Earlier this week, it was announced that Elizabeth McCall was taking on the role of master distiller at Woodford Reserve, making her the third person to hold that title in the brand’s history. Robb Report had a chance to chat with McCall about taking over the job from Chris Morris (who will continue on as master distiller emeritus), and what she has in store for the future of the brand.
McCall has a long history at Brown-Forman, the parent company of Woodford and other American whiskey brands like Jack Daniel’s and Old Forester. She started out in research & development in 2009, eventually becoming Woodford’s master taster in 2015. She transitioned to assistant master distiller in 2018, and Morris has been mentoring her over the past five years to prepare her for this new role. “The man is a genius,” she told Robb Report. “His knowledge is expansive to so much more than just the process of making whiskey. It includes the history, marketing, sales, planning, innovation, etc. that also go into building a brand like Woodford Reserve from just something people love in Kentucky to something people love around the world. However, if I have to pick just a few [lessons I’ve learned from him] I would say the following: keep the brand focused, keep the focus on the liquid, and never sacrificing quality.”
As far as the job itself, McCall said that the role of master distiller has changed a bit since she started in the industry, and is really defined by each individual brand. “When I started, companies that had master distillers seemed to follow the same formula of an individual with years of experience in the whiskey industry who rose through the ranks to claim the title,” she said. “Today, universities and colleges have distilling certification programs and other related areas of study. Individuals may no longer need to rise through the ranks at their respective company or distillery, they could get hired in or go to work on a craft start up brand and assume the role. Still the disparity between what defines a ‘master distiller’ is there—are they just a face, are they working in the distillery, are they a hybrid?”
For McCall, an important part of being master distiller will be striking a balance between the core Woodford lineup and making her own imprint with special releases. “We need to maintain the quality that our consumers have come to expect with our core expressions and continue to push the envelope with our Master’s Collection and Distillery Series,” she said. “We currently have the next 10-plus years planned out and will continue to add to that list every year. I plan to draw inspiration from history, fun flavor innovation, as well as my current sustainability work in rye and other small grains for future innovation.”
McCall also acknowledged the impact of being a female master distiller for a brand as big as Woodford. Add to that the fact that she’s currently pregnant with her second child. “I hope that I inspire other women to go for roles while family planning and don’t see that as a hindrance,” she said. “It’s just part of life. It’s how the human race continues.” While she looks forward to the day when the focus will be solely on the job and not the gender of the person in the position (as is often the case when a woman is in that position), she has come to believe that the conversation has value. “When I was first named master taster, I hated the thought that the focus would be on my gender and not my skills that I brought into the role,” she said. “I have since… embraced the significance of talking about it. Bringing attention to the rarity of women in this industry is how we change it. I, along with the many other women in this industry are changing the way it looks. Now young woman can see themselves in these roles and that feels good.”