In Food + Drink

A Master Taster’s Guide To The World Of Kentucky Bourbon

In Kentucky, America's whiskey capital, the best bourbon makers have banded together to create the Kentucky Bourbon trail.

To avid whiskey fans, Elizabeth McCall is like a real-life superhero. In her role as Master Taster for Woodford Reserve, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most respected distillers, McCall’s finely-tuned senses help  to craft high quality, small batch bourbon that is enjoyed the world over.

Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon whiskey, and, thanks to the collaborative nature of the local whiskey scene, it’s now easier than ever to experience the famous region. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, encompassing nine of the historic distilleries in the region, has become a pilgrimage for bourbon fans the world over – and its popularity is growing.

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Photo: Facebook

“It is the quintessential Kentucky experience,” McCall says.“

The distilleries listed on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are mainly historic distilleries that have made significant contributions to the distilling industry in Kentucky. You drive through beautiful horse farms while making your way to our historic distillery, where it feels like you are taking a step back in time.”

Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and, of course, Woodford Reserve, are just a handful of the distilleries that make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Best of all, the key sights are all within an hour’s drive of each other. It’s recommended you allow at least three days to fully experience the distilleries spread across the region – drinking responsibly, of course.

kentucky whisky whiskey bourbon woodford reserve

Bourbon-ed out? A martini from Meta will sort you. Photo: Facebook

While bourbon culture can seem a little intimidating, especially if you’re a reasonably novice drinker, McCall says the secret to dipping your toe into the world of bourbon is to simply be fearless.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and explore different ways to drink it; in cocktails, mixed, neat, or on the rocks,” she says. “For me it depends on my mood. I enjoy cocktails, especially when someone else is making them, but at home I usually enjoy my bourbon on the rocks.”

If you only have limited time in Kentucky, Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, is an absolute must visit. With more than 135 bourbons on sale, it’s a perfect jump-off down the rabbit hole of bourbon whiskey. McCall also recommends Proof on Main and Meta, two great cocktail bars nearby.

With a history dating back to the 18th century, bourbon is a truly American whiskey, and has a strong connection to the American South, Kentucky in particular. Unlike Tennessee whiskey which is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal to achieve a mellower taste, known as the Lincoln County Process, Kentucky bourbon achieves its flavours direct from the charred-oak barrels.

In the last year alone, more than 1.9 million barrels of whiskey were added to Kentucky’s reserves, meaning there are currently 1.5 barrels for every person living in the state. While the idea of getting paid to sample Kentucky’s finest whiskeys may seem like a dream gig, not everyone has what it takes. McCall says being a Master Taster requires more than simply recognising a good whiskey.

Barrels at Woodford Reserve.

“There are a few skills needed to be a Master Taster, one being the ability to describe the taste of our whiskey’s expressions, and being able to pick up quality concerns, if some should arise. Another is knowing how our product is made, which allows me to better understand where flavour comes from, how to innovate, and troubleshoot when needed.”

Passion is another important trait. “If you don’t have passion, it’s going to be very difficult to authentically speak to customers time and time again about what makes your product so special and a step above.”

For McCall, if not for a twist of fate, she may never have found her calling.

After graduating in psychology from the University of Louisville, McCall soon realised that the world of therapy was not for her.

“I studied psychology, but I chose Brown-Forman [parent company of Woodford Reserve] because it looked more appealing than therapy,” she says.

McCall with Master Distiller Chris Morris.

McCall relished the chance to spread her wings as a sensory lab technician for Brown-Forman in Louisville, Kentucky, which manufactures an impressive list of well-known alcohol brands including Jack Daniel’s, Chambord, Finlandia, and Woodford Reserve, to name just a few.

“Brown-Forman generally hire from within the company, so I worked my way up the chain. I took an internal class on spirits, where I made a positive impression on Master Distiller Chris Morris who, unbeknown to me, was looking for someone to train to be Woodford Reserve’s Master Taster. A few months later, he asked if I wanted the role. I said yes, of course!”

Over the last two years in her role, McCall’s passion for Kentucky whiskey and the people who make it has grown infinitely, and, with just one visit, she believes yours will too.

Published 06 January, 2018