Woodford Reserve named sponsor of Kentucky Derby and as John Asher describes 'It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship' that's been going on for the past 30 years. Matt Stone, The Courier-Journal


LOUISVILLE — Elizabeth McCall was jobless with a master's degree in psychology when an acquaintance suggested she apply for an entry-level opening at liquor distiller Brown-Forman.

At the time, McCall knew almost nothing about bourbon, the company's flagship product. But since landing the job in 2009, she's become adept at detecting the distinct flavors and characteristics that make up each of the company's carefully crafted spirits.

She moved up to master taster at Woodford Reserve and last month was named assistant master distiller for the premium bourbon brand. That puts her on track to eventually become a master distiller.

McCall joins a small group of women who've taken on leadership roles within the traditionally male-dominated industry.

Female master distillers in Kentucky alone include Pamela Heilmann at Michter's and Marianne Barnes at Castle & Key, named to their positions in 2016 and 2015, respectively.


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"It's unique that I am a woman in this role, just given the history of the titles in the industry," McCall said. "But at Brown-Forman, I've always been surrounded by women. ... It's never been weird for a woman to have a seat at the table and to voice her opinions."

McCall trained under master distiller Chris Morris, who has held the post for 15 years. She has worked under him for nine of those years, and he expects her to fill his shoes once he eventually retires.

"It's how our industry goes. I had a master who I was trained under, and I'm the seventh master distiller at the company," Morris said. "We really respect that lineage. You learn all of these secrets and processes that are handed down from generation to generation. What I'm doing with Elizabeth is passing that legacy onto her."

McCall, 33, will continue working with Morris on the innovation and development of new products within Woodford Reserve, the company said.

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McCall said part of her job will be to share the brand's story, and she hopes that having a woman in that position will encourage others to see distilling as an attainable career.

"It feels like a huge amount of responsibility," McCall said of her new job. "But I also have so much pride and understanding of the big picture of it all. ... I'm extremely honored and humbled to be taking on this role. I almost don't have the words to really describe it. It's very surreal. I get choked up and emotional thinking about what lies ahead."

Morris said he's confident McCall will handle the position with skill and grace.

McCall has a passion and an eye for quality that cannot be taught, he said, and she's never been one to shy away from making a suggestion — even in a room of industry veterans.

"She's always been very passionate and at the same time very inquisitive, she's always been very respectful of people and their experiences," Morris said. "I thought that really boded well for the future. ... Woodford Reserve is to be protected and nurtured, and she is all on board with that."

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