Elizabeth McCall uses a whiskey thief to pull a few ounces of bourbon from a large cognac barrel at Woodford Reserve’s historic distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. She pours a sample and noses the glass.
“I get some raisin, dried apple, brown sugar, and cinnamon notes,” she says. “It makes me think of an oatmeal raisin cookie.”
Her acute sensory skills are partly why McCall, 33, was recently promoted to assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve, becoming one of the country’s youngest female distillers. She’ll work directly with master distiller Chris Morris in overseeing the brand and, all things going to plan, it will be her signature on the bottle after he retires. We recently visited McCall at the distillery to see her in action.
What have you been working on?
I’ve been working with Chris on how we might carry this brand forward for the next twenty-plus years. We’ve laid out what we want to do with the core brand and brand extensions like Double Oaked. I’m especially interested in stretching my legs with the Master’s Collection and the Distillery Series.
Playing with grain recipes and grains that were historically grown in Kentucky. Also looking at different barrel finishes—not just to be fun, but that enhance what we’re already presenting in our bourbon.
It is still bourbon?
It becomes a distilled spirit specialty once you put it into a used barrel, and we label it as ‘bourbon finished in.’
There must be all kinds of experiments in progress.
Oh, yeah. We have a research and development team in Louisville, as well as a pilot plant for small-scale fermentation and distillation. We even have a mini heated warehouse—I don’t believe in accelerated maturation, but we can do something similar and get an idea of what a product might be like.
Your mom also worked in the industry.
She was the bottling operations manager at the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is now MGP, from the late ’70s through the early ’80s. Some say, ‘How unique that you’re in this role,’ but my mom managed a team of union workers for years and she never made a big deal about it. I just try to be a badass woman and keep on doing it.
You grew up in Louisville. Are you looking forward to the Derby?
I’m a horse person, and the Derby is my favorite thing we do all year. There’s nothing better than being backside before the sun comes up and hearing the horses go galloping by.
What do you look for in a mint julep?
A great mint julep is fantastic bourbon, good mint, a good sweetener source, and crushed ice. For this year’s $1,000 mint julep [sold at the Kentucky Derby to benefit a local nonprofit], we’ve sourced all of our ingredients from Woodford County, including our limestone-filtered water for the ice. The cup has galloping horses and Churchill Downs’ spires, but also water flowing all the way around it. Water is why the best racehorses and the best bourbon in the world come from Kentucky.
Do you enjoy bourbon outside of work?
I always order bourbon when I’m out. I’ve also gone to bars and tasted competitor’s products against Woodford in classic cocktails like a Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, or Old Fashioned. I have them serve it to me blind, but I can always pick out the Woodford because of the finish. There’s an almond, nutty note that carries the finish out for a long time.
How do you prefer your bourbon?
On the rocks, usually. People will sometimes say, ‘So and so is adding Coke to your Woodford,’ but everyone’s palate is different. Coca-Cola is very citrus forward and has a lot of spice character and sweet aromatic notes. Bourbon has similar characteristics.
Are you making an argument for Coca-Cola as a mixer?
From a sensory standpoint, it makes sense.