Woodford Reserve’s Bourbon Academy: Back to School, Bourbon Style

Get to know your whiskey at Kentucky’s historic distillery
Dana McMahan

Charring a new oak barrel before it's filled with whiskey to age.

The only thing better than being a budding bourbon enthusiast is becoming an informed bourbon enthusiast. Half the fun of loving bourbon is learning about it: the history of Kentucky's spirit is inexorably intertwined with the history of the state — and of our country. When did we — as a nation — start drinking for taste, and not just for escape by alcohol? Right around the time we could stop looking over our shoulder for an arrow whistling toward our heads, according to Woodford Reserve's master distiller Chris Morris.

Morris led the one-day Bourbon Academy I recently attended at Woodford Reserve's historic distillery in Versailles, Ky., explaining with relish the combination of science, art, tradition — and I think, magic — that goes into creating my favorite spirit. Ever wanted to sit and pick the brain of someone who doesn't just know bourbon inside and out, but loves nothing more than to share their knowledge? Bourbon Academy is your chance. And bonus: you'll have plenty of opportunity to sip the subject matter.

Morris leads you through the basics: What is whiskey? What makes some whiskey bourbon? What are the elements that lend bourbon its incomparable flavor — and how did they arise? Really, why did they start charring new oak barrels (one of the requirements for the bourbon label)? And it's not just talk: Morris set a barrel on fire for us. I tried my hand at raking the sour mash, stuck my finger in somebody's future bourbon in the cypress wood fermenting vat, and breathed in a good measure of the angel's share — the evaporating bourbon in the warehouse piled high with that maturing liquid gold.

Resident chef Ouita Michel, a multiple-time James Beard Award nominee, is behind the gourmet lunch at the Academy. Better still, she leads a Flavor Wheel session — a curriculum meant to give students a "palate memory." Because, really, "when was the last time you had a black currant in your mouth?" Michel says. We nibbled on a series of ingredients as we sipped, marveling at the flavors that popped once we paired bourbon with food.

There's nothing wrong with learning to appreciate bourbon just by tasting lots of it. But getting hands-on at the Woodford Reserve distillery — if you can get your hands on a ticket to the once-a-quarter Academy sessions — is a fantastic jump-start to your bourbon education.

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The next academy is Feb. 22, 2014, and costs $225. Learn more at Woodford Reserve.