I’ve Tasted Thousands of Whiskeys. Every Home Bar Needs This Affordable Bourbon


In the spirits world, Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a name that means different things to different people. For some, it’s the obvious choice when you’re ordering bourbon 30,000 feet up in the sky, where it easily beats the other airline whiskey options. For others, Woodford is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, as it’s been the “official bourbon” of the annual equine race since 1999 (it’s also a solid choice for mixing up a mint julep). And for spirits history buffs, it’s known as one of the key modern whiskey brands that helped kickstart the bourbon renaissance after decades of neglect and lack of appreciation. But, actually, Woodford Reserve is all of these things and a whole lot more.

Woodford has proven to be immensely popular over the years, occupying a mid-tier price range that gives it a premium yet attainable sheen. Drinks market analysis company International Wine & Spirits Research (IWSR) rated Woodford the No. 1 super-premium American whiskey in the world. The brand has grown by double-digit percentage points since it was created in 1996, and production capacity at the distillery has doubled to meet that demand, which is nearing 1.8 million cases globally.

So, why has Woodford been such a success story? Well, it’s a versatile whiskey with ample sweetness and soft oak notes inviting to a whiskey newbie, but with enough complexity that seasoned brown spirits fans appreciate. Bartenders also love it because it’s well-suited for any classic cocktail, from a Manhattan to an old fashioned to a boulevardier.

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Overall Impressions of Woodford Reserve Bourbon Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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Bottom Line: Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is affordable and versatile, with a classic bourbon flavor profile that highlights a balance between sweetness and spice on the palate.

Type: Bourbon

Cask: New charred oak

Still: Pot and column stills

Proof: 45.2 percent ABV, 90.4 proof

Age: No age statement (said to be about six to seven years old)

Appearance: Dark amber, copper

Nose: Vanilla, green apple, honey

Mouthfeel: Creamy, with some viscosity, but not oily

Taste: Brown sugar, banana, ripe berries, oak, crème brûlée, baking spice, molasses

Finish: Touch of heat that fades quickly, black pepper, warm vanilla

$32 at ReserveBar
$37 at Flaviar
$37 at Total Wine

Related: The Best Bourbons of 2024 to Drink Neat or as a Highball

Pros and Cons of Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Pros Cons

Higher ABV than other similarly priced bourbons means less dilution and more flavor.

There are cheaper options out there that are objectively just as good.

Accessible and appealing palate to those who are new to bourbon.

The more accessible flavor might not appeal to seasoned bourbon fans.

Complex enough to enjoy neat, but works well in cocktails.

Woodford Reserve Bourbon Review

I asked Jarrett Karlsberg, beverage director at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, NY, what he thinks about Woodford. He told me that name recognition and consistency are key to why this bourbon has so many fans. 

“In the same way you feel taken care of watching one of your favorite movies again or going to see a band you love in concert again, I think [our] guests know that Woodford is going to make them feel the way they want to feel,” he says. “It’s a solid product that is right in the upper middle of accessibility price-wise.”

Master distiller emeritus Chris Morris created a “flavor wheel” to pinpoint all of the notes that you’ll find in Woodford Reserve Bourbon, and it really runs the gamut with more than 200 individual flavor points. Of course, you won’t pick up all of these unless you’re a true tasting wizard. But the prominent notes that tend to define Woodford include things like caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, and dark berries. There’s a sweetness to the bourbon that isn’t cloying, just enough spice to balance it out, and the presence of oak on the palate without becoming overly tannic.

“I think, from a flavor standpoint, it’s consistently high-quality juice,” Karlsberg says. “Not too sweet, very smooth, and doesn’t really burn going down, despite being a touch over 90 proof. I think it has lovely notes of orange citrus, caramel, and an almost musty, faint sweet corn finish.”

How to Drink Woodford Reserve Bourbon

As with any whiskey, there is no right or wrong way to drink Woodford Reserve, and you should enjoy it however you choose. But I recommend trying a neat pour first to familiarize yourself with its character, and there is no reason to be intimidated by an unadulterated sip. This bourbon, despite having a proof that might be a little high for some, drinks very easily and, dare I use the dreaded cliché, smoothly. 

I sipped Woodford neat for my tastings, and while there is a brief hit of alcohol on the nose, it’s not overpowering. Dive into your first sip and you are immediately struck by the mouthfeel, which has a nice body and a bit of viscosity to it. That sticks around for a few minutes, with a lengthy finish (not a burn, mind you) that takes its time to fade out, which is a good thing, as the bourbon coats your tongue and leaves behind a pleasant warmth and sweet vanilla notes.

I tried Woodford Reserve neat, with an ice cube, and in cocktails to gauge the range of its flavor.

