Woodford Reserve's Elizabeth McCall: Career, Bourbon & What's to Come
It’s time to kick off National Bourbon Heritage Month by celebrating one of America’s finest bourbon distilleries, Woodford Reserve. A leader in the industry, this company sets the standard for classically made, flavorful whiskeys. Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller, provides the quality control necessary for creating this top-notch spirit. Learn about her unique career journey and the passion that she has for the distillation process, along with this year’s plans for the Kentucky Derby. With recommendations from the professional, discover how to bring the sponsored Woodford Reserve cocktail into your home, and the secret behind throwing a 2020 Derby party.
How did your role begin at Woodford Reserve? And can you tell us how you went from getting a Master's in counseling psychology to becoming an Assistant Master Distiller?
Elizabeth McCall: I received my undergraduate degree in counseling psychology, and I thought my plan was to be a therapist. Then I got into the field and realized it wasn't what I was hoping for. Right before I was getting ready to graduate, I discovered a job opening at Brown-Forman, our [Woodford Reserve’s] parent company. It was for a position in the sensory lab. They hire people with psychology backgrounds because, in the sensory world you're using human beings as your instrument. That was my in into Brown-Forman and into the more science-y, technical side of whiskey making.
From there, I eventually ended up going to our global production facilities - Finlandia and Chambord in France, Herradura in Mexico, Canadian Mist in Canada and Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee. I was educating our team on how to properly nose and taste, what defects to look for and to ensure we use a similar methodology in our production facilities. I participated in a program designed by Chris Morris, our Master Distiller, who brought me on as Master Taster for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester in April of 2015. A year later, I was moved out to the Woodford Reserve facility and worked as Senior Quality Control Specialist and Master Taster.
Then, in 2018, I got promoted to Assistant Master Distiller. It's been an interesting journey, but one that's really fit and felt good for me. It's been a natural progression for my interests and passions within our company.
How much of the production process are you involved in? Can you explain your distillation and maturation process and what that looks like on a day-to-day basis?
I'm in the production facility, but it's very much high-level. I touch base with our operators for updates and changes, and why. Being involved with the production team is something that I'm very passionate about. While I interact at a higher level, I love to set times where I go in and spend the day with our operators.
As far as our mashing process at Woodford Reserve, we have one mash cooker that we mash in - adding all our rye, corn and malt. Then, we have a yeast cooker, which basically is making the food for the yeast. We do a cereal sub culturing of our yeast; this is an interesting process that is not utilized by many production facilities anymore.
Then, the yeast goes through a much longer fermentation process, around five to seven days. This process helps the yeast to create fruit notes and flavors. The longer fermentation puts an emphasis on expressing the fruit character without stressing it. From there, we take the fermented mash to our beer still. The beer still is a separation process that removes the pure alcohol out of the fermented mash. After that, it’ll go into our second still, the Highline still. The Highline still is where we start to make cuts. Different temperatures in the stills allow for different flavor notes to be expressed. This is the beauty of having a batched, pot distillation process; it allows us to truly craft the flavor. The flavors that first come across your light boilers are fruit and floral notes. Then you have the center part of your run, which are more rich, robust, fruit notes. Finally, when it gets hotter it's going to be your heavy boilers and grainier notes. We cut those off so they’re not included in the production process.
And then with the third still, we follow that same model, but just keep those rich fruit notes in the center cut of the run. It's about crafting flavor when it comes to using a pot still. They're not efficient, but they're very useful for flavor. Once this process is complete, it's barreled at 110-barrel entry proof. These barrels have been made at the Brown-Forman cooperage; one of the only major distilleries that has its own cooperage, which is a huge advantage for us. This allows us total play with flavor, I call it couture barreling. Instead of purchasing what is available, our facility can customize how long we season the wood, let it sit outside, expose it to the weather and leech off some of the tannin so the wood can soften.
