Inside the New Cooper's Craft Barrel Reserve
The latest whiskey release is a new way of showcasing the ingenuity coming from Brown-Forman’s cooperage
All photos by Maggie Kimberl.
In February, Brown-Forman released Cooper’s Craft Barrel Reserve, a 100 proof NAS which packs a flavorful punch. This is thanks in part to some serious engineering in the barrel. It was designed to alter the typical maturation process for bourbon to create a distinctly different end product from other Brown-Forman whiskey brands.
A new bourbon identity centered on the barrel
Brown-Forman has been in business in Louisville, Kentucky since 1870. Old Forester, Early Times, and Woodford Reserve were always the core whiskey products until Cooper’s Craft was released back in 2016, the first new bourbon in 20 years. Thanks to the bourbon boom, customers are clamoring for new brands and new flavor profiles. The original Cooper’s Craft is filtered through birch and beech charcoal after maturation in order to give it a more mellow flavor profile designed to appeal to those who are new to bourbon or who might like a softer approach to America’s Native Spirit. With the release of this new edition of Cooper’s Craft, which does not undergo this same filtration process as the other releases, the brand is growing up to appeal to more seasoned palates.
This project was started 15 years ago and was kept quiet as the experimental product matured and the effects of the barrels were documented. Brown-Forman owns its own cooperage, so experimenting with barrels isn’t limited to whatever an outside manufacturer can supply. The barrel used for the new Cooper’s Craft Barrel Reserve is chiseled on the inside and the sawdust from that process is left in the barrel, giving the whiskey considerably more wood surface area with which to interact. This sawdust makes the barrel dumping process more difficult, as it has to be filtered out of the product with conventional filtration methods, and it tends to clump together. However, the developers of this process feel strongly that it enhances the end product and is therefore worth the trouble.
While Brown-Forman is represented by many different whiskey expressions, and each is unique thanks to variations in blending, maturation, bottling proof, filtering, and even sometimes mash bill. This is only one of two Brown-Forman whiskey products to use this chiseled barrel so far.
“It’s about taste,” says Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris. “It’s not really about the process, it’s about the end product. That’s what people are judging it by. Each of our whiskeys is distinctly different.”
Visiting Cooper’s Craft’s home at the Brown-Forman cooperage
Cooper’s Craft, just like Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, now has its own home/visitor experience. The only difference is that whereas Woodford Reserve and Old Forester have distilleries as their visitor experiences, Cooper’s Craft’s is an extension of the Brown-Forman Cooperage. This is fitting, as this brand is designed completely around the celebration of the barrel. You can’t just drive up and take a tour, though. Because of logistics, parking space, and safety issues, tours are booked through Mint Julep Tours. It’s a great place to learn how barrels are made, an often under-appreciated part of the bourbon making process.
Cooper’s Craft Barrel Reserve is available now in select markets for $33.
(Editor’s note: that’s a great price! To see a list of other American whiskeys at affordable price ranges, check out the winners of the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition.)