Behind the Brand
Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall is the second generation of her family to work in the spirits industry and one of the youngest female distillers in the United States. Having shifted her focus originally from psychology to spirits quality and sensory experience, she found her match in Woodford Reserve, which has built a legacy around flavor. We sat down with Elizabeth (virtually) to learn more about her work, how she reached this role of master distiller, and what she is most passionate about within this storied brand.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY?
I got started by chance; I was not specifically seeking out jobs in the beverage or alcohol industry. I actually got my undergrad and graduate degrees in psychology. So, for my Masters, I was getting my degree in counseling psychology and was on track to do psychological assessments and therapy with people, and that was what I thought I was going to do. And then, I heard about the opportunity at Brown-Forman to work in their sensory lab.
I didn’t even know really what the job would entail. I was just told that it was a lot of washing dishes and entering data. It’s a very entry-level position; you’re probably really overqualified because you have a Master's degree. And I was like, I don’t care; I think that the beverage/alcohol sounds a lot more fun than doing therapy, and that track was just not in my head what I thought it would be.
But this opportunity came up, and I jumped at it. And I started as a sensory technician in the quality control side of the sensory team within global production in Brown-Forman, and that works with all global facilities. So, I was washing dishes and setting up tasting panels, very much entry-level. At the time, I didn’t know that whiskey was clear before it went into the barrel, and I learned everything on the job at Brown-Forman.
HOW DID THIS LEAD TO YOUR ROLE AS MASTER DISTILLER?
I quickly realized that I had a strong passion for quality control and how our products are produced, and making sure that all of our global production facilities were utilizing the same methodologies so that when we were going to look at issues or just how people were working, we were looking at it under the same lens. So that parlayed into the role of sensory scientist and becoming an ambassador in a lot of ways for the research and development team going to our global production facilities - so Finland, France and Canada, Mexico, Jack Daniel’s down in Tennessee, Woodford, and Old Forester - I was going to all of our global production facilities, working with all of their teams, teaching them how to properly nose and taste our products, and letting them know that we were there as a support system, not a going to get you in trouble sort of system.
From there, I took a class with Chris Morris in an internal training, and I was the person that showed up early, and asked 10-million questions just because I worked so closely with all of our products. So, I guess I left a nice impression and I had also mentioned to my manager that I wanted to do more consumer engagement things. The opportunity came up for a master taster role and Chris Morris asked if I wanted to train for it. Of course I said yes, and that started in 2014, and then by Spring of 2015, I was Master Taster for both Woodford and Old Forester. Then later in 2016, I was transitioned into production for Woodford Reserve and Master Taster, so I was Sr. Quality Control Specialist and Master Taster for Woodford Reserve exclusively, so I started working with only Woodford Reserve and then in 2018, I was promoted to Assistant Master Distiller for Woodford. In 2023, I was named as Master Distiller, the third in the bourbon brand’s 26-year history, succeeding Morris, who will assume the role of Master Distiller Emeritus.
WHAT MAKES WOODFORD RESERVE A STANDOUT IN THE INDUSTRY?
We make every drop of Woodford Reserve and we do not sell any drop of Woodford Reserve to anyone else. So, if you want to get Woodford Reserve, you have to buy it in a bottle of Woodford Reserve. We put “proprietary batch” on our label because we are very proud of the liquid that we make, so we check on every piece of the quality puzzle from the grains that we get in, all the way through to the glassware, and the labels and finished product in those bottles is really important to us.
I think that in today’s industry, often one plant makes it and they sell it under a different labels. But this is a very huge prideful thing for us at Woodford Reserve. That we do make it all and that we touch it all, and that every batch is approved by the sensory standard that Chris Morris and I set.
WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE BEING IN YOUR CURRENT POSITION AS MASTER DISTILLER?
I would say the number one thing for my role and Chris Morris’s role is to ensure the consistent quality of Woodford Reserve. At the end of the day, no matter where we are in the world, we’re always available to consult our teams if they have a question that gets to where it’s going to be something that consumers would see; they would definitely get us to check off on that. For quality, we do provide all of the standards, so every batch is compared back to a gold standard of liquid. You make a batch and you test it side-by-side to make sure that it tastes the way that it should -- it matches the profile. Quality is number one.
