There’s a good chance that if you’re reading my comparison review between bottles like Bulleit and Woodford Reserve, that you’re new to the world of bourbon. If that’s the case, read on to learn about what separates the two as I lay out the background information for each one.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to skip to the point, scroll down to the “Score” and “Final Thoughts” section to find out which is my personal preference.
What is Woodford Reserve?
First up, let’s talk about the bottle of Woodford Reserve. My first experience buying Woodford was about 10 years ago. I was looking for a couple bottles to keep on hand during a party we were throwing and I was drawn to it based on looks alone.
Something about the name, the bottle shape and the fact the cork topper was made out of wood all made it seem like this bourbon was the real deal. This is probably why you bought it too.
Here’s a fun fact for you, the shelf space next to Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark is some of the most competitive space that other brands try to position their products next to. That’s because research has shown them that these two bottles draw more attention than any other bottles.
I was drawn into the purchase of my first bottle probably for the same reasons – and I thought it was a more premium product.
Woodford also prices their bottle about $10 more than similar competitors simply because they know that the higher price translates to a more desirable product in most people’s mind. Packaging has a strong psychological effect on how we choose the whiskies we buy and Woodford has nailed it.
Woodford Reserve is a brand that is owned by Brown Forman; the same parent company of Jack Daniel’s and Old Forester. In fact, Woodford actually contains bourbon made at Old Forester’s distillery in the final blend.
Yes, Woodford Reserve Distillery does distill their own whiskey on their three giant pot stills just like Irish Whiskies are made, but that’s not what you’re solely drinking. Whiskey made in pot stills tend to result in a more robust, oily taste compared to a column still (like Old Forester uses).
But since Woodford has the distillate pass through three different stills, it becomes very light and clean tasting. This process actually strips away a lot of flavors and textures in the end. But this is why people like Irish Whiskey in the first place – the triple distillation removes so many of the volatile compounds.
In other whiskies, those excess volatile compounds create new flavors – for better or worse. Being such a clean distillate results in a whiskey that is more approachable to the average whiskey drinker, but slightly boring.
That’s why Old Forester’s chocolatey, spicy character gets added into the blend, to try and put some of that punch back into it.
What is Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey?
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Woodford is Bulleit Bourbon. Bulleit has a long and storied history dating back to 1830, yet the modern iteration of it seems to really begin around 1997 when Seagram’s purchased the brand from Thomas Bulleit Jr.
Before Seagram’s purchased the brand, Tom Bulleit had been sourcing his whiskey through Ancient Age Distillery (modern day Buffalo Trace) since the late 80’s.
Seagram’s decided that they would have Bulleit Bourbon distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY. A few years later, Diageo took over the rights for the Bulleit brand in 1999/2000 after Seagram’s dissolved.
But Diageo entered into a contract to have Four Roses continue to distill the bourbon used for Bulleit. Tanker trucks full of bourbon would be transported from Lawrenceburg up to the old Stitzel Weller facility in Louisville to be put into oak barrels and aged on site.
Bulleit Distilling Company
Sometime in 2013, Four Roses began to reduce production or cut off the Bulleit brand entirely from the bourbon they had been distilling for them. I personally think they just reduced the amount they produced for them.
This forced Diageo into searching for other distilleries to produce bourbon for them. It is assumed that Barton, Old Forester and possibly even Jim Beam have distilled bourbon for the brand using the same recipe.
Starting in late 2017/early 2018, Bulleit’s own distillery came online and began to finally make bourbon for the brand. This should effectively end their reliance on other distilleries to make it for them around 2024.
The bottle of Bulleit I’m using for this review is probably a blend of multiple distilleries aged anywhere from 4 to 8 years. Make no mistake, regular, orange-label Bulleit Bourbon is going to be as young as possible because it was designed to be budget-friendly for bars.
In fact, Bulleit’s purpose is the exact opposite of other bourbon distilleries. They wanted to be the budget bourbon of choice for bars instead of making a product at a price point that has to compete with dozens of other mid-priced bottles on the shelves.
Now you know why so many cocktails are made with it.
To a first time or new drinker, actually tasting bourbon is hard to do. Many don’t concentrate on the scents and flavors and just focus on getting it down the hatch as quickly as possible. That’s fine!
But if you learn to study and focus on what your senses are telling you, you’ll begin to pick out flavors and scents over time. I’m going to tell you what I expect to find inside each of these bourbons. The Woodford Reserve is going to have hints of oak, a chocolately and toffee-like taste to it.
That’s because Woodford barrels are aged in heat-cycled warehouses where the temperature is always kept warm so that the barrels don’t go into dormancy during the winter.
