By Ben Bowers
on 4.24.13
Photo by Chris Morris

Talk about working your way up from the bottom. Chris Morris came to Woodford Reserve‘s parent company, the Brown-Forman Corporation, in 1976 as an intern. The native Kentuckian stuck it out, rising to the position of Master Distiller as many American bourbon brands rose, too, from good-ole-boy drinks to super-premium spirits on the same level of prestige as their haughtier cousins. Woodford Reserve — it’s been around for over 200 years, smack dab in the heart of Kentucky’s horse breeding country, by the way — led that charge, and Chris plans to continue its domination through strong ties to bourbon-making heritage, a unique recipe and a quality distilling process. We caught up with him as part of our summer preview to hear some drinking stories, find out what’s next and talk about his love of the Kentucky Derby.

MORE GP INTERVIEWS: Jake Meyer, Youngest Brit to Scale Everest | Lee Abbamonte, Jet-setting Record Holder | Martin Miller of Martin Miller’s Gin

Q.
What’s one thing every man should know?
A.
He should know how to treat everyone with dignity and respect. That knowledge and its practice will take you far in life and leave you with a sense of having done the best you can when interacting with people from all walks of life.

Q.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A.
I turned down the opportunity to become the Master Distiller of Jack Daniel’s. That was tough.

Q.
What are you working on right now?
A.
I am working with my colleagues at the Woodford Reserve Distillery to craft a new generation of Woodford Reserve whiskies for the global marketplace. This project has been ongoing for over 10 years and will see its first results in a year or so.

Q.
Name one thing you can’t live without.
A.
People. I couldn’t imagine living without my family, extended family, friends and colleagues. They are who you share your dreams, successes, failures and frustrations with — they are the fabric of my life.

I love the fact that the Kentucky Derby honors the past while celebrating the present. In that regard, it is very much like Woodford Reserve.

Q:
Who or what influences you?
A:
My grandfather, C. W. Smith Sr., is a big influence in my life. He passed away 30 years ago, but I still think of the example he set. He was a real southern gentlemen, a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps in WWI, a family man and a business owner who was fair to his employees. He literally worked up to the last day of his life as an 85 year old.

Q.
What are you reading right now?
A.
Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series. I really enjoy historical novels as well as historical nonfiction.

Q.
It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A.
Assuming that it is supper and not breakfast or lunch, I would order a Woodford Reserve on the rocks with a petite filet medium, garlic mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and fresh rolls with butter — can’t have supper without hot rolls.

Q.
If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A.
I would tell myself not to let the advent of college and work weaken the friendships that you enjoy at the time over the long term.

Q.
How do you want to be remembered?
A.
In the past I have seen a number of well known or famous distillers retire, and in a matter of years they have been forgotten by a new generation of consumers and distillery employees. Therefore I don’t have any illusions about having a legacy that will be remembered. I guess the best we can hope for is not to go out under the “infamous” label!

Q.
What do you love most about the Kentucky Derby?
A.
I love the fact that the Kentucky Derby honors the past while celebrating the present. In that regard, it is very much like Woodford Reserve.

Q.
What do you think is behind the rekindled love for bourbon both at home and abroad these days?
A.
Not to brag, but I believe that the introduction of Woodford Reserve back in the ’90s had a lot to do with it. Our stylish packaging and unique flavor provided the industry with a real image boost. Woodford Reserve did not project the typical “good old boy” image that bourbon had long been known for. Instead it was contemporary and international in its personality. This made it appealing to consumers from New York to Sydney.

Q.
What are some bourbon-based cocktails you enjoy, beyond the Mint Julep?
A.
Since the Old Fashioned has its modern origins in Louisville I have to say it is a sentimental and taste favorite. However, I prefer it without muddled fruit — just add a bit of lemon peel, as the original recipe called for, and you will be set. I also enjoy a well-crafted Manhattan — no cherry juice — served on the rocks.

Q.
Do you have a favorite bar or watering hole?
A.
I sure do. Any bar that has Woodford Reserve in stock when I am in it is my favorite.

Q.
What do you wear to the Derby?
A.
Hopefully the weather cooperates and delivers a classic spring day. In that case, a summer-weight wool blue blazer, pastel cotton shirt with a Vineyard Vines Mint Julep themed tie, light grey slacks and comfortable shoes because I’ll be on my feet for 10+ hours. Of course a Woodford Reserve Turf Classic cap is the preferred head gear.

Q.
What separates Woodford from the rest of the bourbon pack?
A.
Our distillery’s emphasis on having each of the five sources of bourbon flavor (grain recipe, water source, fermentation, distillation and maturation processes) contribute to the final flavor profile in a discernable way.

Q.
Did you ever imagine you’d become a master distiller? What’s that career path like?
A.
I never would have dreamed of it when I first started in 1976. I was just happy to have a job. The fact that it was in the bourbon industry didn’t even enter my mind as being something unusual because my father and mother both had been in the business. My career path was a crooked one! I started in production, moved to sales, then back into production, out to marketing, back into a production/marketing hybrid and then finally back into production full time. I have seen all sides of our business and worked in more distilleries I believe than anyone else in the industry has.

Q.
What’s the best drinking experience you’ve ever had?
A.
I have had so many unique and special ones that it is hard to choose one as the best. So let’s say having a Woodford Reserve $1,000 Mint Julep live on national TV with Bob Costas was pretty remarkable.

summer-preview-teaser-icon-gear-patrol-50 Articles, 150 Gear Essentials, 1 Trek Across Cuba: Your Guide to Making Summer 2013 The Best Ever »