At Woodford Reserve Distillery, tasting bourbon goes beyond tossing back a shot of Kentucky’s signature brew.
About 30 minutes west of Lexington, Woodford Reserve is the first among the state’s eight distilleries with a full-fledged culinary program and a chef-in-residence.
A small conference room for up to 64 at banquets, bordered by a creekside patio; a boardroom in its own building; and for after-hours events, a visitors center and a wraparound porch, totaling nearly 5,000 square feet, make the distillery more than a tourist attraction.
“Our culinary program is designed to educate visitors about the flavor of Woodford Reserve and to reflect that in our food,” said Tim Knittel, general manager of the culinary program. “We built our menu on three rules: Each dish uses Woodford Reserve, reflects the flavor of Woodford Reserve or sets the palate for tasting Woodford Reserve.”
For example, the house salad is a study in bourbon and its flavors, with ingredients that echo the fruit and mineral notes in Woodford Reserve and a house-made dressing made with bourbon.
Like Chef Ouita Michel’s three area restaurants, the culinary operation at Woodford Reserve sources its ingredients locally whenever possible. For example, the steak that guests enjoy at dinner likely is from a cow raised down the road from the distillery, located on a pastoral plot neighbored by pastures of pricey Thoroughbred horses.
Beyond the typical sips of bourbon offered to all visitors at the end of distillery tours, Woodford Reserve offers palate training, popular for groups, called the Flavor Wheel.
“It is an exercise designed by Ouita to achieve a deeper understanding of the complexity of Woodford Reserve,” said Knittel.
Different foods are sampled with sips of bourbon. The primary flavor wheel includes a six-month aged parmesan cheese; toasted hazelnuts or pecans; sweet, dried berries; orange segments; and a 60 percent cacao chocolate from a single source bean made by Kentucky chocolate company Ruth Hunt Candy Co. The various foods accentuate the fruit, grain and spice flavors of Woodford Reserve, among them orange, pepper, vanilla and caramel.
Nondrinkers can participate by sniffing instead of sipping the bourbon. “It is not as intense, but there is experience gained just from nosing,” said Knittel.
In addition to group tastings, the Flavor Wheel has been used as a freestanding station during larger receptions in the distillery’s visitors center, a popular venue for area corporations like Toyota Motor Manufacturing.
“We have a lot of Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati companies coming here because they want to show off the region,” said Marnie Walters, manager of sales and marketing. “The bourbon industry and Kentucky are unique and special.”