This helps the liquid interact with the charred wood inside of the barrel more often. It is the only known way to artificially age a whiskey faster that actually works.
So even though the average age statement of a barrel of Woodford is only 4.5 years old, it has characteristics of a 6 to 8 year old barrel.
Complexity of Bulleit Bourbon
Bulleit, on the other hand, is aged in a traditional wooden warehouse where the inside temperature fluctuates with the weather. This results in a less developed bourbon if it is pulled too young.
Bulleit’s high rye content bourbon mash bill also means it’s going to have much more fruit than its low-rye competitors.
The rye grain tranforms into fruit and citrus flavors as it ferments and ages. There is even more rye spice involved like pepper or cinnamon clove.
These two bottles are at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as what they’ll taste like even though they have the same proof and are aged about the same amount of time. Here’s the notes on what you can expect from each.
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Tasting Notes
Nose: The scent on this Woodford is about how I expected it to be with darker scents that are closer to caramel or a light toffee flavor.
Vanilla really shines through and is of the heavier variety, say, like the frosting on a cupcake rather than light like vanilla blossoms. The wood comes through much more than I expected for something that leans on the young side, but that’s oak-ay with me! (sorry, I couldn’t help it).
Spices pop up, but they’re more of the baking spice variety rather than the kind that are from a higher rye mash bill. Cinnamon and nutmeg are the two biggest ones I can smell.
There isn’t much by way of fruit here, but the occasional toasted citrus peel note or wayward cherry scent can be found if you concentrate long enough.
Palate: Sweet notes and oaky, this bourbon is a pretty accurate representation of what bourbon should taste like albeit at a young age.
Of all the flavors I’m about to list, each one has a tiny tinge of astringency or harshness to it but it’s all easy to overlook. Toffee, oak, cinnamon and a little bit of tobacco play nicely with lighter flavors of vanilla and citrus zest.
There’s also some dark chocolate that plays around here and there, but not nearly at the level of its big brother, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Finish: The tannins will leave your mouth tasting a bit like a tongue depressor had just been in there. That’s not an entirely bad thing because oak/wood is a hallmark of bourbon.
Lingering notes of vanilla and caramel are nice to reflect on while citrus and a bit of cherry fruit are like the proverbial cherry-on-top at the end of a nice dessert.
Bulleit Bourbon Tasting Notes
Nose: Honeyed sweetness meets a bit of fruit by way of fresh cut apples, citrus, cherries and apricots. Vanilla and a little bit of oak poke around while the telltale scent of licorice (likely from the high-rye character) give an unexpected twist. The nose is pleasant overall, but a bit muted.
Palate: The sweetness still leans more towards honey than outright caramel. It is sweet, but not as sweet as the Woodford in my opinion. Basic bourbon flavors like vanilla,
cinnamon and a bit of oak/leather offer a bit of backbone to the overall drink while spices like cinnamon, anise and clove hint to the high-rye character underneath.
Finish: The finish is short to moderate in length probably attributing to its lower proof and age. Citrus and honey take command while the aged, tannic notes are put into the background. The spices on the tongue are nicely controlled, but nothing is specifically unique to how the whole dram finishes.
Picking which one of these is better over the other is almost like picking which child I like more. Sure, the scores will tell you which one I preferred overall, but I’m always a sucker for a high-rye bourbon like Bulleit. I love to find the fruit and spice in what I’m sipping on.
However, Woodford/Old Forester products are tops for me too because they have really aged characteristics that show themselves throughout the whole session. Ultimately, I feel as if the choice should be made depending on which one you lean more towards.
I will pick the Woodford for when I want something that has more of a richer flavor or that will stand out better in a cocktail.
I will pick the Bulleit when I’m pairing it with a cocktail that contains some fruit in it (cherry, orange, etc) or to sip before moving on to other high-rye bourbons for the night like Four Roses, something from Barton or maybe even a rye whiskey.
Bulleit Bourbon is the bartenders choice for a reason. This bottle was found for $25 at my local store in Indianapolis, which is about as cheap as you’re going to get it for normally.
You don’t have to worry about your wallet with a fair price like that. The Woodford Reserve, on the other hand, was only a little bit more since I found it on sale for $30. I think I would choose it over the Bulleit at the end of the day because I enjoy its darker, richer profile over the thin and light bottle of Bulleit.
Just know that you’re not going to lose out whichever you pick. And when you’re ready to start sipping these neat instead of drinking them over ice or in a cocktail like an old fashioned, just know that there are more complex, higher aged and alluring versions of each for about $15 more.
Bulleit has a 10 Year Old version and Woodford has the Double Oaked version which I alluded to earlier and sees further aging in a second charred oak barrel.
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