The term terroir has served the wine world well in describing the indescribable something (climate, soil, sun exposure) that renders the unique flavor profile of a single vineyard or place. Unfortunately, the world of distilled spirits lacks convenient shorthand for expressing the complex of factors that impart to the spirits of certain locales their unique personalities. But if any product of the still can be said to have a terroir, then surely it is the whiskey that flows from the bluegrass-blanketed, ancient limestone aquifer of Woodford County, Ky.—an essential resource for crafting fine bourbon for more than two centuries.
At a verdant site beside aquifer-fed Glenn’s Creek, amid Thoroughbred horse farms, lies what many consider the birthplace of bourbon. Kentucky settler Elijah Pepper first began distilling rye whiskey near the property in the 1790s, planting the seeds for a history that is as richly layered as the flavors of the Woodford Reserve triple-distilled small-batch bourbon. Using the same calcium-enhanced water with which Pepper tempered his liquor, master distiller and spirits history buff Chris Morris supervises the blending and aging of copper-pot-distilled Woodford Reserve, employing techniques perfected a century and a half ago in the 1838-era distillery. “[Elijah’s son] Oscar hired Dr. James Crow, who spent most of his working life at that little distillery,” Morris explains. “Dr. Crow laid down the sour-mash process, using a microscope. This kind of innovation gave birth to the modern bourbon industry.”
The Scottish physician and chemist Dr. Crow is credited with aging bourbon in charred white-oak barrels to enhance flavor. “Every drop [of Woodford Reserve] is aged in either a brick or a limestone warehouse, which allows us to cycle our bourbon during the wintertime,” Morris reveals, referring to the technique of heating and cooling the barrels throughout the cold months to promote continued aging. “We’re the last practitioners of this old, old art.”
The name by which the distillery went for more than a century, Labrot & Graham, derived from the families that purchased the Pepper business in 1878 from Pepper’s family. Businessmen Leopold Labrot and James Graham continued the tradition until 1898, when Graham sold his share to Labrot. “The Labrot family ran the distillery up until Prohibition, when it closed, like 99 percent of distilleries,” Morris recounts. “Brown-Forman bought it from [the Labrots] in 1941. We were buying little distilleries primarily because there were grain-rationing requirements [during World War II]. We were looking to get another distillery so that we’d have more grain rations.”
By the 1960s, Brown-Forman no longer needed to maintain the little country facility, so the firm sold it in 1968 to a local farmer, who allowed the property to fall into ruin. More than 20 years later, the distributor bought the property back as a facility to house its new small-batch bourbon. “We got a couple of history majors from the University of Kentucky to survey all of the historic distillery sites for a good place to restore or rebuild,” Morris says. “They came back and said, ‘You’ve probably never heard of it, but there’s this Labrot & Graham place.’ ”
Following four years of restoration, the only distillery in Woodford County reopened in the late 1990s to make bourbon the way it had been done 200 years before. The facility continues to build upon its formidable legacy, offering exclusive Kentucky Derby bottlings each year and conducting tours of the notable property. For about $10,000, guests can even create their own blend from barrel samples of Woodford Reserve. “Some of the barrels are smoky, some will be woody, some will be fruity and some will be sweet, with vanilla and caramel notes,” Morris observes. “You have the ability to craft your own personal selection, and we bottle that in one barrel’s worth—in other words, 180 bottles.”
Each of these bottles will reflect the collector’s own personal style, while at the same time expressing the distinctive terroir of the bluegrass country and the innovative distilling heritage that informs every barrel that goes into Woodford Reserve.