Industry Insiders: Chris Morris, Master Distiller
Chris Morris knows his bourbon. And if you drink Woodford Reserve, he knows yours too. The master distiller for the super-premium small-batch bourbon samples about 150 barrels of it a week. But while the quality of what’s in your glass is a distiller’s main responsibility, the job has evolved since Brown-Forman, the company that produces Woodford Reserve and a host of other spirits, made America’s first bottled bourbon in 1870. For example, ten minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby, Morris, whose accent confirms his status as a lifelong Kentuckian, was on NBC showing Bob Costas how to make the $1,000 mint julep (the proceeds went to charity) using ingredients like ice from the Arctic Circle, mint from Morocco and sugar from the South Pacific.
Point of origin: I started working at Brown-Forman as an intern in the central laboratory, working for the master distiller and various jobs. I went to school here in Louisville at Bellarmine University. So, I was a full-time intern, and I worked nights, weekends, holidays just because I loved it. We had two distilleries here in Louisville; the Old Forester and the Early Times.
On what’s required to become a master distiller: It’s very much a journeyman’s type of role, like you’d have with electricians, plumbers and carpenters. You just have to do it and you have to work at the hands of the master craftsperson; the master distiller. He tells you, “This is right, this is wrong, this smells great, this is not what we want in our product,” and you learn by doing it. That’s the only way. There’s no university degree out there for distilling.
Day-to-day at Woodford Reserve: I do a lot of travel. As Master distillers, one of our job descriptions is be brand ambassadors and we’re constantly going to whiskey shows; we’re making calls on key accounts; we go to big consumer events. We’re the face and voice of the brand. That’s all built into a schedule of production. I might go to the cooperage to see how the barrel production is going and sort of knock wood with the gang out there. At the distillery, most of the work is involved in tasting the barrels. I don’t run the stills.
Favorite way to drink bourbon: I like Woodford at this time of year, especially neat. Just have it straight up; summer, on the rocks. When I’m out in the marketplace, if a bar has a signature Woodford drink, you’ve got to go with that. And in wintertime I like a nice Manhattan, primarily on the rocks unless the bartender really likes it shaken. An Old Fashioned is perfect as we get into the spring and summer.
Most bizarre use of bourbon: Bacon-infused bourbon. I’ve seen Woodford Reserve being used by the finest chefs in the nation. A good friend of the brand, Bobby Flay, will cook with Woodford Reserve, but to see bacon inserted in bottles, and left overnight or left for a couple of days, and then removed and then making drinks with it, that’s—that takes a bit of getting used to. But, they’re usually quite flavorful. They’re used in making Manhattans, for example. But, imagine bacon-infused Woodford, in a Manhattan with a little maple syrup, and this and that and all of a sudden it starts to sort of become a breakfast Manhattan.
Hobbies: I’m an amateur wood sculptor. So, I like to sculpt just abstracts; Archipenko, Jean Arp, Henry Moore type of work. Just free forms that sort of mimic the human form.
Go-to bars for bourbon: There’s a place down in Nashville called The Patterson House, and it’s an old speakeasy. It’s an old Victorian home down near Music Row and you wouldn’t know it’s a bar. They don’t even have a sign out. But, you go in, you walk into a foyer. There’s a bookcase and a couple of plush chairs, and a reading lamp, then you walk through a curtain and all of a sudden you’re in a bar. Up in Chicago, the Violet Hour – it’s a really cool place. It’s like drinking in Alice in Wonderland. Out in L.A., The Edison and Seven Grand are good Woodford friends, really cool places. I can’t even begin to describe the Edison. It’s a bar three stories deep and about a 100-year-old building, maybe the oldest in Los Angeles. It was an old power plant. So, you’re having drinks among these old generators and old coal boilers and stuff, they’ve restored everything. It’s really cool.