The Pond

The pond was created in the 1940’s to create a water reservoir for the distillery.  Over time sediment from upstream reduced the depth of the pond from 14 feet to one foot.  The renovation project consisted of 25 corporate personnel who, by their very nature, were risk averse.  The group decided to fill in the pond basin with dirt to eliminate a liability hazard.  One day Owsley Brown Frazier, Vice-Chairman of Brown-Forman, dropped by to see how the renovation was progressing.  When told that the pond would be filled in he said, “Well, I used to fish in this pond when I was a kid and I expect to do so again”.  25 people did an abrupt u-turn and decided to excavate the pond.  The pond is 14 feet deep, contains 2.5 million gallons of water, some good size bass and bluegill, good sized snapping turtles and is used as a water source for the distillery's fire protection system.

The Woodford Reserve Distillery 

Very seldom in your career journey do you ever get the opportunity to be a part of something very special.  In 1994, Brown-Forman decided to embark on a new adventure.  CEO Owsley Brown was keen on resurrecting the bourbon whiskey category that had fallen on lean times over the past few decades.  He decided to renovate a dilapidated distillery in Versailles, Kentucky and create a new, super premium bourbon whiskey.  The renovation took two years and well over $10 million to complete.  The result was a National Historic Landmark which opened its doors to the public on October 16, 1996.  Woodford Reserve was born and quickly became the benchmark for other bourbons.  The objective for this section of my website is to record some of the nuances of the birth of Woodford Reserve. The following are antedotes of various interesting stories that stemmed from the renovation project and start-up.  I decided to do this to record history that gets lost over time and demise of the participants.  Hope you enjoy it.

I will be adding additional tales from the "glen" over time and invite the many people who were instrumental to the project to add to the tapestry.  Here are just a few of the original project team:  Owsley Brown, Owsley Brown Frazier, Lois Mateus, Pete Rutledge, Steve Thompson, Jim Chiles, Bill Creason, Lincoln Henderson, Peggy Stevens, Kevin Curtis, David Larson, Randy Hemker, Jens Lueken, Mike Staub and Glenn Glaser.  I am sure I have forgotten some major contributors but you get the gist.  Hopefully these folks will feel inclined to add their positive and often hilarious stories to the mix.

Labrot & Graham Distillery aka Woodford Reserve Distillery 

In 1878 James Graham purchased the distillery and immediately took on a partner, Leopold Labrot, a French wine merchant and friend of Louis Pasteur.  The distillery was called Labrot & Graham from 1878 until October, 2003.  Since its reopening the Labrot & Graham Distillery (L&G) had received a good deal of attention and mention from the media.  The media wrote and reported about it in glowing terms but very seldom mentioned the name of the product, Woodford Reserve.  This concerned the marketeers because the distillery was a valuable marketing tool for the brand. So in 2003, the distillery was renamed The Woodford Reserve Distillery to match the place with the brand name.

 The Visionary

During construction CEO Owsley Brown visited the distillery many times and often made changes.  In order to be considered for a Historic Landmark status and qualify for the income tax credits for the rehabilitation project the project committee was given the task of reconstructing the distillery exactly as it was found.  The distillery’s asphalt roof had just been replaced with a new asphalt roof when Mr. Brown dropped by for a visit.  He did not like the new roof and directed the committee to install a standing seam metal roof instead.  Two weeks after the new metal roof was installed a photo was found that showed that a standing seam metal roof existed prior to the asphalt roof.  It was then that the committee realized that Mr. Brown had a vision for the distillery based on his experience there as a youngster.

Labrot & Graham Distillery aka Woodford Reserve Distillery

In 1878 James Graham purchased the distillery and immediately took on a partner, Leopold Labrot, a French wine merchant and friend of Louis Pasteur.  The distillery was called Labrot & Graham from 1878 until October, 2003.  Since its reopening the Labrot & Graham Distillery (L&G) had received a good deal of attention and mention from the media.  The media wrote and reported about it in glowing terms but very seldom mentioned the name of the product, Woodford Reserve.  This concerned the marketing folks because the distillery was a valuable marketing tool for the brand. So in 2003, the distillery was renamed The Woodford Reserve Distillery to match the place with the brand name.

