It’s a remarkably common origin story for professionals in the beverage industry (from distilling to brewing to winemaking) to have no formal experience or education prior to diving in. It’s a career often fueled by sheer curiosity and passion, as was the case for Elizabeth McCall. In February, McCall was appointed the new master distiller for Woodford Reserve, making her the third person and the first woman to hold the post in the brand’s history. We sat down to chat with McCall about the new position, how a psychology background proved useful, and how she aims to innovate in a tradition-driven industry.
Imbibe: When did you first begin with the company, and how has your role evolved?
Elizabeth McCall: I started with the company in 2009, working for Brown-Forman corporate in the research and development lab as a sensory technician. And so I was setting up taste panels and entering data. I didn’t know anything about the industry at all. But I was leveraging my psychology background—I had my undergrad in psych and my masters in counseling and psychology—so I applied statistical analysis and methodology of human response to products. That’s all sensory is. In that role as a technician in quality control, I really learned a lot about the production side of things.
If you’re going to find an issue in a liquid (and this was for all of our formulated products), you start with the end product and work your way backward, which is when I realized I had a strong passion for the production side and learning more about that. I progressed in that role for many years, I didn’t leave the lab until I was named master taster, which I began training for in 2014. I worked with Chris [Morris, now master distiller emeritus] on that and was named master taster in 2015 for both Woodford and Old Forester. And in 2016, I was shifted just to the Woodford Reserve brand. By 2018, I was named assistant master distiller and now master distiller for Woodford. I can’t believe it’s actually happening—it’s surreal in a way.
Your mother worked in the spirits industry as well, right? What did she do, and how did that influence you?
Yeah! It’s so funny because we didn’t really talk about it a lot growing up. And it was a different world. Women were not supported in work environments with maternity leave policies or anything like that. But right out of college, she started working for Seagram’s. She was in quality control on the bottling side, but she also managed a union. For a woman to do that at that time was so amazing. But she never presented it as doing something significant or out of the ordinary. She just did her job because that’s what you do. I know my mom instilled that in me. I look at my job now, and I know it’s significant. But I’m also just doing my job, doing the best that I can every day.
The bourbon industry is so driven by legacy and tradition. How do you approach that while still driving the brand forward?
It’s interesting because I feel a strong want and desire to continue with the way the whiskey has been made and stay true to the history of it, especially with a brand like Woodford, even though it’s a newer brand (launched in ’96). But our production process and inspiration are driven by the tradition of how whiskey is made, so trying to stay true to those original grain recipes, and getting your enzymes from malted barley instead of leveraging all the modern enzymes and processes.
We also have to think about maintaining the core—the flavor profile that we’ve set for our core expressions: bourbon, rye, malt, wheat, and double oak. And then when I think about innovation and pushing toward the future, I do that in different areas like the Master’s Collection, the Distillery Series, and also with our grains and looking at sustainability. That’s a big thing for me.
We’ve recently had a lot of meetings with farmers to get the economy around grains going in Kentucky, in terms of smaller grains, like rye as a cover crop. How do they fit that into the rotation? And how do we grow it in a way that you can have it go to seed and it’s good quality seed for us to make whiskey with? The next is barley. If we’re going to continue to grow—we’re at 1.4 million cases and we hope to be at 2 million and then 3, etc.—planning for the future is crucial. And we have to have everyone on board. And we have to make sure we have enough grain to work with.
I feel like I’ve recently pivoted from not just looking at the day-to-day but really pulling back and thinking about how we support our growth for the next 10 years—thinking about it holistically. It’s been fun and challenging.
Can you talk about any specific products you’ll be working on in the near future?
For the Master’s Collection, we produce a new one every year and we release one every year. So that’s an ongoing process. So I’ve got the grain recipe for my next iteration planned. It’s going to be a caramel/chocolate bourbon flavor. But that’s obviously all coming from the grains. And it requires a lot of small grains—we’ll produce that this coming year. But we’ve also been looking in our warehouses at all the random barrels that we have around there. You never lose a barrel; you always have it there in your database, but sometimes you forget about them. So I did a full inventory this summer. I pulled every barrel that we own as Woodford Reserve, pulled a sample of every single one. There were hundreds of barrels.
This is what’s interesting about whiskey. You plan and you produce so much, and you get a certain amount of distillate and say you fill 400 barrels. Then when you go to dump it, maybe you only need 300 barrels’ worth to produce a certain number of cases. But you also know during maturation you lose volume, so you produce more than you need and expect to lose some. But inevitably you always have a few barrels left over. A lot of them we don’t have enough barrels to do a single release with it, but figuring out how to put some of them together and come up with something interesting for a Distillery Series release. That’s sort of the beauty of working in bourbon—there really are no mistakes.
Our distillery will call and maybe say, oh shoot, this recipe got too much rye. So we just note it in the database, and we do something fun with it later. And obviously, we work with a whole team. But at the end of the day, if there is a project that Chris and I like, we can go for it. For a major brand like Woodford, the freedom that we get to innovate is pretty amazing. Like, I wanted to make red corn, so I partnered with our farmer next door to grow it. And it was a fun project!
What advice you would give to women interested in working in the spirits industry?
My advice is that if you are passionate and you have an interest, go for it! Don’t wait until you have all the answers or all the knowledge. Go in and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be open to learning, and let that be your guide. I’m mentoring a young woman through the STEPUP Foundation‘s internship program. And she was saying how she didn’t have a background in science and didn’t feel qualified. And I said, just look at me—I have a psychology background. This is a very passion-driven industry.
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