Spirits preview: Opening the Bourbon Notebook

November 17, 2010

Woodward Reserve Maple

I’m preparing to write about bourbon in my December Spirits column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (usually the column runs on the first Sunday of the month, but sometimes it slips to the second Sunday). To that end, I’ve been trying out some new (to me, at least) brands. ( I’m also open to suggestions.)

Woodford Reserve isn’t my stock sipping bourbon (that would be Knob Creek) but I’ve always liked the brand a lot. It’s got a distinctive “woody”flavor, with a trace of charcoal and chocolate in the finish. It’s a subtle, light bourbon that, if anything, is just a tad too refined for my palate (which was raised up on busthead Evan Williams). I’ll drink it — I’ll even buy it — but most of the time I prefer a little rawer quaff.

And now they’ve issued a new product, Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish, with a premium price — a bottle suggestively retails for $89.95. And because they offered me a sample ( a couple of shots, dear ethicists) I tried it the other night.

It’s pretty nice too — like the regular Woodford Reserve but with a mild brown sugar/maple infusion that’s really more detectable in the nose than on the tongue. (According to the distillery, it’s aged in a in a toasted — not charred — maple wood barrel and it’s the first bourbon to be finish aged in barrels made from sugar maple wood.) It clocks in at 94 proof, which is a little less fiery than the 103 to 107 proof Booker’s I keep back for special occasions.

Another new (to me) bourbon I’ve tasted recently is Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 Year Old Family Reserve. (Excuse the surreptiously taken iPhone photo. I just wanted to document the label.) This was sprung on me recently at a friend’s house (not a completely unpleasant experience) and my blind reaction was that it was like a more aromatic, “less syrupy” Booker’s.

Which means, it’s a great, dragon-breathed sipping whiskey. I wasn’t surprised it was a Van Winkle product (I’ve had their stately 12-year-old Special Reserve many times). I’ve seen the Family Reserve in local stores going for around $55 — the Special Reserve is about $10 less — and I might pick up a bottle when it’s time to replenish the top shelf stock. (Which I keep hidden deep in the bar.)

Finally, I want to ask for some help identifying this last bottle, which (as you can see in the photo) is labled “Rare Old Colonel Randolph Very Fine Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.”

Trouble is, I can’t really find out anything about it. My research turned up one dismissive comment on a bourbon blog, and pratically nothing else. It was allegedly bottled in Bardstown (Nelson County), Kentucky.

I’m asking in part, because one of the reasons I want to do this blog is to honor the process of what I do for a living. Writing is, by and large, solitary if not lonely work, and while I’m pretty well suited to it, I’m also convinced that most of us need to get out  in the open air more often.

And I know from experience that a lot of my readers know about a lot of obscure stuff. So, who was Colonel Randolph? And what’s the story behind this whiskey? (I would guess the bottle in the photo is from the late 1970s or early 1980s, but it could be a decade later, I really don’t know.)

And watch for the next Spirits installment in the newspaper.


  • Comment by tmfw — Nov 17,2010 at 3:20 pm

    I’ll do my best to come up with something, Sir!

  • Comment by blind willie mctell — Nov 17,2010 at 4:32 pm

    Have you ever done a Spirits piece on vodka? How about a blind taste test across the spectrum of price possibilities? Such an exercise might be interesting to cost conscious readers like blind willie. My bet is that it would be hard to discern a difference between a $15 dollar bottle and a $30 bottle. Liquor, not food, for thought.

  • Comment by tmfw — Nov 18,2010 at 7:25 am

    Nothing so far. Binny’s in Chicago doesn’t carry it and they have everything. It looks like Colonel Randolph got decommissioned. I’ve got our man at the North Carolina bureau on the case. His vast expertise in the subject should prove helpful.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Nov 18,2010 at 7:32 am

    I suspect it is strictly a label job.
    And Mr. McTell, I have written on vodka and will again, but I hardly think you need any instruction in the subject. Tito’s works pretty well for everybody.

  • Comment by Uncleredeye — Dec 13,2010 at 3:23 pm

    If memory serves – and it often doesn’t after 40 some odd years of all sorts of mind-bending potables – isn’t one of the requirements for a whisky to qualify as bourbon that it be aged in charred oak barrels? Does the term “bourbon” appear anywhere on the Woodford Reserve Bottle?

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Dec 13,2010 at 3:43 pm

    “Bourbon” has only been defined strictly since 1964, when a congressional resolution laid out the basic elements: To be Bourbon are that it must be a minimum of two years old, at least 80° and be made from a mash of at least 51% corn. It must be aged in charred new oak barrels.

    And despite what some will tell you, the “law” does not stipulate origin.Still 99% of Bourbon Whiskey comes from Kentucky.

  • Comment by steady_steve — Jan 16,2011 at 9:44 pm

    Hi there, I purchased a bottle of O.C.R. bourbon probably about 25 years ago at Zimmerman’s Cut-Rate Liqours on Grand Ave. I have been trying to track down info on this bottling myself as , I still have an un-opened bottle in my bunker. There is not a whole lot out there on this bourbon (in fact, your blog is about all Google turned up) – but i do know that Max “The Hat” Zimmerman did speciality bottlings and even trademarked some of them (Stonebrook bourbon comes to mind and I have one of those too) so maybe this is also one of his. If you want to chat more about this most rare label, email me at steady_steve@yahoo.com and we can compare notes.

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