The Distillery Property 

Brown-Forman owned the distillery from 1941 and sold it to Mr. Freeman in 1972 because of excess plant capacity.  Mr. Hockensmith purchased it to make gasohol.  In early 1972 the US announced an oil embargo which resulted in long lines at the gas stations.  Gasohol was considered a solution to the energy crisis.  However, in late 1972 the embargo was lifted and gasohol, which was expensive to make, became a non-issue.  The distillery sat dormant from 1972 to 1994 with little maintenance.  Vandals would visit the distillery from time to time breaking out windows and doors and taking anything of value.  They even burned down two buildings, the bottling house and maintenance shop.  Mother nature eventually did additional damage growing vines up the outside of the building pulling mortar from the stones and bricks and raining through the openings and rotting all of the wood work.


Graneries were an important part of the community fabric.  Once the fall harvest was completed the grain would be ground or milled as needed for consumption.  Grist mills, built near flowing water to provide power to turn the grinding stones, became a community center where the farmers would gather and trade stories.  Distilleries were normally build near a stream or river to provide water for cooking and cooling. The Woodford Reserve Distillery, known as the Pepper Distillery in those days, was no exception.  It resides on the banks of what is not called Grassy Springs Creek (aka the north fork of Glenn's Creek).  The millstone above the distillery door celebrated this history.  There were other milstones found on property during the renovation.  One similar to the one over the door and another near the Pepper house that was called a French millstone because it's aggregate included small pebbles.  Millstones were a valuable commodity and were often used as ballist on the ships traveling to the new world.


 Story of the Coppers

The 800 gallon copper pot still on display between Warehouse C and the Bottling House has a storied past.  It was originally used by Melcher’s Distillery in Quebec, Canada before being purchased for $1,800 and shipped to Jack Daniels in 1984.  Because of the size of the Jack Daniels operations it was required to distill a certain amount of mash at the warehouse site every few years to authenticate the claims on its labels.  In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan passed a bill into law that simplified the myriad of confusing and conflicting alcohol laws that were enacted after prohibition.  Jack Daniels was no longer required to perform the meaningless act of distilling on the warehouse property.  It promptly decommissioned the still and stored it in a field between two warehouses.  In 1996, the whereabouts of the still was questioned and after much searching the still was discovered in a field between two warehouses covered by vines and brush and totally invisible.  Jack Daniel’s generously bequeathed the still to Woodford Distillery.  The still was shined up and put on display and has become a favorite subject for the photographers. 

There were also two copper kettles on display in the bottling breezeway.  They have a steam jacketed bottom and were used at a sister plant in Louisville to make liqueurs.  The kettles became redundant and disappeared in the middle of the night in Louisville only to end up on display at Woodford Reserve.  The kettles are displayed because they resemble the size and shape of the wooden vats that distillers would have used in the 1800’s.   



Most distillers used pot stills prior to the introduction of Prohibition in 1917.  Pot stills are what one visualizes when talking about mountain stills, a pot with a little curly-Q, or pig tail, coming out the top.  During Prohibition the distillers, who were frugal folks, converted their equipment to other uses.  When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 the technology of the day had changed and anyone serious about getting into the distilling business installed column stills.  Column stills are large vessels 5-6 feet in diameter and standing 2-3 stories tall.  They are fitted with perforated copper plates spaced about 2 feet apart along the inside of the cylinder and connected by downlegs.  Mash is injected into the stills about two-thirds of the way up the column and as the mash travels across the copper plates and down the down legs steam in injected into the base of the still.  As the heat pushes its way through the perforations in the plates the alcohols begins to vaporize and travel up the column to a condenser that converts the vapor back into a liquid.  Column stills are continuous, they can operate 24/7 and are very efficient.  The one drawback is that the whiskey flavor is difficult to adjust once the column still has been regulated. 

