When Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller for Woodford Reserve, arrived in Birmingham early this year for the weekend of Bourbonham, the Magic City’s annual bourbon tasting event, the reception was warm.
“It’s not often that a distiller comes to Birmingham and does it more than once,” said Jesse Jewell, the general manager for Galley and Garden, as he introduced McCall during a five-course whiskey dinner. For the event, chef James Boyce prepared each course to compliment Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Double Oaked Bourbon, and Straight Rye Whiskey, going down the rabbit hole of flavors to draw inspiration from the complex notes of wood, spice and sweet aromatics.
That evening, McCall led the dinner party, weaving in tasting notes and history between courses of artisan duck prosciutto, poached Maine lobster tail and aged prime rib New York Strip, all laced with Woodford Reserve spirits.
Before the Bourbonham grand finale, McCall would lead more tastings at the James Beard-nominated Atomic Lounge, John’s City Diner, Lenelle’s Beverage Boutique in Norwood, and a finale pairing with desserts from the James Beard award-winning Dolester Miles of Highlands Bar and Grill.
At each event, McCall held court, calling those gathered to taste with purpose as they put their curious palettes to the test.
McCall, who started out working in Brown-Forman’s sensory department with the research and development team a little over a decade ago, quickly rose through the ranks, blending her background in psychology and her ability to engage crowds to become one of the county’s youngest master distillers.
“In addition to her extraordinary palate, she has the unique ability to talk with people who are new or curious about bourbon and enhance their tasting experience,” Anne Born, On-Premise Market Manager for Brown-Forman, told AL.com in an email.
But bourbon didn’t always have such a captive audience.
“Woodford Reserve is truly a whiskey that fought for itself,” McCall told audiences that weekend.
The Woodford Reserve distillery is built on one of Kentucky’s oldest distilling sites — Elijah Pepper built the distillery in 1812, and it became home to the Old Oscar Pepper distillery, and later the Labrot & Graham Distillery, which was listed as a national landmark in 1995. But the Woodford Reserve brand was introduced to the market in 1996, a time when the bourbon industry was stagnant outside of states like Kentucky. Woodford Reserve debuted during the flavored vodka era of the late 1990s. By the early aughts, the Woodford Reserve brand gained significant traction.
“The goal of Woodford Reserve was to attract people who weren’t bourbon drinkers,” says McCall.
The crux of that goal is innovation, which dates back to the site’s history as the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. Some of that innovation, such as charred barrels and allowing the whiskey to mature, happened unintentionally. It was up to master distiller Dr. James Crowe to measure the impact of those accidents, study them, and use them to improve the bourbon-making process. One of Crowe’s most notable accomplishments was introducing and refining the sour mash fermentation technique, a method now commonly used in bourbon production.
Now, more than 200 years later, one of the most important parts of McCall’s job is leading product innovation at Woodford Reserve and working with master distiller Chris Morris to expand the Woodford brand.
She and Morris led the production of Woodford Reserve’s Baccarat Edition, a luxury line of Woodford Reserve select bourbon aged for three years in XO Cognac casks and bottled in Baccarat crystal decanters. The bottles were released in May and only available in duty free stores. Retailing for $1,500, the edition was the first American whiskey to hit the global traveler’s market at that price point. In September, VinePair listed the bourbon as one of the nine most beautiful wine and spirits bottles in the world.
The collaboration, said McCall, was a nod to bourbon’s French history and a fun project that would open the door to more experiments with the Woodford Reserve brand in the future.
For this year’s Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection — a limited- edition line of specially developed grain recipes or barrel finishes — Morris and McCall released a chocolate malted rye, a 90.4 proof bourbon with a mash bill of 70% corn, 15% chocolate malted rye, and 15% distillers malt.
“The promise is that we are always going to do something that is innovative and different and push the envelope, even if it’s just to celebrate the masters of our past,” McCall told a room full of bourbon enthusiasts in January before the collection’s release.
At the core of innovation and brand development, lies one of McCall’s most important roles — an educator. It’s a task she’s personalized, taking it upon herself to show that bourbon, in all of its complexities, intricacies, and nuances, is still approachable.
Here are eight lessons from Elizabeth McCall on tasting bourbon, the spirit’s modern renaissance, and creative pairings.
