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We made it through January. You deserve a drink.
Issue 5: A conversation with Elizabeth McCall, Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve
Why hello there! Welcome to on hand! If you’ve landed here and somehow aren’t subscribed, I got you:
Elizabeth McCall is the Assistant Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve, one of the country’s preeminent bourbon brands. As Assistant Master Distiller, she’s second in command, and is being prepared to take over for Chris Morris when he retires. She’s one of the only women to be in this prominent position in the distilling world, and also one of the youngest. She and I connected virtually to talk about her job, the bourbon world, and why it’s important that she’s a woman in this position.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the distilling world.
Elizabeth McCall: Getting into the industry was totally by chance. I was working as a sensory technician, and had heard about a job opening at Brown-Forman, which is our parent company. I got my degree in counseling psychology, so I was supposed to be a therapist but I just wasn't enthused about that. I mean, kudos to everybody who does therapy and I think it's really important, but that beverage alcohol just can't beat it.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a little bit more about what a sensory technician is?
Elizabeth McCall: I was on the team looking at quality control, testing on the quality of our products, looking for defects, and working directly with our production facilities to maintain quality.
Brianna Plaza: So after spending a couple of years on that team, how did you make the transition to distilling?
Elizabeth McCall: I am a very curious person, so that led me to the research & development team. I had a colleague go out on maternity leave and I took over her responsibilities for all my samples and I had to learn how to do wet chemistry and that took me down that path. I had a passion to learn, I kept asking questions, and eventually I got out into the distilleries.
I started traveling around the world, going to all of our production facilities, training our teams on how to properly nose and taste our products and make sure that they know how to pick up defects, what to look for, what to do if there is an issue. Working in quality is really what got me into the role of master taster and then eventually, which landed me working out in production and working at Woodford Reserve exclusively.
Brianna Plaza: So in this role, what does your day to day look like? I imagine it's more than just tasting alcohol all day.
Elizabeth McCall: Outside of quarantine, I like to think of it as four pillars. If there are any quality issues or if any questions about the quality or flavor of our product, Chris Morris (Master Distiller) and I have to give the final yes or no with it. Then it's innovation and really growing the brand and making sure that we are innovating in a way that makes sense for the brand.
And then we also do training — people that are bartenders coming to the distillery training, or consumer events, doing different whiskey knowledge tasting, that sort of thing. Finally, my personal training which is continued learning and being the brand ambassador.
Brianna Plaza: How has your job changed since we've been on lockdown?
Elizabeth McCall: It’s been very interesting. I haven't been going out and we've also been really trying to make sure that our production team members are as safe as possible. We're just distilling and bottling our basic products that we already know how to run and that we've got the quality measures in place. We're working to keep our teams safe — there's no crossover between shifts. We're cleaning everything in between, just to help keep them safe.
Chris Morris has done virtual tastings with people all over the globe and I've done a lot of tastings on Instagram. Prior to being in quarantine, we just never really imagined that that would have been a desirable thing.
Brianna Plaza: Have you seen your global footprint increase or change since you’ve taken your tastings to social media?
Elizabeth McCall: I don't know if it's necessarily expanding, but it's definitely something where we're retaining it. We have a strong global footprint, and Woodford Reserve is known all around the world. What we're focusing on though is helping people who fell in love with Woodford Reserve going out to different bars have that experience at home?
Brianna Plaza: I assume that there are master recipes for your bourbons, but then how do you put your stamp on these recipes?
Elizabeth McCall: We have our standard recipes — our bourbon recipe, rye recipe, wheat whiskey, and a malt whiskey recipe. When it comes to innovation, Chris Morris and I think a lot about what Woodford is all about and ways to bring in unique flavors.
I also look at things I'm passionate about, like sustainability and how to keep our business local. We partnered with local farmers to grow different corn for new types of bourbons. It was fun because I get to learn from the farmers and learn about what they have to go through in order to produce these different grains.