People often wonder why we don’t have an age statement on our bottle. This is because we heat cycle our warehouse. We have temperature probes in all our barrels throughout the warehouse. Our desired internal barrel temperature is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s warm in the warehouses, which allows the barrels to continue maturing through the wintertime. It’s a big piece of our puzzle and why it tastes more like a ten-year-old rather than five, but you can’t put that on a label. Last step – bottling the liquid.
Why do you think that the bourbon category specifically has been booming in the recent years and why do you think people get so intensely passionate about it?
My first reaction is that it's something that's very much American. Bourbon is a product of the U.S.A., so I think there's a lot of pride. Whenever there's a lot of pride attached to something, people immediately are passionate. It's become something of a cult following. It is quite amazing to see.
Do you drink anything other than bourbon or whiskey, or are you just enjoying the fruits of your labor?
I will enjoy a glass of wine, especially if I've been at the distillery doing tastings all day and my palate wants something different. I enjoy red wine and I'll have a beer if I'm on the beach, it just depends on the occasion.
What has been your most memorable moment in your career?
I've had a lot of great moments. I'd have to say the biggest moment in my career, other than my first Derby experience on the brand team, was in 2018 when Woodford Reserve became the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby.
My manager asked if I would make a toast on national television before the race. I knew there were nine million people watching me on TV, all around the U.S. and possibly around the world, additionally, everybody there at the track that day. That was the coolest moment that this job has ever afforded me to have. It was pouring down rain and afterwards I was like, "Oh my God, I did it and nailed all my lines and didn't screw up." It was awesome and I'll never forget that moment.
What would be your top tips for people watching the Derby at home and throwing a Derby party?
There's a lot of pomp and pageantry and it is fun being at the track, but if you can create the same pomp and pageantry at home, while avoiding the traffic, you can still have a great experience. NBC does a good job of bringing it to your home, so I would encourage people to have a Mint Julep or a Woodford Spire. You can batch up the juice and have the bourbon on the side to let people decide if they want to spike it. Have food and encourage people to get dressed up and wear hats. I mean, how often do you get to wear a hat or a fascinator as a woman? I think people love costume parties or theme parties. You can even do your own horse pool to have people bet at home. We would do that at Derby parties in Louisville. It’s a fun way to get people involved in watching the race.
Find more tips for your Derby festivities here.
What changes have you been a part of or made since taking on your role of Assistant Master Distiller?
I’ve been in this role for two years now, I'm just now starting to cut my teeth on innovation independently. Chris Morris has given me the reins to work on my own grain recipe and work on future Master’s Collections, which has been fun. Another thing I'm passionate about is our environment and trying to be sustainable and conscious of it. I've done some work which has me heavily involved in a project that we're working on with Woodford Reserve, The DendriFund. This is a foundation founded by Brown family members. It supports the entire industry and the University of Kentucky to bring the growing of rye grain back to Kentucky for use in the distilling industry. Currently rye is being sourced from Northern regions like Canada, Poland and Germany. If we could lessen our carbon footprint and support our Kentucky farmers at the same time, it would be a win all around.
Does Woodford Reserve have any future plans or goals that we should be aware of?
Yes, always. This year is the last time Woodford will be presented in the bottle that it is currently in. Next year we're switching up the packaging, which makes this even more special to get your hands on. Of course, I can't say what our Master's Collection release will be this fall but keep an eye out for it because it's going to be a gem of a whiskey. It's something we've never done in Woodford Reserve history before and I think everybody's going to be really pleased.
Do you have any advice for other young women who want to break into the spirits or bourbon industry?
Definitely. My biggest advice to anyone is don’t be afraid to create your own path. Find what you’re passionate about. I didn’t realize I was as passionate as I am about whiskey. My passion comes down to quality and wanting to produce really good whiskey. I spoke up about it and it landed me where I am. Be vocal and don’t be afraid to stretch yourself, even if you don’t think you’re 110% qualified. Push yourself and fake it until you make it!
Elizabeth McCall is a trailblazing individual in the spirit industry. She has been an inspiration, along with many talented women, that break the glass ceiling and open opportunities for women in the trade.