No day is the same. Monday I was at the distillery connecting with our teams checking in. Honestly, I just like to maintain a relationship with all of our operators. So, I was out at our warehouses and then I went into our bottling area; how are things running, what’s going on and what are the issues that we have had. And it’s just a great way to stay connected to the day-to-day that’s going on and with the people that are out there because they are the heart and soul of Woodford Reserve. And just staying connected with them is of the utmost priority for me, and to gain their respect and to see that I am part of the team with them.
I also participate in consumer events. We have been supporting a lot of virtual tastings -- in this Covid world, where I connect with people, and they have got their bottles of Woodford at home. So, I get to sit down with them and educate them on the brand. We also do a lot of personal selections, and I am currently surrounded by a bunch of barrel samples for requests for connecting virtually.
And then, of course is the innovation -- working on what’s going to be the next Masters Collection and Distillery Series, and keeping that ball rolling because every year we have to have something new.
HOW DO YOU INTENTIONALLY LOOK AT THE WOODFORD BRAND AND ITS REFLECTION IN THE OVERALL INDUSTRY?
I think that what’s wonderful with Woodford Reserve is that we focus on flavor. And we have a philosophy and an understanding of how we want to grow the brand: Brand Expressions, Masters Collection. It all boils down to flavor, and being able to express flavors naturally, produce naturally in the whiskey making process. We always look at the five sources of flavor:
- Water, which we’re not going to switch up our water source. Limestone filtered water is kind of the best you can get, so we are not going to switch up our water.
- Grain Recipe, which we can play with. And we have done that with previous Master’s Collections and future Master’s Collections that we will focus on. We will look to the past; we’ll look at old documents. We have the original documents from Labrot and Graham who owned our distillery back in 1916, and it has some old grain recipes. So, I’ll use that for inspiration. And then it’s linking the past with modern contemporary styles of whiskey to create beautiful flavor.
- Fermentation: We’re not going to change our yeast. We have our proprietary yeast strains; we don’t want to mess with that.
- Distillation: We keep the same with the triple pot still at Woodford Distillery but,
- Maturation: We can play with barrels. We have our own cooperage and then we have the ability to get in different barrels for finishing. And if we’re going to finish a whiskey in a different barrel, say for instance we had the pinot noir finish or we have our Woodford Reserve Baccarat, which is the luxury level with Woodford aged in cognac, those barrels contain flavors that already exist in Woodford Reserve so we’re just enhancing what already exists.
That’s core to our philosophy, and I think that makes us very powerful. I believe it helps consumers understand what they are going to get with Woodford. And even with our Master’s Collection, they might not always like what we have done, but what we have done is usually the first whiskey of its kind and it’s a testament to innovation and pushing the envelope in the whiskey category and the quality is always going to be top notch.
HAVE YOU REFLECTED ON WHAT IT MEANS TO LEAD AS A WOMAN IN THE SPIRITS INDUSTRY?
You know, when I was first was asked to become Master Taster, or to train for it, one of the first conversations that I had with Chris Morris was around the fact that I am a female and that I didn’t want that to be the focus of why I got the job or that “oh my gosh, our next master taster is a woman,”while not looking at what qualified me for the job. Because it’s really important that this was what was shining through - that the next most qualified person for this role is Elizabeth McCall. Yes, she happens to be a woman, but that’s not why she has this role. And that was kind of a big deal, and I was just also concerned with if this was what people were going to think, and I don’t want to carry this torch of being this role model with a big kind of weight to carry or responsibility.
And now, it has struck me over the years. That it’s something that I am actually very proud of and I have just learned to embrace it, and be so proud of it because there are so many women that have probably wanted to do something like this years ago and couldn’t, and never saw someone in a role like that, to see that they can do that themselves. And I have a niece, and when I do the toast on Derby, we do it on National television and it’s so cool and I am just still amazed that I get the opportunity to do that. And they had it on at home, and they recorded it and my niece was watching it a few years ago, I think it was the first time that I did it. And they were like… she calls me “Biz” because “Elizabeth” is very long for her, and they said, “Did you see Biz? And she said “that’s Biz!” And they played it again and again.