We currently source rye from Europe and into Canada and we thought, "How can we make this work in Kentucky?” As we’ve started to use local grains, we're seeing some great results, not only from being able to get good grain, but great tasting whiskey.
We're still in the process of learning about it, but we distilled one batch and didn't see a significant difference in taste. The caveat is that if it does cause a flavor difference, then you can have a unique, Kentucky-proud product.
Brianna Plaza: Other than corn types and rye growing locations, what are some other ways that you can customize and branch out bourbon?
Elizabeth McCall: We were the first brand to finish bourbon in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrels. We've experimented a lot, but we have a philosophy on how we do that. What's the purpose of this brand and what do we believe in? It's not about adding flavor, it's about taking a flavor that already exists within that bourbon or whiskey and elevating it.
When you finish our bourbon in a cognac barrel, it just enhances it and makes it beautiful. It's not about trying to hide anything or to add something that doesn't exist. We've done that a lot and we are experimenting now with port and sherry barrels. We're doing more with Pinot Noir barrels because we have the Sonoma-Cutrer wine brand in the Brown-Forman portfolio.
Brianna Plaza: What do you think being a woman means for the brand and distilling in general?
Elizabeth McCall: When I first got promoted, I wanted to make it very clear that the storyline wouldn't be that I am a woman. I'm very proud of the fact that I'm a woman, but I also got the job because I had the skills necessary to do the job. But the more I thought about it, it makes me almost emotional now, because young girls can see a woman doing this job.
And I think that's the biggest win for me when I took on this role. I am a woman distiller. Yes, I have the skillset. But let's talk about the fact that yeah, I am a woman and why is that significant? It does matter. And it matters because I'm a role model for young women, that they can look to somebody in this role and see that it isn't just old white men. It is a young woman and I'm not an old woman. I'm a young woman doing this and that they can do that too.
Brianna Plaza: How has Derby season felt without the actual Derby and how have you seen consumers adapting to a virtual Derby?
Elizabeth McCall: It was an emotional roller coaster for me personally, because I love Derby. It is my favorite thing about my job. But then the Woodford Reserve brand team really rallied and got it together and we celebrated the first Saturday of May like Derby was happening and it was amazing. We had so much engagement from the whole world. Chris Morris and I were doing virtual tastings and there were Derby parties all around the world. People still wanted that reason to celebrate.
Brianna Plaza: I want to drink bourbon, where do I start?
Elizabeth McCall: I start with food pairings. I think that familiarizing your palette with the bourbon and understanding the flavor attributes is one step. I always tell people to pour yourself just a small glass and you can start with pairing it with a fatty cheese. Then try it with different food items like dark chocolate or citrus. Take a bite of whatever food item it is and then take another sip and see how it changes the way it tastes, the flavor on your palette.
Then you go on to very simple cocktails like our Woodford Spire, a cocktail with bourbon, lemonade, and cranberry juice. We have lemon notes in Woodford Reserve bourbon and we also have those dry, dark fruit notes. Those are good ways to enhance what's going on in your glass. And then you graduate to the more boozy cocktails. And then after that, you can get into drinking it neat or on the rocks.
One of our bourbons that's the best for drinking neat or on the rocks is the Woodford Double Oaked. It smells like maple syrup and caramel and vanilla and it's just so easy to sip on, but there's a lot of complexity to it. Even the most fancy kind of bourbon connoisseurs can really appreciate it.
You’ve got to train your palette. That it's something I always tell people. Just have fun with it. And don't pressure yourself that you have to like it. You have to learn to appreciate it.
Brianna Plaza: What is your favorite way to drink bourbon?
Elizabeth McCall: Well, I love a Woodford Spire, or even if I just do bourbon and lemonade when I'm hanging out, summertime, all good. But I honestly am very lazy and our bourbon is so great, just on the rocks. I just love pouring it over some ice and sipping on it.
Other things ~
If you made it through Dry January, or any other month of health to start out the year, good job! I tried to eat more vegan meals, and I had a few friends go dry for the month. *high five!*
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