When Brown-Forman decided to create the Woodford Reserve bourbon homeplace one of the points of differentiation was to install copper pot stills to demonstrate how bourbon whiskey was distilled in the 1800s and prior to Prohibition.  Pot stills are a batch operation.  2,400 gallons of fermented mash is pumped into the still and the steam turned on.  Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so it vaporizes, travels up the goose neck, across the lie pipe and into the condenser where it converts back into a liquid.  Pot stills are more difficult to operate because they take more attention to detail and require more hand-crafting.  The advantage of a pot still is that the flavors can be changed by the realignment of the diverter valve in the spirit safe.

500 Pound Barrels

 Shortly after we opened a group of 15 tourists watched as I filled and closed the last barrel of the lot.  I explained that a full barrel weighs over 500 pounds.  It takes about 15 minutes for the tour to proceed from the barrel filling area to the aging warehouse, bottling and then back to the center of the plant to catch the bus back up the hill.  In the meantime the last barrel was sent on down to the warehouse.  A photographer who was shooting pictures for the introductory film saw the barrel rolling down the barrel run and wanted to stage a photo of it.  Instead of rolling a 500 pond barrel back up the run I decided to send empty barrels out to the run for staging.  As the barrels were in transit one of them fell off the run.  I nonchalantly walked over, grabbed the barrel and lifted it back onto the track.  When I looked up I saw 15 tourists standing at the bus stop with mouths agape.  Realizing what they must be thinking I took a Charles Atlas pose and said “Drink Woodford Reserve once a day”.   

Ye Olde Fishel Still 

There is an old copper pot still on display in the distillery’s fermenter room.  In 1997 a lady living in Versailles, KY called to see if I would be interested in buying an old still that was stored in her garage.  Her husband’s health was failing and she wanted to “dejunk”  her house.  When she described the still I thought it was one of those old common wash tub stills.  I took her number and filed it away.  A few months later I was in Versailles and decided to drop by to see the still.  The still bowl was in good condition but the boil ball and lie pipe were missing.  It was obviously an heirloom and we started to negotiate, I eventually purchased it for $400.  Once I got it to the distillery for closer inspection it was discovered that the terms “Fishel” and “112”were embossed on the still’s shoulder.   A web search noted that there was a Fishel & Gallatin Tin and Coppersmith Shop located on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky in 1806.  The still was probably the 112th pot still made by the outfit and it is a close cousin to the one on display at the Getz Museum in Bardstown.

April 30, 1996 

The renovation project began on January 2, 1995 and was officially completed on October 17, 1996 the day of the grand opening ceremony.  During the project someone at Brown-Forman (whose name was never revealed) made a commitment to ship 80 cases of Woodford Reserve before the end of the 1996 fiscal year, which was April 30, 1996.  Bottling equipment had been installed in April but had not been debugged or operated.  Pressures mounted to produce the cases so on April 30, 1996 a group of volunteers assembled in the bottling house to produce 80 cases.  As expected, none of the equipment was operable so for eight hours bottles were hand cleaned, hand filled using a pitcher and funnel, and hand applied labels using second-hand pot devins to apply glue to the label and working on tables made from two barrels as legs and a piece of plywood covered with a plastic gingham tablecloth.  There were many desk jockeys including a senior vice-president (Pete Rutledge) or two who hand labeled the bottles.  The truck arrived at 5PM to take the cases to the distributors.  The work group jubilantly celebrated as the truck pulled away with 100 cases of newly minted Woodford Reserve.  When you look at a Lot #1 bottle today it is amusing to note the crooked labels, finger prints embedded in glue and “floaters”.  Lot #1 bottles have become a collector’s item on ebay.

Phat Cat 

Phat Cat, a.k.a. Elijah, is the favored distillery cat.  He is arguably the most photographed item at Woodford Reserve.  He usually spent most of his time diligently patroling the grounds and readily introduced himself to our guests on tour.  This often created havoc with the Tour Guides who would lose group focus when Elijah strolled up for a show and photo session.  When he is not prowling the grounds he generally resided in the distillery office on my desk and was the adopted mascot of all of the employees.  He has been featured in many photographs printed or aired in such prestigious media as New York Times, Fox News Blog, WR Cookbook, Southern Living, Drink Dogma, and many more.  Phat Cat was a jewel but passed away a few years ago. A plaque was placed at the distillery to acknowledge his existance and contribution to brand promotion.