Published on April 10th, 2018 | by Darren Paltrowitz0
Woodford Reserve’s Elizabeth McCall On The Brand’s 2018 Kentucky Derby Bottle & More
The Kentucky Derby is widely-known as “the greatest two minutes in sports,” and Woodford Reserve has been a long-term partner of the Kentucky Derby. One of the components of this collaboration is the bourbon-maker’s creation of a Kentucky Derby commemorative bottle. This year’s limited-edition Woodford Reserve bottle includes the colorful artwork of Louisville artist Keith Anderson. The 19th bottle within this series, it features Anderson’s stunning painting of powerful thoroughbreds as they break from the starting gate, in the glory of their colorful racing silks. Interestingly, Anderson has drawn and painted since he was a child, but he’s never been a full-time artist; he initially sold artworks to friends to pay his college tuition and now still mainly sells his art to friends and family.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Woodford Reserve’s Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall on behalf of Hype not only about her brand and the upcoming extravaganza at Churchill Downs, but also about the life of a master taster. More on Woodford Reserve and its limited-edition bottle can be found online at www.woodfordreserve.com.
How did you get your start as a distiller? Did you ever bartend?
Elizabeth McCall: I got my start in the bourbon industry completely by chance. I was attending my younger brother’s graduation party and discussing my upcoming graduation from graduate school, where I was getting my master’s in Counseling Psychology. There was a man there who worked for Brown-Forman and overheard me discussing my future career plans. He informed me that the Sensory Department had a technician that was leaving and would have a spot open. I sent in my resume ASAP and a few months later I got the job!
My career at Brown-Forman began as a sensory technician, washing dishes and setting up tasting panels. A few years later I took an internal class on spirits, where I made a positive impression on our Master Distiller Chris Morris who, unbeknown to me, was looking for someone to train to be Woodford Reserve’s Master Taster. A few months later, he asked if I wanted to train for the role. I said yes of course! After working as Master Taster and Senior Quality Control Specialist for the past three or so years I was promoted to Assistant Master Distiller. I have never bartended, but love the work bartenders do and am always happy to taste test for them.
When did you first realize that you had strong, skilled taste buds?
Elizabeth McCall: I never woke up one day and realized I could taste, it was a slowly-discovered talent and skill. It’s one thing to be able to taste and discern different flavors, but describing is a whole different skill. Putting words to flavors and building your vocabulary is challenging, but fun. The way I trained was with the sensory team at Brown-Forman. Using aroma jars and building the base knowledge and sensory memory pathway to know what certain flavors really smell like.
For example, clove versus cinnamon versus nutmeg, these flavors are usually clumped together and used interchangeably but open up the spice jars and nose them each individually and write down what makes them distinct. Then pour yourself a glass of Woodford Reserve and nose the individual spices alongside your glass of Woodford. You’ll suddenly begin to pick out the specific notes in the glass! Practice makes perfect.
And when did you first learn to enjoy the taste of bourbon?
Elizabeth McCall: I wasn’t always ready to sip it neat, I had to baby step my way into it. For me I didn’t know how to mix it, drinking it neat or just on the rocks was intimidating. It was brown, so I didn’t think it could be mixed with anything that wasn’t brown. Since I don’t really care for cola I didn’t know what to do. Thank goodness for my training on this spirit many years ago. Understanding the flavors of bourbon is key. Once I understood the flavors of bourbon I was able to start mixing it with different juices, and eventually I worked my way to enjoying it on the rocks or neat. I also love a good cocktail, cocktails are a great way to explore bourbon.
Is it true that one of your parents worked within the bourbon industry?
Elizabeth McCall: My mother worked at the old Seagram’s plant in the late 70’s and early 80’s. She was definitely a pioneer in her role, but for her it was just a fun job.
Woodford Reserve has a special bottle coming out for the Kentucky Derby. Who designed it?
Elizabeth McCall: I am so excited about this year’s bottle, a fellow Brown-Forman employee is this year’s artist, Keith A. Anderson!
Is the bourbon itself within the 2018 Kentucky Derby Bottle any different from the regular formula? Does something make it more Kentucky Derby-appropriate?
Elizabeth McCall: There is nothing different about the liquid. It is Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in a commemorative bottle to celebrate the Kentucky Derby.
Do always drink your bourbon straight?
Elizabeth McCall: Nope, I will usually drink it on the rocks, sometimes I will make a classic cocktail such as an old-fashioned, or in a simple mixed drink with hot cider in the winter or lemonade in the summer. It all just depends on my mood.
Are there any soft drinks that you feel are appropriate to mix with Woodford Reserve?
Elizabeth McCall: As much as I don’t recommend people to mix soft drinks with Woodford Reserve, there are a lot of soft drinks that pair really well with it. Since Woodford Reserve contains over 212 flavors in it, it’s easy. Cola has a lot of citrus, spice and sweet aromatic notes, which is why it is such a classic for a simple mixed drink any citrus based soft drink is also a great mixer. The fun thing about mixing with soft drinks is that it can actually extend the bourbon by increasing the volume of your drink while cutting down the proof.
Kentucky Derby bottle aside, what is coming up for Woodford Reserve?
Elizabeth McCall: We have a lot in the works. We have a Batch Proof Master’s Collection coming out in the coming months as well as a Woodford Reserve Malt Whiskey. The Batch Proof Master’s Collection is high-proof Woodford Reserve, since our batches are many barrels batched together with barrel rinse water we are calling it Batch Proof. The Malt Whiskey is majority of malt grain in the recipe, so has more rich nutty and dried fruit character.
When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?
Elizabeth McCall: I enjoy riding horses and spending time with my husband, fur children — horse and dog — and family. I also sit on the board of a local nonprofit, Green Hill Therapy, where they utilize horses for physical and occupational therapy along with traditional therapies.
As a music-oriented site, I must ask: What is the last concert you went to for fun?
Elizabeth McCall: I went to James Taylor, he was AWESOME!
Finally, Elizabeth, any last words for the kids?
Elizabeth McCall: Drink Woodford Reserve any way you want, it is meant to be enjoyed (laughs), and don’t let anyone make you feel like there is a right or a wrong way to do it. And always drink it responsibly — it takes us years to make Woodford Reserve. Sip it slowly.