Industry Insiders: Chris Morris, Master Distiller

Chris Morris knows his bourbon. And if you drink Woodford Reserve, he knows yours too. The master distiller for the super-premium small-batch bourbon samples about 150 barrels of it a week. But while the quality of what’s in your glass is a distiller’s main responsibility, the job has evolved since Brown-Forman, the company that produces Woodford Reserve and a host of other spirits, made America’s first bottled bourbon in 1870. For example, ten minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby, Morris, whose accent confirms his status as a lifelong Kentuckian, was on NBC showing Bob Costas how to make the $1,000 mint julep (the proceeds went to charity) using ingredients like ice from the Arctic Circle, mint from Morocco and sugar from the South Pacific.

Point of origin: I started working at Brown-Forman as an intern in the central laboratory, working for the master distiller and various jobs. I went to school here in Louisville at Bellarmine University. So, I was a full-time intern, and I worked nights, weekends, holidays just because I loved it. We had two distilleries here in Louisville; the Old Forester and the Early Times.

On what’s required to become a master distiller: It’s very much a journeyman’s type of role, like you’d have with electricians, plumbers and carpenters. You just have to do it and you have to work at the hands of the master craftsperson; the master distiller. He tells you, “This is right, this is wrong, this smells great, this is not what we want in our product,” and you learn by doing it. That’s the only way. There’s no university degree out there for distilling.

Day-to-day at Woodford Reserve: I do a lot of travel. As Master distillers, one of our job descriptions is be brand ambassadors and we’re constantly going to whiskey shows; we’re making calls on key accounts; we go to big consumer events. We’re the face and voice of the brand. That’s all built into a schedule of production. I might go to the cooperage to see how the barrel production is going and sort of knock wood with the gang out there. At the distillery, most of the work is involved in tasting the barrels. I don’t run the stills.

Favorite way to drink bourbon: I like Woodford at this time of year, especially neat. Just have it straight up; summer, on the rocks. When I’m out in the marketplace, if a bar has a signature Woodford drink, you’ve got to go with that. And in wintertime I like a nice Manhattan, primarily on the rocks unless the bartender really likes it shaken. An Old Fashioned is perfect as we get into the spring and summer.

Most bizarre use of bourbon: Bacon-infused bourbon. I’ve seen Woodford Reserve being used by the finest chefs in the nation. A good friend of the brand, Bobby Flay, will cook with Woodford Reserve, but to see bacon inserted in bottles, and left overnight or left for a couple of days, and then removed and then making drinks with it, that’s—that takes a bit of getting used to. But, they’re usually quite flavorful. They’re used in making Manhattans, for example. But, imagine bacon-infused Woodford, in a Manhattan with a little maple syrup, and this and that and all of a sudden it starts to sort of become a breakfast Manhattan.

Hobbies: I’m an amateur wood sculptor. So, I like to sculpt just abstracts; Archipenko, Jean Arp, Henry Moore type of work. Just free forms that sort of mimic the human form.

Go-to bars for bourbon: There’s a place down in Nashville called The Patterson House, and it’s an old speakeasy. It’s an old Victorian home down near Music Row and you wouldn’t know it’s a bar. They don’t even have a sign out. But, you go in, you walk into a foyer. There’s a bookcase and a couple of plush chairs, and a reading lamp, then you walk through a curtain and all of a sudden you’re in a bar. Up in Chicago, the Violet Hour – it’s a really cool place. It’s like drinking in Alice in Wonderland. Out in L.A., The Edison and Seven Grand are good Woodford friends, really cool places. I can’t even begin to describe the Edison. It’s a bar three stories deep and about a 100-year-old building, maybe the oldest in Los Angeles. It was an old power plant. So, you’re having drinks among these old generators and old coal boilers and stuff, they’ve restored everything. It’s really cool.

The Varnish & the Art of the Cocktail

A few weeks ago I met some friends for drinks at Cole’s, one of the oldest eating establishments in Los Angeles. As I ate one of their famous French dip sandwiches, which they invented, I noticed a steady stream of people going into a little red door in the back of the room and not coming out. It was like a secret portal of some kind. (Did it lead to the Island, I wondered? Sorry, I’ve watched too much Lost.)