Jonah Flicker

But given its ABV, it also stands up to being poured over a large ice cube (which unlocks some new notes from the flavor wheel), and it’s a fantastic cocktail bourbon. I used Woodford in an old fashioned and Manhattan. This bourbon is a particularly strong fit for the former, because a large ice cube mellows out this already pretty chill whiskey a bit further, and the citrus and baking spice notes play well with bitters and orange peel. For a Manhattan. I usually prefer a whiskey that’s a bit spicier, like a high-rye bourbon (or a straight rye) to play against the sweetness of the vermouth, but Woodford worked quite nicely here as well.

History of Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Woodford Reserve is owned by parent company Brown-Forman, whose expansive portfolio also includes Old Forester and Tennessee whiskey juggernaut Jack Daniel’s. The brand itself launched in 1996, which is relatively recent compared to other legacy bourbons, but generally, whiskey has been made on and off in Versailles, KY (pronounced “Ver-say-elles,” as the locals will tell you), where the distillery is located, since 1812. Only some of the whiskey is made on-site using the distillery’s pot stills; the other production site is located in Shively, KY, where Brown-Forman distills the majority of Old Forester and other brands, like King of Kentucky.

As mentioned, Woodford is a thoroughly modern distillery with a long whiskey history in its bones. Elijah Pepper opened a distillery there in 1812. His son took over in 1835 and hired as master distiller Dr. James Crow, who became a very important part of American whiskey history (he’s the namesake of Old Crow bourbon). In 1878, the distillery was purchased by the Labrot family, who ran the operation until Brown-Forman bought it in 1940.

The company sold the land to a farmer in 1971, only to buy it back in 1994 and commence whiskey operations again in 1996. The main building dates back to 1838 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, though obviously there have been upgrades over the years. Chris Morris was the Woodford Reserve master distiller until 2023, when assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall was promoted to the position.

While Woodford Reserve is a relative newcomer in the bourbon world, it traces its roots back to the early 1800s.

Getty Images / Carlo Paloni

How Woodford Reserve Bourbon Is Made

The mashbill, or grain recipe, for Woodford Reserve bourbon is fairly standard with 72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. After cooking, the mash gets a longer fermentation than is typical at many other distilleries, about six days, using its own proprietary yeast strain. The whiskey is distilled in copper pot stills at the main facility in Versailles, but as mentioned earlier, the final product is a blend of pot- and column-distilled whiskey that’s produced in Shively. Finally, it’s aged in new charred oak barrels, as is required by law for bourbon, in heat-cycled warehouses for about six years (though there is no age statement on the whiskey).

If You Like Woodford Reserve Bourbon You’ll Also Like… Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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If you like Woodford Reserve but want to spend a little less, try Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. This is the sister bourbon brand to Woodford, and some of the whiskey in the blend comes from the same Brown-Forman distillery in Shively. Old Forester has similar notes, but of course it’s an entirely different bourbon and comes in a range of proofs and ages, so you’ll definitely find something you like here.

$20 at Reserve Bar

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

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There’s more than bourbon in the Woodford portfolio, though that is the anchor. There are also rye, malt, and wheat whiskeys, as well as the limited-release Master’s Collection. Mike Vacheresse, owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn thinks these all deserve consideration.

“Woodford Reserve was one of the bourbons on my back bar when I opened Travel Bar over nine years ago,” he says. “Over the years, I have served the Double Oak Bourbon and the rye, and the latest release of the Master’s Collection Batch Proof 121.2 proudly sits on my back bar—it’s fantastic.” 

However, if you pick just one other whiskey from the Woodford line, we recommend Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. It’s a Kentucky-style rye, meaning the mashbill contains somewhere just over the legally required 51 percent rye grain (53 percent in this case). The result is a rye with a decent amount of spice, but the palate is softened and sweetened by the ample amount of corn in the mashbill. It’s fantastic in a Manhattan.

$36 at Flaviar

Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky 2023 16-Year-Old Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky 2023 16-Year-Old Single-Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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If you like Woodford but want a barrel-proof whiskey, try King of Kentucky. The limited-edition whiskey from Brown-Forman is released once a year as a single-barrel, barrel-proof bourbon. Last year’s release was a 16-year-old bourbon bottled at 126.9 proof, much stronger than Woodford but, thankfully, not reaching the hazmat category of whiskey.

$3,000 at Cask Cartel

Why You Should Trust Me

I’ve written about spirits for numerous publications for nearly a decade. Throughout that time, I’ve sampled thousands of bottles in every category of spirits, visited distilleries across the world to see how the juice is made, and honed my palate and nose. I also judge two spirits competitions, the John Barleycorn Awards and the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, for which I blind-taste hundreds of spirits to determine what stands out based on flavor, mouthfeel, color, and aroma.

For this review, I sampled Woodford Reserve neat, over ice, and in cocktails, and talked to some bar and spirits experts who have long track records in the drinks industry and unique interests and experiences with bourbon, specifically Woodford Reserve.

Related: We’ve Tasted Hundreds of Whiskeys. These Are the Best in the World

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