Woodford Reserve, Maple Wood Finish: Brilliant New Approach or Bourbon Gimmick?

The fine folks at Woodford Reserve just released the fifth in their series of “Master’s Collection” bottlings. Arriving in stores today, the Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish is (quoting their press release) “finish-aged in a toasted maple wood barrel, resulting in a whiskey enhanced with hints of maple, honey, and cinnamon… Maple Wood Finish continues Woodford Reserve’s tradition of crafting rare whiskeys that extend the category in bold new directions.”

Now, bourbon, by definition, is matured in new, charred oak barrels, thus the prominent use of the word “finish” on this bottling. Woodford Reserve is not divulging the mix of time in new oak vs. finishing time in maple wood, and the practice of finishing in a unique wood barrel type to drive specific flavors (such as the sweetness inherent in maple wood) is somewhat controversial for bourbon purists. The use of maple wood does indeed appear to be unique to Woodford Reserve so far, and they deserve props both for pushing new ideas and for getting this product out in time for the holiday season (go buy some Brown Forman stock now!).

This one clocks in at 94.4 proof, just a touch above their normal 90.4 proof bottling. It also costs more than double the regular bottling, with a suggested retail price of $90 vs. an average of roughly $35 for the regular Woodford Reserve. So, is it worth that type of investment to experience what the maple wood finish can bring?

Well, the bottle is beautiful (see photo below), so if you like collecting glass, this may be for you. Early reviews around the web are mixed – with many noting heavy wood notes, and, yes, hints of maple syrup. I’m personally not inclined to give it a shot, given the price (I have not received a free tasting sample as the early reviewers above did (*see update below)) and the somewhat gimmicky nature of this bottling. A few drops of maple syrup in my regular bourbon will do just fine to spice up my bourbon experience if I’m looking to add a touch of maple sweetness. Heck, in Woodford Reserve’s marketing of their new release, they even include a cocktail recipe that calls for the addition of maple syrup.

You can learn more about the Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish release with this educational video! which looks to me like it ought to be on late night TV somewhere, or maybe QVC. Maybe that’s fitting for this one.

*UPDATE, 11/11/2010: Woodford Reserve was kind enough to send a tasting sample after the original post was written. The nose on this Maple Wood Finish release is lovely – think cinnamon-spiced apple pie sitting on a toasted oak barrel. On the palate, it actually wasn’t as sweet or maple-y as I expected, with heavy wood and a somewhat harsh lingering finish. Very glad I was able to taste it, but it would be a bit hard to justify the $90-$100/bottle to experience this unique finishing approach.

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