It turns out it was a portal — to a speakeasy set somewhere in 30s, with dark wood walls and lush, red ceilings, with little Tiffany lamps and bartenders with rolled-up shirt sleeves and pants with suspenders, and girls with flapper dresses and feathers in their hair. This would be The Varnish.

I looked over and noticed one Sasha Petraske, cocktail connoisseur of New York City, also sporting the suspenders-and-rolled-up-sleeves outfit, and thought, not too smartly, what’s he doing here?

Petraske and I go way back, thanks to me working with his mum at the Village Voice in the factchecking department. It was because of her that I was ever able to enter the ultra-exclusive confines of his very first bar, Milk and Honey in the Lower East Side.

“Hey Sasha,” I said to him, after asking about his mom. “I heard you’re opening a bar here.”

“Yeah,” he said, pointing at the floor. “This is it.”

(See I told you, I’m not too smart.)

That was just a soft opening of the Varnish — which Petraske opened with his former partner Eric Alperin, himself no cocktail slouch (see Osteria Mozza, Seven Grand, Little Branch, Milk and Honey), and a generous host to boot.

“We ‘ve been wanting to open a backroom lounge — I hate to use the term ‘speakeasy’ because we’re not a speakeasy,” said Alperin of their new project. “Something with a bit of intimacy, a bit of adventure. ”

The renovation of Cole’s last year provided a perfect opportunity in the form of a storage room. “We could build what we wanted,” said Alperin of the space in the landmarked building. “It wasn’t protected by the Historical Society, ’cause there was nothing historic.”

On a weekday, it was already looking like it would be a difficult task to get a seat in a bar that’s small enough to qualify as tiny even in New York. And on a return visit last Friday night, we waited a good 25 minutes before sitting at a two-top table. We sampled a few of their specialties, including the Palma Fizz (vodka, lime, ginger, rose water, and seltzer), which was artfully made. First, he poured a yellowish liquid into a tall glass, then he appeared to light something on fire, drizzling its contents inside (fairy dust? magic? love potion number nine?), before delicately adding the other ingredients. It was more gingery than I’d anticipated — my cohort liked the ginger beer qualities of the drink — but I was looking for something a little less tangy.

Our waitress suggested I try something so secret it wasn’t even on the menu: The Penicillin. She returned with a golden drink swallowing a giant, uncut slab of ice — a signature detail at the Varnish. It had lemon, ginger, honey, and Laphroaig. It was just the right mix of tart and sweet, a balance that the Varnish seems to strive for. Those sickly sweet drinks of your youthful indiscretions — the rum and cokes, the vodka-crans, the gin and sodas — they ruined your cocktail palate.

“I think we’re trying to bring back classic recipes, where there’s a bit more care involved, a bit more of a culinary craft.” said Alperin. “There’s not a lot of prefab ingredients or mixers.”

And there are even some ingredients that might raise your eyebrows. “People would think egg whites would be weird,” said Alperin. “I don’t find it strange … I think we have things that definitely wow the pants off of people, and that’s great.” (The egg white drink is called Eagle’s Dream, in case you’re feeling adventurous.)

My hardier friend braved a drink called Remember the Maine (rye, vermouth, heering, absinthe). I knew just by smelling it that it would grow hair on my chest. I took a sip, and though I initially thought it’d be too intense, the finish shifted and softened as our bellies warmed from the rye. It was quite pleasant, actually. She drained her glass.

Thanks to my generous friend, we’d taken a cab from Culver City ($60 round trip!) and were free to drink as much as our much-diminished tolerances could hold.

Which brings me to the awkward problem of the “new cocktailian” movement, as LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold has dubbed the influx of high-toned bars encroaching upon Los Angeles: How do you create a cocktail culture in a city where everyone has to drive?

“Move downtown,” laughed Alperin.

Another answer? One expertly made drink at a time.

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