Ways to properly dissect a bourbon glass
To taste bourbon, McCall recommends a tulip shaped glass. First, examine the lighter attributes of the bourbon by wafting the glass under the nose. Next, hold the glass under the mouth and breathe in, taking note of flavors like cloves and vanilla. Last, swirl the glass and breathe in. Swirling, says McCall, awakens the ethanol in the bourbon, allowing drinkers to note deeper flavors like brown sugar and feel the spices on the nose.
After examining the flavors, McCall says taste the bourbon in three sips — the first to introduce the palate, the second to acclimate to the flavors, and the third to note the spirit’s finish, or the flavors’ final taste and texture.
Detecting flavor is a personal experience
During her visit to Birmingham, McCall shared a humorous story about her own tasting experience. She already honed her sensory skills for years before sitting with Chris Morris and one day, while meeting with him for a session on bourbon selections, McCall remembered detecting the flavor of Bubble Tape.
“Oh my God, I’m going to lose my job,” McCall remembered thinking, as she recalled that day.
But the meeting ended up being a great learning experience. After the session, McCall said she went back and looked up sensory notes of Bubble Tape. Turns out, the gum has notes of vanilla and other scents, so her flavor detection was right on the mark.
“It was just my relationship to that aroma,” McCall told the crowd. “The great thing about sensory is…you’re never wrong.”
How sensory skills factor into innovating a whiskey brand
“Sensory is really looking at the liquid itself. So, how you nose and taste, and how you describe it. And then it’s using your palate. [Using your] senses — so sight, smell and sometimes people argue sound,” McCall told AL.com “But really just smell and taste is huge. And I use that to kind of think about what flavors exist in our liquid now. And [I think about] how we would want to change grain recipes or barrel finish to impact those flavors.”
No surprise here, but she wishes more people would give bourbon a chance
“I hate it when people say ‘Oh, I can’t handle it. Whiskey is too much for me.’ But yet, they can handle vodka or some other liqueur, but [they say] there’s something about whiskey,” said McCall to AL.com. “So I think that, for those people, I just want to educate them and teach them that it’s not too much. There are ways to appreciate it.”
Cocktails helped to usher in the whiskey and bourbon renaissance
“If you look back and you think about ‘Mad Men’ and Don Draper making Old Fashioneds, I think that there’s this huge inspiration of excitement and warm fuzzies. People think of sitting down and having a cocktail, and a whiskey cocktail at that. And so, I think that has really been able to broaden the range of people we get to step into the whiskey category,” McCall told AL.com “ But I also think that people really aspire to drink whiskey and bourbon neat or on the rocks. So, yes, cocktails are important, but that’s kind of an on-premise occasion. Cocktails have really driven and welcomed people into the category, but the people who stay around whiskey and the people who will keep continuing to grow and keep it going for many years are those who purely love the spirit itself.”
On whether she considers herself a “trailblazer” for women in the industry
“I get that question a lot. I don’t necessarily feel like I am a trailblazer,” McCall told AL.com. “ I do feel that I am a person smoothing out the trail and it just depends on what avenue. Within Brown-Forman, I’ve been a trailblazer. But in the industry as a whole, there are other women who have been in the distilling industry and been distillers prior to me doing that. So, I think in the industry as a whole, I’m kind of helping to smooth out the path and hopefully making it better for the next group of women to come along.”
Advice for bartenders who want to transition into positions at distilleries
“If you are a bartender and you really like bourbon, getting to work as a brand ambassador is a great way to get yourself closer to the maker,” said McCall. “I started out taking a very entry-level job into our company and sort of found myself in this role, but it wasn’t something I necessarily thought I was going to be when I started out, so I didn’t have any aspirations when I entered the company. I just wanted to get a job. And then I just worked my way into this role.”
Creative pairing: Woodford Reserve and Parmesan cheese
One of the best aspects of spirits tastings is creative pairings. For example, take French fries and champagne — the salt and fat of the fries cut though the champagne’s acidity, making it a nice complement to the bubbles. So, AL.com asked McCall for a unique pairing with Woodford Reserve bourbon. Her choice: Parmesan cheese.
“So, we talked about fattiness with the French fries. The fattiness of the Parmesan cheese coats the palate, and it will kind of inhibit some of the ethanol in the whiskey. So then, you’re just tasting flavor. So, for people who say they can’t handle the proof point of whiskey, the cheese cuts that and then it just lets you experience flavor. So I highly recommend going out to your local grocery store to buy yourself a block of Parmesan cheese and go pair that. Bite that and taste it, then taste your Woodford.”