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Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection: Sonoma Triple Finish Bourbon Review

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection: Sonoma Triple Finish Bourbon Review

If you’re like me, you’ve probably had a love/hate relationship with Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection releases. Some of them exemplify everything that I want Woodford to be – like the Very Fine Rare Bourbon release of 2020. Some of them fall into the “what were they thinking?” releases like their Five-Malt Stouted Mash release the very next year.

But I have to give them credit where credit is due – they do genuinely come up with some creative ideas. They’ve also been coming up with them for far longer than their sibling brands Old Forester and Jack Daniel’s. And as a person who likes to explore unique whiskies, I find myself drawn to try each one.

Sonoma Triple Finish – explained

As you would probably expect, the “Triple Finish” part of this release centers around Woodford using three different types of casks to finish their bourbon in. The casks are Pinot Noir barrels, Brandy barrels and bourbon barrels that aged red wine for a period of time and are now aging bourbon again. I did not find out what kind of red wine it was.

Triple Cask finishes are not entirely new in the industry. Two of the more common ones are Joseph Magnus and Doc Swinson’s. But the base bourbon most of them use is from MGP; so they all have kind of a similar taste. Before now, the most accessible example of a wine-finished Brown-Forman bourbon would be Angel’s Envy.

That doesn’t mean that Woodford doesn’t have experience with these kind of finishes, but none of them are really accessible like I mentioned earlier. Their annual Baccarat Bourbon is finished in Cognac casks, but the $1500 pricetag means most of us will never taste it. They have also recently released a duty-free bottle called Double XO that sees some additional time in Cognac casks. And you could always track down some of the previous Master’s Collection releases from the last decade that have wine or brandy finishes if you want.

The point is, few people outside of die-hard Woodford enthusiasts are going to get the chance to taste any of those, so the 2023 Triple Cask release is a lot of people’s first time tasting Woodford finished in wine/brandy barrels.

The face behind Woodford’s Master’s Collection has changed

This release marks the first time a Master’s Collection bottle doesn’t involve Chris Morris on the label. That’s because Elizabeth McCall has stepped into his place. That doesn’t mean she is fully responsible for every aspect of this bottle because the bourbon was still made under Morris’ watch. But since it carries the word “Master’s,” she was still probably heavily involved in how the finishing and blending treatments were handled. Woodford does not clarify this.

If there is one thing I hope that Elizabeth changes for the sake of enthusiasts, it’s getting rid of the strange fixation on bottling everything (except the Batch Proof release) at 90.4 proof.  This proof is simply too low for a lot of these bourbons.  And it’s not like there isn’t precedence for it either.  Back when Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection first started, it seemed as if they were bottling it at a proof that worked best for the whiskey.  Many of the first releases were bottled at 100 proof or more.  Nowadays, every bottle comes out at the same proof which makes new releases feel less special.  This needs to change.

I’ve skipped the last two years of Master’s Collection releases, so I hope to make up for lost time with this review. Here are my thoughts. As usual, I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Classic Woodford notes like cinnamon, oak, vanilla and chocolate remind me that this a bourbon first and foremost. But there is a wave of fruit notes like cherries and assorted fruit jams that quickly begin to take over. The wine notes lean more towards fortified wines. This makes sense when I find a nutty note as I inhale. I don’t normally find nutty scents in Woodford products, but this one is more like the nuttiness from an oxidized Tawny Port wine. Overall the nose is still quite soft. The low proof is probably the underlying reason for that.

Palate: The first flavors to come across are almost entirely fruit-centric. I get loads of grape juice, orange marmalade, cherry pie filling and sweet red wine. Traditional Woodford notes of chocolate, caramel and oak spice provide a nice base, but the nuttiness returns from the nose and leaves a strange, oxidized taste in my mouth. I’m not exactly thrilled to find it either. 

Finish: The finish turns dry after the sip is complete. The strong, fortified wine notes leave an odd aftertaste. The typical bourbon notes and most of the fruit sweetness are gone leaving more of the nutty/Tawny flavors. Any momentum this dram had going for it in the nose and palate is lost on the finish for me. 

Score: 6/10

Each sip of this bourbon left my senses at odds with each other. On one hand, the flavors that the three finishing casks imparted couldn’t be ignored. It was sweet and fruity without being over the top. It helped bring a new flavor dimension to the table that Woodford typically lacks.

On the other hand, there was a funky, almost overly-oxidized taste that lingered with every sip. Honestly, it reminded me of the multivitamin flavors that I find in certain bottles of Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. And for the record, I do enjoy George Dickel bourbon, but the flavors I found here just didn’t seem to fit. It’s polarizing to say the least and I wasn’t the biggest fan.

Final Thoughts

Woodford Reserve’s suggested retail price for the 2023 Master’s Collection was quoted by a few reviewers as being $150. I don’t think it was that high because I got my bottle at Costco for $130. That’s incredibly too much money for a non-age stated, 90.4 proof bottle. I honestly don’t know why I decided to buy it. FOMO, perhaps?

Now that I own the bottle and my review is complete, I can admit that I’m disappointed in my purchase. I knew to avoid Master’s Collection releases that use malted mash bills or uncommon grains like oats, but now I have to add wine finishes to my list of Master’s Collection experiments to avoid (or at least try before I buy). I wish Elizabeth McCall all the best in her leadership going forward, but Sonoma Triple Finish will go down as a flop for me.

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