it would have interest to people who are involved in premium whiskeys,” said Wayne Rose, Woodford’s global brand director.
He added that it could stir wine drinkers to “think a little differently about bourbon.”
Overall, sales in the bourbon category are up about 2 percent, driven mainly by demand for premium and super-premium brands. Still, those premium categories aren’t close to reaching maturity, Rose said.
In the tequila category, about 13 percent of volume comes from super-premium products, he said. For scotches, super-premiums account for about 9 percent of sales, but for bourbon it’s only 3½ percent, he said.
“This category is highly underdeveloped,” Rose said.
The Sonoma-Cutrer Finish whiskey will be sold in a number of states spanning the country starting in early July, retailing at $89.99 per bottle, compared to about $30 for the regular Woodford Reserve. Only 900 cases will be available.
Brown-Forman isn’t the only bourbon maker branching into special whiskeys to stir interest.
In September, Heaven Hill Distilleries will introduce a limited-edition, 12-year-old bourbon as the inaugural release in a series called Parker’s Heritage Collection, named after co-master distiller Parker Beam, said company spokesman Larry Kass. The special whiskey was aged in barrels given an extra-heavy char, which brings out greater hints of caramel and vanilla flavors, he said.
Kass said the series is aimed at whiskey connoisseurs.
“It is an opportunity for us to regularly release limited quantities of extra special, unique styles of American whiskeys that people are very excited about right now,” he said.
In the past, Jim Beam also came out with limited edition bourbons, including a 20-year-old bourbon finished in port-wine barrels, said Jerry Dalton, Beam’s master distiller.
Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris said his latest limited-edition whiskey spent four months in French oak wine barrels, giving the liquor more of a sweet fruit hint combined with caramel and butterscotch flavors.
Creating the whiskey was a learning process for Morris and Sonoma-Cutrer winemaker Terry Adams.
“It’s certainly a new adventure,” Adams said. “I haven’t had a lot of experience with Kentucky bourbons. I’m learning more and more as we go.”
Scotch makers have used wine barrels for years to finish some of their products.
Lew Bryson, managing editor of Malt Advocate, a consumer-whiskey magazine, said Brown-Forman pulled it off with its new product — proving that bourbon whiskey can coexist with a hint of wine.
“You hear something about another finish in the whiskey world, and at this point you kind of automatically think gimmick,” he said. “But it’s not a gimmicky thing at all. It really works and works well.”
Whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery said the result was something unique.
“It’s really something you haven’t tasted before,” he said. “You don’t drink it and say, ‘This is bourbon with a little chardonnay in it.”’
Bryson and Cowdery were among a group of whiskey writers invited by Brown-Forman to sample the special whiskey before it reached liquor stores.
They said such experimentation is good for the bourbon sector to appeal to consumers looking for variety.
“There are so few distilleries left that you could really have a situation in which bourbon would kind of degenerate into a sameness,” Cowdery said. “By doing things like this, you’re able to keep some vitality in the segment. And people want to try new things.”
Morris said he tinkered extensively before finding the right mix and settled on bourbon aged for five years instead of the usual seven-plus years. The fully mature Woodford “was too robust to get the nuances of the contribution of the Sonoma-Cutrer to shine through,” he said.
In just four months, the wine-finished whiskey went through different weather cycles while maturing.
The barrels were placed in storage warehouses in late January. The warehouses were heated at the time, creating a balmy climate that allowed the liquor to absorb into the wine barrels. The bourbon makers later turned off the heat, allowing the warehouse to cool off so the liquor came back out of the wood.
“It’s kind of amazing that that little amount of time in that wood can make such a big difference,” Cowdery said. “It tastes so different than the normal Woodford Reserve.”
The wine-influenced whiskey is the second release of a special Woodford Reserve whiskey as part of a Master’s Collection. In 2005, Brown-Forman rolled out a limited-edition four grain version of Woodford Reserve in Kentucky that ultimately spread to 16 other states the following year.
Rose said the company noticed a spike in Woodford sales that coincided with the four grain introduction.
Woodford Reserve, now sold in 32 countries, has averaged 27 percent annual growth in the past five years.
Brown-Forman says the new Sonoma-Cutrer Finish will be sold in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.