Meet Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve's First Female Master Distiller
It is very rare that someone intentionally sets out to become a Master Distiller. Typically, those who end up in the role begin on a completely different career path, eventually winding their way to the prestigious position with an arsenal of diverse experience under their belt.
For Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve’s new Master Distiller and the first woman to hold the position in its history, the story begins no differently. “I did not have any desire or thought that this is where my career would end up,” she began. McCall actually has a background, both professionally and educationally, in psychology. But, she soon realized that a career in this space wasn’t in her future.
Then one day, at her little brother’s high school graduation party, she met a man who worked for Brown-Forman, Woodford Reserve’s parent company. They got to talking, and after understanding her extensive background in psychology, he said, “We actually hire people in the sensory lab that have a psychology background.” And the rest is history.
McCall found herself working in quality control, intrigued to understand all the defects a whiskey can have. “This position,” she recalls, “led me to be more involved with our plants, our production facilities, and really enjoy learning that I had this strong interest.”
And then another opportunity presented itself when a colleague went on maternity leave.
“I stepped in and began to learn the wet chemistry side of things.” There, McCall fell in love with the analytical, STEM side of production—something she never thought would be a passion of hers. “It just kind of drove me,” she said. “So, I worked my way up in the sensory group and became a sensory scientist.”
In no time, she was being sent all around the world to Brown-Forman’s production facilities as something like a brand ambassador. Her goal was to learn more about the production processes and build better relationships between headquarters and their satellites. This love of understanding for the production process led her to a class with Chris Morris in February of 2014, the then Master Distiller, the now Master Distiller Emeritus.
“I made an impression. It was a combination of me saying ‘if there’s ever an opportunity to work with the brands, I would love it.’ And then also Chris Morris seeing something in me, and saying, ‘this young woman might be a great candidate to train to be Master Taster.’” By that summer, McCall was asked if she wanted to train to become Master Taster. She assumed the role the following year.
In 2016, she shifted her focus to Woodford Reserve as a quality control specialist. Within two years, McCall was promoted first as the brand’s master taster, and then as assistant master distiller for Woodford Reserve.
Now in 2023, McCall has been named the first female Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve after beginning her journey only 14 years ago.
So what does Elizabeth McCall set out to do as she takes over the helm of Woodford Reserve? Firstly, “it’s very important to maintain the core flavor profile Woodford hasn’t grown to where it is today, just by being inconsistent. So maintaining that flavor profile, the quality, and the integrity of the brand, is what I will continue to do.”
Secondly, McCall will focus on sustainability. “Right now,” she says, “people are sourcing rye from the major rye-growing regions in Canada and Europe. The same goes for malt. So, we want to make sure that we’re trying to translate that down [in] Kentucky. How can we grow rye in Kentucky on a commercial scale, and then do the same for barley?” But planting these small grains goes beyond the economy of Kentucky. The ecological effects of planting rye and malt on a “farmer’s winter fallow lands is tremendous. Their soil health improves, the water runoff improves, and they’re putting the nitrogen back in, we’re sequestering carbon.”
Simply put, McCall’s priority as Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve is to bring grain production back to Kentucky to help grow the state’s economy and nourish its soils.
Thirdly, McCall will focus on working to change the perception of women and bourbon, but not in the way one might expect. “Working with women and inviting women into the conversation has always been a part of Woodford Reserve history,” she noted. Where McCall wants to focus is branding. “It’s not always about coming home and having a glass of wine. I come home and have a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Changing that perception would be great.” And her bourbon of choice? It might be obvious. “To me, Woodford Reserve is the gold standard, it is what I compare every bourbon to because it is what I have grown up in this industry to feel is what excellent bourbon tastes like.”
McCall’s passion and excitement not only apply to her position and its history but also to all the possibilities it holds for innovation.
“I’m going to use a lot of what Chris has taught me,” McCall stated enthusiastically. Focusing on how to push the envelope on an industrial scale. “I mean, you look at when he first put Woodford Reserve in a Chardonnay barrel. People thought that that was crazy, and now it’s standard practice. So, I hope to still push the envelope in that way”. She made a point to note that you will see a whiskey finished in a wine barrel during her time, as she does love the finish it gives. But “then of course, just exploring interesting grain recipes. We’ve just found old ledger books from when Librot and Graham had the distillery in 1915 and 1916. So I’d love to revitalize some of those recipes with a modern twist.”
McCall’s dedication to Woodford’s future is deeply rooted in her appreciation for its traditions.
“It’s one of those brands that is very romantic. I grew up riding horses. You go out and visit the Woodford Reserve distillery and you drive through some of the most iconic horse farms in Kentucky to get to our distilleries. So, it has this very nostalgic feel for me, and it pulls on my heartstrings in that regard.”
And then there are the people. “When I first started going out to Woodford, we were bottling maybe twice a week and only had four fermenters. It was just this very small field. And we still have this culture of closeness even though we are now 1.4 million cases and growing.”
To all the Woodford Reserve lovers, bourbon drinkers, and all-around whiskey aficionados, I can say that in the hands of Elizabeth McCall, you will see nothing but elevation. Her devotion to the brand, the company culture, and the state from all perspectives bode for nothing but to celebrate another reason for this to be a historical moment in Woodford Reserve’s history.