And watching that back, that really struck me and it makes me emotional now to know that there are little girls out there, watching that and they see me in this role, and can now envision themselves in this role; they can see that it’s going to be normal. And as I have a daughter, as she’s growing up, she’s going to see that mommy is the one that is drinking bourbon and making whiskey and is at the distillery and it’s just normal to her and she can dream to do that if she wants to or doesn’t have to go into bourbon if she doesn’t to.
But it has taken me a while to embrace that responsibility and now to fully appreciate it. That I have always kept my head down and focused on working hard and just doing my job, and not looking at the broader big picture of what it means. I just worked hard to be the best at the job I could be.
HOW ARE YOU ENCOURAGING AND MENTORING OTHER LEADERS?
I don’t turn down any opportunity to mentor people if I am approached - “hey, can we meet for coffee” or now virtually meet - I am always very willing to do that. I am also participating in a mentorship program with the alumni with the University of Louisville. And within the company, I am in different employee resource groups and always try to be a sounding board for anyone who has questions about how to navigate their career.
And also, we have a business newspaper local thing here in Louisville and they are part of a national Mentoring Monday that I have participated in. So, it’s national women mentoring other women and finding ways to connect and reach out with questions. I know that I was always helped by other women sharing their stories of how they got to where they are, so any opportunity I can I try to do that; I love trying to help out.
ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING RELEASES THAT READERS SHOULD BE AWARE OF?
We have our Batch Proof, which was just released. Batch Proof is sort of new; it comes in a differently shaped bottle,and that is going to be a change in the proof itself. So, every year we are going to release it in the spring time and it should be higher proof. Basically how we make that is we take our standard batch of Woodford barrels, and then we just rinse the barrels with water, and it’s just whatever that rinse water added to the batch changes the proof to. So, I think that’s one where people don’t realize how cool and unique that is. It tastes a little different every time because the proof is going to shift how it tastes, and of course where the barrels are pulled from changes that as well.
And then we have our Master’s Collection as I have talked about that is released every fall. And I really think that this is so undervalued by consumers. I don’t think they understand that this is truly unique and rare, and our promise with this expression of Woodford Reserve is to never repeat, so it’s always something that’s innovative, a whiskey that’s a first of its kind in most cases, and definitely the first ever for Woodford Reserve. And it pushes the envelope in terms of innovation and it is rare, so once we sell out of it, we’ll never have it again.
The Batch Proof that we just released is 128.3 proof, which is one of the highest that we have yet. And it is really good. Chris and I just wrote the tasting notes for it a few weeks ago.
HOW ARE YOU CURRENTLY ENJOYING WOODFORD RESERVE?
I typically drink my Woodford, no matter what expression it is, on the rocks. But Double Oaked; I just love it. It is my favorite; it’s the one of our expressions that I started actually drinking whiskey on the rocks with. My father-in-law and my husband, they both have very heavy pours, so my favorite way to drink Double Oaked in a good sized rocks glass, fill it up with ice and then pour in a healthy amount of Double Oaked, and just let it all kind of marinate. Because I love it just neat. I mean Woodford Double Oaked is the most friendly pour you’ll get from a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey on the planet. It’s just so approachable and friendly - I mean I just love saying that. It’s just very complex and there’s a lot going on in there.
When you have the ice in there, it allows it to become an evolving cocktail. Because as the ice melts, you begin to see different flavor notes and different attributes come through. It’s just a great way to drink it, and especially going into the warmer season, it is always refreshing that way. That’s my favorite way and how I am usually drinking it at home. And occasionally, I’ll make myself a cocktail, but I am really looking forward to going back out to bars to have really well made cocktails by professionals. I am professional at drinking whiskey just straight and neat; I’m not professional at making cocktails.
Elizabeth’s work to drive innovation and shape the Woodford Reserve tradition in partnership with Master Distiller Chris Morris is paving the way for the future of the World’s Finest Bourbon. You have seen it mentioned a number of times, so if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. And be sure to keep an eye out for their upcoming releases.
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