Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Duke Picks His Bourbon

 Woodford Reserve certainly seems to be doing alright for itself, with a few dozen high-profile "preferred partner" relationships around the country, including two in Seattle. The brand didn't even exist 15 years ago; now it has sales of 200,000 cases. It's not your grandfather's bourbon (that might be Early Times, or Jim Beam--six milliion cases a year!) or your rich uncle's, either (Jack Daniel's, perhaps, though that's Tennessee, not Kentucky, but ten million cases nonetheless). These days, it's all about small batch bourbon, and Woodford's, along with brands like Knob Creek and Bulliet, are reviving the sagging fortunes of the spirits industry. Woodford's parent, Brown Forman, is the nation's oldest wine and spirits distributor, and their marketing plan for Woodford involves creating "personal" barrels of bourbon for this elite group of buyers.

Chris Morris, Master Distiller
Usually, the top brass at the participating restaurants or hotels travel to the picturesque town of Versailles, as The Metropolitan Grill's staff has done the past couple of years. That's Ver-SAILS, not Ver-SIGH, by the way. (We wrote about Met Grill's Manhattan contest last month.) But Duke's Chowderhouse, a chain of six local restaurants, has been a preferred partner even longer, so this week Woodford's master distiller, Chuck Morris, left Kentucky's bucolic bluegrass country and brought his barrel samples to the Duke's at Southcenter. A Seattle institution, Duke's is just shy of 40 years old, and still run by its founder, Duke Moscrip.

Duke Moscrip
"Bourbon, by law, is 51 percent corn," the genial yet professorial Morris reminded the tasting panel, whom he called "steely-eyed veterans." Woodford also includes 18 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley in its recipe, and uses old-fashioned, copper pot stills to create its bourbons, which are aged for at least four years in white oak barrels. By the time the tasters arrive, there are some surprising variations between barrels. The afternoon's assignment: taste eight samples at full strength, drop four, then taste all six combinations of two-barrel blends, pick a favorite.

It's an exercise that would be familiar to blenders of wine and concocters of Champagne. The final choice will combine two specific barrels of Woodford Reserve to be labeled as Duke's personal selection, 360 bottles altogether. Barely enough to last a year. Duke's isn't known as a bourbon bar, though; it's where you go for chowder, fish and chips, or planked Copper River salmon, sitting on the deck in good weather. (It can get crazy; the relatively small Alki store takes in $20,000 on a nice day.)

As for the boyish-looking Morris, who is 54, he'll return to bluegrass country, where Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Does he own horses himself? "No, thank goodness."

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