Giving Whiskey An American Twist
By Hope S. Philbrick
A Kentucky native, Morris joined Brown-Forman in 1976 at age 18 as an intern working at the distillery. It was a natural place for him to begin his career. “Both my mother and father were Brown-Forman employees,” he says. “Dad was at Brown-Forman for 41 years.” Morris became a protégé of the Master Distiller, but he left the company to get additional distillery experience at Glenmore Distilleries Company and United Distillers. He returned in 1997. “I worked with the Master Distiller and upon his retirement I was the successor,” he says. “No coursework was involved. It’s all being there, working and learning how everything is done.” In terms of a career, he’s found his perfect match: “I love what I do. I’m really in love with the business, with bourbon.”
Morris is the custodian of a long tradition. “The Woodford Reserve distillery was founded by the Pepper family in 1812,” he says. The Pepper family owned and operated the distillery for three generations before it was sold and resold, eventually acquired by Brown-Forman in 1940. “During the tenure of Oscar Pepper and his Master Distiller James Crow history was truly made,” Morris says. “They were literally defining what bourbon whiskey was and is today. They did not invent bourbon—no one really invented bourbon whiskey, it evolved—but they put it all together and put it down in the books according to science.”
In 1964 Congress declared bourbon to be the “official native spirit” of the U.S. To be defined as a bourbon, several conditions must be met: The spirit must be made in the U.S. (and only bourbon produced in Kentucky can bear that state’s name), the grain recipe must be at least 51 percent corn but cannot exceed 79 percent, it must not exceed 160-proof at distillation and has a 125-proof cap when placed into barrel, it must be aged in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and when bottled only pure water may be added to the spirit.
Within these legal bounds, it is possible for Morris to get creative. Unregulated factors impacting bourbon flavor include the number of distillations, individual barrel characteristics, water mineral content, the climate in the storage warehouse and more. While guarding specific secrets about the production of Woodford Reserve, Morris reveals that he uses limestone water and a specific strain of yeast, ferments for seven days, and distills three times in copper pot stills.
Though he says that his “every day job is to make Woodford Reserve the best we can make it,” Morris finds time to experiment. “We’re still trying to push the bounds of whiskey making, to make it ever more interesting for the consuming public.”
Sometimes innovation means looking back: A few years ago, Morris was part of the team that distilled the first whiskey at the reconstructed Mount Vernon Distillery based on a recipe from 1799. “The goal of the partnership with Mount Vernon was to bring back an awareness of George Washington,” he says. “At time of his death, Washington was second largest distiller in the U.S. I think that’s more important for people to know about him than what his teeth were made out of.”
History was also the root of Morris’ first Master’s Collection Release, the Four Grain. “We used an old 1903 recipe,” says Morris. “It tasted like a slice of pecan pie.” The innovative Master’s Collection whiskies are released periodically and meant to honor the spirit industry’s pioneers. With each release, one of the five sources of flavor–grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and maturation–is changed. Each of these sources is unique to bourbon whiskey, and altering just one of them creates a totally new flavor profile. The celebrated series has also included Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, Sweet Mash, Seasoned Oak, Maple Wood Finish, Rare Rye Selection and, most recently, Four Wood offerings. All Master’s Collection whiskeys are extremely limited in quantity and bottled only once.
“We didn’t invent whiskey, but we put a nice American twist on it,” says Morris. And he continues to twist the possibilities in delicious ways.
-Photo Credits: First image courtesy Brown-Forman; second image courtesy Kentucky Distillers Association.
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