By Richard Thomas
Despite a 15 year track record, Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection stands as arguably the best kept secret among American Whiskey’s regular, limited edition releases. I’m basing that purely on anecdotal evidence, but on that footing there are newer limited edition series from smaller brands that generate more buzz among enthusiasts. The reason cannot be pinned on the large brand (Woodford Reserve is rather popular) or on the largely experimental or exploratory nature of the Master’s Collection (Parker’s Heritage follows a similar path).
For my part, I’ve pointed to the lack of an ultra-aged Master’s Collection whiskey. Although I’m definitely with the folks who say that, by and large, American Whiskey hits its sweet spot at middle age (say 12 to 15 years), that doesn’t stop people from being obsessed with high age statements. Witness the mania surrounding Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old, which has always been over oaked. Another point might have been the lack of cask strength expressions, which are prized by most enthusiasts; Woodford addressed this just a few years ago by making a Batch Proof expression part of the annual Master’s Collection. Now they have come around to the ultra-aged part, and revamped the look of Master’s Collection while they are at it.
This late 2020 Master’s Collection release, Very Fine Rare Bourbon, is a 17 year old whiskey, distilled back around the time when Master Distiller Chris Morris first took the reins. The Master’s Collection has evolved entirely under his stewardship and his very much his project; even if 17 years is an odd number, it’s appropriate to make the first very old expression in the line an anniversary statement for Morris.
In addition to breaking into ultra-aged territory and revamping the bottle and look of Master’s Collection, this release has one more new point to it: Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall has her name on it. In keeping with Woodford Reserve’s standard, though, it is bottled at 90.4 proof.
One gets the age of this middle amber bourbon at the first sniff, because a current of airy, spicy oak is right there on the top, something absent from Woodford Reserve Small Batch. This sits atop a creme brulee, very bourbon base, with further study putting a toasted graham cracker crumble and butterscotch drizzle atop that.
The palate has a complicated, yet delicate structure. While following in the same vein as the nose, it’s a touch spicier and woodier, and superbly balanced. All three aspects–a mild, extra-aged and tannic woodiness; airy spiciness; rich sweetness–come out hand-in-hand and in equal measures. This is so much the case that I found it necessary to give each leg of this triad attention in its own due course, because no leg kicks at you and the triangle as a whole is too big to take in as a whole and capture any detail.
It’s an excellent example of how going a few years beyond middle age can yield great things, and is truly a Very Fine Rare sipping whiskey. This Master’s Collection installment commands you to sit a spell and study its pleasant, but fascinating character. I hope to find a bottle, because I’d gladly pay the asking price and perhaps a little more to have one.
The official price is $130, and at that price point this is a real bargain.