Although I’ve been a bourbon enthusiast for only a few years now, one of the few things that I became aware of early on was that Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection releases were not highly prized by enthusiasts.
This opinion came from reviews and observations from the liquor stores I hunted at. Seeing those tall, ornate looking bottles still setting on the shelves everywhere from liquor stores to Kroger supermarkets for $130 made me wonder what I was missing.
Sure, over time they would gradually disappear, but for an allocated bottle to just set on the shelves surely meant something was wrong with the contents inside. I never felt the need to actually buy a bottle.
The consensus from multiple review sites over the previous Master’s Collection releases was that they were too inconsistent in quality to take a $130 gamble on.
That’s not to say that there weren’t any good releases, but those were the exception and not the rule. It’s not like Woodford Reserve was losing fans either.
On the contrary, their sales grew by double digits year after year. They are now Drizly’s third highest selling bourbon (after Bulleit and Maker’s Mark).
One of the main reasons behind this is because Woodford Reserve has labeled itself as a premium bourbon. Even more importantly, many consumers believe they are as well probably because of the premium looking packaging.
So the real reason why those previous Master’s Collection releases eventually sold out probably had more to do with Woodford Fans finding an allure with those price tag and limited availability than anything else.
Woodford’s 2020 Release
For all of the eccentric grains or finishing techniques that previous Master’s Collection releases used, Woodford’s 2020 release was unique because there was nothing unique about it.
For starters, the mashbill that they used was the standard Woodford Reserve (and Old Forester) mashbill of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley.
But the main draw was that the blend was largely made up of 11 and 17 year-old barrels. And while it’s not talked about much, I have no doubt that some barrels as young as 4 or 5 years old also made it in the blend too.
Having barrels that were allowed to age this long is extremely rare for any Brown-Forman brand (of which Woodford is a part of) because they use heat-cycled warehouses.
These warehouses age whiskey faster than traditional methods involving only mother nature. Since more bourbon evaporates with every heat cycle it goes through, it typically reaches full maturity in half the time of a standard distiller.
If you didn’t know already, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester typically pull their barrels for bottling at around 4 to 6 years old. Anything older than that runs the risk of it being empty when it’s time to dump it.
Very Fine and Rare’s label does not wear an age statement but does have a large number “16” at the bottom that is meant to convey this being the 16th Master’s Collection release.
There is a dispute over whether or not this is the 15th or 16th release but to explain why that is would probably result in having to write a separate article.
So for the argument’s sake, let’s just say it’s the 16th. But you came here to find out how this tastes, not hear about which release it is. So with that in mind, I grabbed my trusty glencairn to find out how good this release is.
Nose: Unsurprisingly, heavy aged oak scents are the first thing to greet your nostrils. There is no doubt that this smells like an old bourbon. Notes of light oak spice, chocolate pudding and marshmallow fluff keep things rich and interesting while a small amount of almond brittle demonstrates the sweet side of this dram.
Palate: Dark toffee, toasted vanilla and heavy wood that leans towards being slightly dry all greet your tongue with each sip. That mesmerizing Old Forester/Woodford Reserve note of furniture polish is also out in droves.
There is a slight passing note of citrus, prunes and figs that is sandwiched between the heavy oak notes and a pinch of wet tobacco.
Finish: Oak and tobacco dominate while a light amount of Demerara sugar adds the bare minimum of sweetness. There is a little bit of spice, but not enough to be distracting.
The finish leans heavily on the tannins but never feels over-oaked. Instead the whole finish can be summed up by saying it was rich and satisfying.
Tasting any sort of extremely aged bourbon is usually a memorable experience. Woodford’s Very Fine and Rare bourbon did not disappoint in that regard.
The whole dram was dripping with sensory notes that showed off rich tannins and dark, over-ripe fruits. I find that Brown Forman products lose a good deal of sweetness as they age, yet this one had enough sweetness to never let the dry, oaky tones overwhelm your mouth.
For this reason I believe that there is a small amount of younger aged barrels that were used to balance it all out. But if that’s what it took to achieve this balance, then I’m all for it.
Those that will poo-poo Woodford’s newest Master’s Collection release seem to focus on the light proof that this was bottled at. I can get behind that gripe.
I know that extra-aged bourbon usually needs cut with water to reduce excessive wood notes which is why you rarely see them bottled at cask strength. But Woodford is always predictable when it comes to the proof that they will bottle anything at (except their Batch Proof Bourbon).
So why don’t they take a page out of Old Forester’s handbook to make these releases even better? When the Old Forester tasting panel goes to make their annual batch of Birthday Bourbon, they taste the final batch from barrel proof all the way down to (presumably) 80 proof to determine the best iteration of that particular batch.
You can’t convince me that this release of Very Fine and Rare tasted absolutely perfect at 90.4 proof, so why not take the extra step to give it to us at a higher proof?
This is a premium product after all and perhaps it would take the MC series from a series of “ho-hum” releases to a release that could equal or surpass the yearly fervor of Birthday Bourbon.
Whatever happens, I’m very impressed with the 16th release of Master’s Collection and hope that it continues to get better with each passing year.
1 | Disgusting | Drain pour (Example: Jeffers Creek)
2 | Poor | Forced myself to drink it
3 | Bad | Flawed (AD Laws 4 Grain BiB, Clyde Mays anything)
4 | Sub-par | Many things I’d rather have (Tincup 10 year)
5 | Good | Good, solid, ordinary (Larceny, Sazerac Rye)
6 | Very Good | Better than average (Buffalo Trace, OGD BiB)
7 | Great | Well above average (Old Ezra Barrel Proof, Old Weller Antique)
8 | Excellent | Exceptional (Michter’s Barrel Proof Rye, Four Roses Barrel Strength)
9 | Incredible | Extraordinary (GTS, 13 Year MGP or Canadian Rye)
10 | Insurpassable | Nothing Else Comes Close (William Larue Weller)
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