Which Whiskey Gets the Rose?

Mark Joseph and Matthew Meskel have been staples at El Gaucho Portland as bartenders for years – over 15 years and 14 years, respectively. They recently had the opportunity to travel to Kentucky to blend a barrel of Woodford Reserve bourbon exclusively for El Gaucho. Mark writes about their trip in this recap:

We have served, consumed, and enjoyed Kentucky Bourbon for many years. A visit to its birthplace was a dream come true.

Matthew hadn’t been on an airplane in 25 years (so didn’t know that wearing steel toed boots would never get through NSA) and I had never experienced the south.

Our original plan was to fly into Louisville through Dallas. Tornadoes and egg sized hail cancelled all flights into Dallas, so our night in Louisville unfortunately, did not happen. Thankfully, we found a flight that got us in at 9am the next day. We met our driver, Rick, who had been waiting for us for about 22 hours, and he was nice enough to drive us through Louisville. Guess we’ll have to go back to actually experience it.

On the road to Woodford Reserve were signs for Four Roses, Buffalo Trace and many other distilleries. We were amazed at Bourbon’s rich history and how much of the world’s great whiskey comes from here.

We also saw why Kentucky is called the “blue grass state”: as we got off the interstate we were surrounded by great white fences, rolling green hills, and race horses. We knew we were close, but like children on their first day of school, we had no idea where we were going or what to expect.

We settled into a secluded valley once occupied by the Labrot and Graham Distillery back in 1812. We were greeted at Woodford Reserve by master distiller Chris Morris, a red-headed Southern gentleman dressed in a polo, slacks, and a Woodford cap – all the color of Woodford Reserve Bourbon.

Our new best friend Chris took us through all the nooks and crannies of the 200 year-old site. We followed Chris into the first building to the top of the stairs to peer into the mash. Woodford’s mash is a blend of corn, rye and barley. The mash and yeast are combined in six enormous vats about 12 feet wide and two stories deep. The bubbling mash tastes sweet and the room smells like El Gaucho before dinner service, when the corn is roasting on the grill.

We veered over for a glimpse into the laboratory: a small room with hundreds of small experiments sitting in bottles on the shelves. An old refrigerator, like your grandma’s, sitting in the corner and it held yeast strains 100 years old. A Bunsen burner, a computer and a few beakers rounded out the small lab. A lot happens in this little room, but it was quiet that day. While science has entered Bourbon making, “how does it taste?” is always the final question at the end of the day.

We walked into another 150 year-old building which housed three enormous copper pot stills. The room was warm and humid because of the stills distilling whiskey. We wandered around and stuck our heads to peer into the hole of the still. We were quickly warned not to lean too deep as the heat and steam could actually burn our faces. I must say this warning seemed a little casual for the potential damage!

From there, the whiskey travels to a rest area before it is placed into charred oak barrels. Woodford Reserve has their own cooperage, therefore controlling a key component in the process, and insuring quality and consistency.

We traveled through another 150-year-old warehouse and were surrounded by barrels of Woodford Reserve, six stories high. They hang out, season after season, until it is time to blend. After the aging process, the barrels are rolled on rails next door, where they are emptied and tested to make sure each batch of whiskey is up to Chris’s standard, and the unique specifications of Woodford Reserve. The whiskey is then bottled by a high tech system, but still overseen by many employees. Even though it is the 21st century and innovations are in place, this is still a hands-on, people-first operation.

This is when our work actually began. Exhausted from travel we caught our second wind as we walked into a room with a table, four chairs, and a table set with six glasses of whiskey, a bottle of water, and a “spittoon.” Although it seemed sacrilegious to spit, it was a necessity to achieve our goal. The whiskey we tasted is all high proof 133-128 straight from the barrel, so it’s spit or hit the floor.

Samples from six barrels ranging in date, year and warehouse location were set out. Smell, swirl, sip, swish, spit and discuss, take notes, repeat. Which barrels made it to the next round? It was like the whiskey version of “The Bachelor” – which barrel gets the rose?

After the barrels were chosen, the blending began with six new glasses of now blended whiskey – one to become El Gaucho’s own blend. Chris reminded us that this will be “our” whiskey and that “they” already make Woodford Reserve. Each blend had unique differences: in fact, one blend surprisingly tasted like Scotch. We all agreed on the bold and spicy blend, big enough to hang out with a cigar, on its own, or in a cocktail. Our work was done.

We all sat for a well-deserved lunch and quickly learned from Chris how important family is at Woodford Reserve, and how so many of the brands in this part of the country are “related.” It felt nice to be part of their family for a moment. Our whirlwind adventure ended back in Portland, patiently waiting for “our” whiskey, which has arrived!

Please join us to try our exclusive, (and what I think is some pretty great whiskey) “Woodford Reserve El Gaucho blend.” We’ll even share more stories from our trip with you. Only at El Gaucho Portland!

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