Showdown! Old Forester vs Woodford Reserve

Both Old Forester and Woodford Reserve are from Brown-Forman, with distilleries in Louisville, Kentucky. Many people say that Woodford Reserve essentially is just a new labeling of Old Forester bourbon, perhaps with select barrels.  Is there any truth to this claim?

Looking in to this story, it seems that when Brown-Forman first created the Woodford Select label, they didn’t have a distinct whiskey for it, so for at least it’s first year – maybe more – Woodford Reserve really was just select barrels from the Old Forester distillery and warehouse. No significant difference: Same mash bill, yeast, barrels, and rickhouse aging. This was back when the distillery was still called Labrot & Graham.

So that is where the idea started: the “myth” that they are the same really was true. But since then there has been a change.


Later, the Labrot & Graham distillery was renamed to Woodford, and soon the distillate they were aging became ready to be sold. Brown-Forman made a decision to keep the flavor profile similar, yet distinct. As such, at this point they decided that Woodford Reserve would become a straight bourbon blend, from two different distilleries.

Brown Forman Distillery in Shively, Kentucky. (Is this also called the Early Times distillery?)  They use column stills. This distillery normally doesn’t offer tours, but here’s a great write-up by American Whiskey (John & Linda Lipman), who were fortunate to get a tour of this facility.

Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, Kentuckey (First known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, then the Labrot & Graham Distillery) The distillate from here is made in copper pot stills with a triple distillation process.

Interestingly, they now have a third distillery, Old Forester Distillery, recently built in two historic buildings in Louisville, Kentucky. The whiskey from here has not yet aged enough to be used in either their Old Forester or Woodford Reserve lines. They could even decide to use this distillery to introduce a new line of bourbon.

When we do a side-by-side comparison, how does WR compare to Old Forester?

Woodford Reserve

Mash bill: 72% corn (maize), 18% rye, 10% malted barley

Color: amber.
Nose: lighter cocoa than Old Forester, a hint of maple, alcohol , light oak. A bit more aromatic than OF.
Palate: Lighter mouthfeel than Old Forester. No burn. Light caramel – I’m taste something that I can only call a floral toffee. A hint of smoke (yet not peaty), a corn-bourbon base. The mouthfeel is lightly oil-like (in a good way.)

Old Forester

Mash bill: 72% corn (maize), 18% rye, 10% malted barley

Nose: Deep cocoa notes, some ethanol.
Palate: Chocolate, butterscotch perhaps a bit of oak. Mellow, warm, delicious. Unlike some other whiskies I have tried, this has the same flavor on the back palate. Has a maple syrup-like mouthfeel. Long finish.

Yes, they are different – but more similar than one might imagine. For my money, I’m perfectly happy buying a $22-$25 bottle of OF rather than spending $30 for WR.  The next test would be to compare either of these to the upscaled Woodford Reserve Double Oaked!

Further reading

Here’s a history of the Brown Forman distiller by Michael Veach.

Straightbourbon forum discussion on Woodford Reserve

Behind The Scenes of Woodford Reserve: Drink Spirits

IL puts to rest the myth once and for all: Woodford Reserve is not Old Forester

pointing finger

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