Dave Scheurich, general manager of the Woodford Reserve distillery, draws off a sample of bourbon as it’s emptied from the barrel. (Photo by Vito Palmisano)

Premium bourbon kept in Reserve

Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve distillery in bluegrass country is a source of premium batch bourbon-and a tourist attraction.

by Pan Demetrakakes, Editor

Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve distillery, in Versailles (pronounced Ver-SAILS), Ky., is an exquisite combination of two things dear to Kentucky: horses and bourbon.

The distillery is nestled in the heart of bluegrass country, amid horse farms that occupy lovely rolling, verdant hills. Woodford Reserve, comprising 73 acres and 12 buildings, is a major tourist attraction, bringing in more than 80,000 visitors a year. It’s a National Historic Landmark, alongside such places as the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore.

It wasn’t always thus. For a period of about 20 years, until 1994, the facility passed from the hands of Brown-Forman and was allowed to fall into complete disrepair. Brown-Forman retook the buildings and designated Dave Scheurich to oversee their renovation.

Scheurich is still there today-in fact, he resides in a house on the property-and serves as Woodford Reserve’s general manager. As such, he’s responsible for, not only maintaining it as a tourist attraction, but keeping it turning out the eponymous whiskey.

In 2008, 126,000 cases of Woodford Reserve whiskey, at 9 liters each, were sold in the U.S. and a few select export markets. The bottles come in five sizes, ranging from 375 milliliters to 1.75 liters. When label changes are taken into account-comprising everything from overseas labeling to special editions such as the annual Kentucky Derby edition--the facility puts out more than 50 stock-keeping units (SKUs).

Until five years ago, the product was all the same. But in 2004, Brown-Forman brought out Master’s Collection Woodford Reserve, a super-premium twist on the already premium product. Selling for about $80 a bottle (compared with $30 for regular Woodford Reserve), the Master’s Collection product is processed, bottled and shipped over an eleven-day period each year-which coincided withFood & Beverage Packaging’svisit.

“This creates interest among whiskey aficionados and in the media,” Scheurich says.

Labeling of super-premium product Master’s Collection Woodford Reserve is done almost entirely by hand. (Photo by Vito Palmisano)

Fewer bottles, more labor

With only 1,200 cases of Master’s Collection shipped out each year, the packaging process is slightly different, mostly because it’s more labor-intensive.

All of the bourbon produced at Woodford is aged in new charred white oak barrels for seven years. (Scheurich recounts how he sometimes asks the businesspeople he takes on VIP tours to forecast how their businesses will perform seven years from now. “They get this deer-in-the-headlights look,” he chuckles.) When the bourbon is ready for final processing and bottling, about 130 of the barrels, which hold 52.8 gallons apiece, are emptied into a trough and pumped into a processing tank. The barrels can’t be reused for bourbon, but they’re sold to Scotch distillers; the residue and changes to the wood help give Scotch its distinctive flavor.

The loadcell-equipped processing tank helps keep track of total production-something that has to be done carefully to comply with record-keeping for federal excise taxes. Carbon is added and the bourbon is agitated so that the carbon can absorb fatty acids that would otherwise turn the whiskey cloudy in cold weather. The whiskey passes through a plate-and-frame paper filter several times, until it has the requisite clarity. A sample is deep-frozen, which makes any remaining fatty acids stand out.

The bourbon is pumped into an adjacent bottling tank, and water, filtered through reverse osmosis, is added to bring the product down to the final proof (about 90.4, which is 45.2% alcohol). It’s now ready for bottling.

Plant personnel take five empty bottles at random, weigh them, run them through the filler and weigh them again. The point is to see if the fill level is set properly-that is, if the whiskey comes out right by weight at a given fill level. If the weight is off, the filler heads might have to be adjusted, although this is rare.

Bottles are turned upside-down by a carousel bottle cleaner from McBrady Engineering, which cleans them with a blast of filtered air. They are filled by a 40-head fill-to-level rotary filler, and corked by equipment from Grupo Bertolaso. The line runs 50 bottles per minute.

For most Woodford Reserve bottles, the main decoration is done before the bottles arrive at the distillery. Woodford had used applied ceramic labels, but switched a few years ago to decals, applied by Chattanooga Labeling Systems. The decals, hardened in kilns, are more durable than ACLs.

Most Woodford bottles then receive supplemental labels, mostly from Heritage Graphics-a strip stamp across the cork, a hang tag, and pressure-sensitive labels on the neck, front, back and side-applied by a labeling system from CTM Integration. Master’s Reserve, on the other hand, gets all labeling hand-applied (including a shrink band around the cork, which other Woodford Reserve bottles don’t have).

Bottles are hand-cased, run through a taper from the Wexxar/Bel div. of ProMach, and hand-palletized. They’re sent to storage, which has a capacity of about 50,000 cases.
For more information:

Chattanooga Labeling Systems
423-825-2125; www.clsdeco.com

CTM Integration
330-332-1800; www.ctmint.com

Grupo Bertolaso SpA
011-39-0442-450111; www.bertolaso.com

McBrady Engineering
815-744-8900; www.mcbradyengineering.com

Wexxar/Bel div. of ProMach