Though bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, about 95 percent comes from Kentucky, where limestone streams help grow strong, speedy horses and supply branch water for the bourbon-making process.
In 1812, on one of those trickling, rocky waterways – Grassy Springs Branch of Glenn’s Creek – Elijah Pepper built a distillery that today lies smack in the middle of Woodford County’s rolling Thoroughbred farm country and offers far more than the commonwealth’s signature alcoholic export.
Though its name has evolved from Oscar Pepper (Elijah’s son) to Labrot & Graham and finally, to Woodford Reserve, this National Historic Landmark distillery is as focused as a foxhound on a scent, and handcrafts only its namesake product, designated the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
On hourly tours of the facility, guides allow visitors a peek behind the scenes at huge cypress fermenting tanks bubbling with sour mash and distinctive shiny copper pot stills triple distilling that mash. Guests learn about the art of coopering, or barrel-making, and how charred oak barrels give bourbon its distinct flavor and clear amber hue. They get to inhale “the angel share,” the heady aroma escaping from aging barrels of bourbon that are stacked floor to ceiling in sturdy stone warehouses.
And finally, the newly informed can sample Woodford Reserve itself with a bourbon-ball chaser and then plop down in a comfy rocker on the porch of the stone visitor center and listen to summertime crickets and the creek burbling nearby.
“We’re surrounded by horse farms,” said Kandi Sackett, the distillery’s guest services manager. “The setting is gorgeous and will bring your blood pressure right down.”
Stay relaxed and have a meal there, for bourbon finds its way into a number of featured dishes, and the chef-in-residence is Ouita Michel, an owner of the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station and the Windy Corner restaurants, all located in Woodford and Fayette counties.
“Especially during the spring Derby season, Woodford Reserve is a popular destination for out-of-town corporate guests,” said Michel, who leads the distillery’s culinary team and writes all menus. “Over the last two years, we’ve created a vision with the food here based on bourbon using the “flavor wheel” developed by our master distiller, Chris Morris.”
Morris created the culinary reference tool as a guide to pairing the bourbon with complementary foods according to a number of different flavor aspects of Woodford Reserve – umami, herbs and spice, savory, tart, sweet, bitter and fruit.
“We have presentations for groups that teach how to be thoughtful about what you’re eating and drinking,” Michel added, “and we use the wheel as part of our catering menu.”
That menu features fresh, locally grown ingredients and Kentucky Proud food products. Options for sampling the tasty fare are numerous and include the facility’s popular seasonal Picnic on the Porch, with lunch provided by Wallace Station in the distillery’s visitor center, to be gobbled down outside on the porch.
On Saturdays during the Keeneland race meets, guests can take a bourbon-making tour and join syndicated Thoroughbred handicapper Ellis Starr of Equibase at a Handicapper’s Brunch for a gourmet lunch, a Woodford Reserve cocktail and tips on picking the ponies before heading to the track.
A real group treat, the Distiller’s Table, offers five or six courses. All the courses are bourbon-related and all are paired with wine or bourbon. Michel calls the meal “kind of a bourbon-tasting menu” that can be customized for a client. Consider a lobster bisque finished with Woodford Reserve as a starter, perhaps a main course of duck brined in bourbon and slow-smoked over bourbon barrel staves, and a killer Julia Child dessert, Boca Negra, an ultra-chocolaty cake begun with a bourbon syrup and served with white chocolate bourbon cream.
A team-building option for corporate groups, Woodford in the Kitchen provides the opportunity to explore some of those luscious recipes in a cooking class complete with a chef-instructor, mixologist and floral arranger.
As an individual treat or a team-building event, Woodford Reserve’s day-long fly-fishing school offers instruction on Glenn’s Creek from two of the state’s experts. Fly tier and fisherman Rob Knisely explains the history of fly tying and provides each participant with one display-quality carded fly in a classic pattern dating from Elijah Pepper’s era. Fly-fishing guide Brandon Wells provides all necessary gear and hands-on instruction on balancing an outfit, selecting a rod, reel and line, reading the water, selecting a fly and casting.
Several times every year, Master Distiller Morris conducts a day-long Bourbon Academy for up to 30 folks who want to get closer to bourbon. Each session features Whiskey 101, a crash course on bourbon basics; a series of bourbon tastings; an interactive distillery tour and lunch.
The multifaceted distillery can even host business or leisure groups of up to 65 attendees during the day and at night, 150 seated banquet-style and 225 for a stand-up reception.
Elijah Pepper would be amazed… and proud.