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Chris Morris: Master Distiller

Charlie Morris was waiting in line on a mid-1950s afternoon in Louisville, Ky. when the young lady behind him snatched his attention. Charlie and his newfound crush, Faye Smith, were two of several hundred Brown-Forman employees in need of a vaccination that day.

After a lengthy wait, Charlie and Faye finally made their way to the front of the line. Charlie — whose eyes and mind may have drifted more to the woman behind him instead of the process in front of him — suddenly realized the needle for his impending shot was alarmingly large.

A bout of gentlemanly Southern hospitality never seemed more appropriate. Charlie spun around to Faye and coolly said, “After you.” She went first. He summoned the courage to go eventually. Soon after, they’d go on their first date. And in 1955, Charlie and Faye got married.

As the oldest of their three children, Chris Morris, recounts the story, it’s not lost on him that his parents wouldn’t have met and fallen in love without the assist from Brown-Forman, the company where they both worked and met. Charlie got his start at Brown-Forman — the oldest spirits and wine company in America — in 1946, while Faye began six years later.

Chris, 58, is Brown-Forman’s master distiller with a master’s degree from Webster University. He graduated from Webster’s Jeffersonville, Ind. campus in 1989 with an MA in marketing. Years earlier, as a high school senior, Chris initially started working at Brown-Forman. He’s been in the bourbon industry ever since.

Chris — whose daughter and nephew likewise work at Brown-Forman — said he takes great joy in being a second-generation employee of a company that revels in its family-oriented heritage.

“It’s a source of pride, certainly,” he said. “And it also means you’re going to work very hard. You know everybody is watching you because they know your family members. If you goof up, somebody is going to tell mom, dad, aunt, uncle, brother or sister, and they’ll come talk to you. It’s neat. It’s really fun.”

Photos courtesy of Woodford Reserve

Building A Brand

Chris Morris is in his 13th year as master distiller, a high-profile position he and his colleagues like to say he trained 28 years for. That journey began his final year of high school and culminated with the 2004 retirement of Lincoln Henderson — Brown-Forman’s previous master distiller, Morris’s mentor and a former Webster University student in his own right.

Morris is the seventh master distiller in Brown-Forman’s history and just the second at Woodford Reserve, a more recently developed branch of the business. He earned the designation based on a combination of his education, experience and aptitude within the company.

“To be quite honest, when I joined the company I just wanted to have a job,” Morris said. “Along the way — working with the master distiller and knowing master distillers within the industry — I never had any idea or dream to be one of them. I didn’t think it was possible.

“Until, eventually, I was invited to be the heir apparent with a stern warning that this will be the rest of your career. This is serious. You don’t become master distiller and then change your mind somewhere down the road. You have to be happy with this decision. I thought, ‘Well, first of all, this is really cool. And what are my chances of being the CEO or chairman of the board? They’re probably slim to none. So this is worth going for.’”

As master distiller, Morris’s responsibilities include presiding over the production of the Woodford Reserve line and maintaining the super-premium bourbon’s award-winning taste. He also chips in to ensure Brown-Forman’s other brands are running and tasting as they should.

Morris, a Louisville native, said just being a part of the storied Kentucky bourbon industry is a significant honor, let alone an integral component of its modern-day advancements. The bourbon industry has taken massive strides in the past two decades, which Morris said coincides with the release of Woodford Reserve in 1996.

“It began to energize the industry. You can look at the date from when Woodford Reserve was launched as when the industry started reinventing itself. Woodford Reserve was just the spark of excitement — a new look, a new style,” Morris said. “When distilleries are closing, here’s a distillery opening. When you can’t take a tour of a distillery, here’s a distillery that is offering to open its doors to visitors.”

“It was just a game-changer in the industry. I like to say it was our Muhammad Ali moment. Get up off the mat and keep on swinging. You’re not out of the fight. And a number of people agree with us now — it was Woodford Reserve to really get us going again.”

Morris said a typical day in the role of master distiller is nonexistent, as each day provides its own set of differing circumstances and challenges. When he discussed his most recent week of work, one day was spent hosting and training 150 bartenders from across the country at Woodford Reserve’s distillery in central Kentucky.

During another evening, Morris represented Brown-Forman at a major fundraiser for a political party’s caucus. A couple days later, Morris was in New York rubbing elbows with celebrity chefs from the Food Network, who cooked with Woodford Reserve as Morris explained how to best serve the beverage.

Somewhere in that schedule, Morris makes sure there’s ample time to test, refine and innovate at the Woodford Reserve distillery. It’s the artistic process of maintaining Woodford Reserve’s current lofty status while simultaneously trying to improve upon it that drives Morris in his day-to-day work. The carrot at the end of the stick is seeing consumers taste the concoctions he puts so much labor into.

“I love putting together the product and creating new expressions. That’s fun, obviously,” Morris said. “But what I really love as well is to see how people react to it. To have people come up and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love this stuff. I’ve never had it.’ And their eyes open up. ‘Oh, my goodness, where can I get it? This is just tremendous.’ To see the end result, the consumer reaction, is great.”

Photos courtesy of Woodford Reserve

Mastering His Trade

With both his parents having already worked in the Kentucky bourbon business, it didn’t take Morris long to determine he would do the same. A 1976 internship at Brown-Forman while he was in high school followed by a similar job his freshman year at Bellarmine University (Ky.) had him hooked.

“I was meeting new people and the friends I’d gone to high school with were working rather typical, mundane jobs. And there I was working at a distillery,” Morris said. “They just said, ‘That is so cool. How lucky are you?’ I’m like, ‘Well, this must be pretty cool and I must be pretty lucky because everyone seems to think so.’ That’s when I decided that was a pretty good place.”

In the mid-1980s, though, the prosperity of Brown-Forman and the American spirits industry at-large took a turn for the worse. Business lagged, whisky producers got away from their core markets and layoffs ensued. Though Morris had begun to climb the workplace ladder and his father was in Brown-Forman’s upper management, he was still let go.

One little distilling company, Glenmore, was trying to buck the nationwide trend. It gave Morris a shot, which gave him the shot in the arm he needed. Three years after he was hired, London-based United Distillers — the largest spirits company in the world at the time — acquired Glenmore. Suddenly, Morris was the go-to bourbon expert for an international giant, getting to travel the world, make connections and have experiences he didn’t believe were possible.

Then, in 1997, Brown-Forman wanted Morris back. A member of the Browns, the company’s founding family, personally requested for his return. It was a no-brainer decision for Morris.

“It took me all of 30 seconds to say, ‘Yes, I’ll come back,’” Morris said. “You never know where life is going to take you. It was the worst day I had when I was let go. But, obviously looking back, that was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. My overall development as a person, as a distiller, as a member of the industry … It worked out very well.”

While he was working at Glenmore, Morris was also wrapping up his master’s degree from Webster. Morris had actually started an MBA program at Bellarmine, but he quickly realized a graduate degree in marketing would be of more value and interest to him. Webster fit the bill.

“Somebody told me, ‘If you’re unhappy, you need to look at Webster.’ I said, ‘OK.’ And it was like, ‘My gosh, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’ I really enjoyed it,” Morris said. “The class sizes were small. The facilities were very nice. What I really liked about the professors was you’re learning about marketing from an executive at a local creative agency or television station or whatever it was. You had real professionals in their area of focus. That was just tremendous. I really appreciated that.”

Since Morris circled back to Brown-Forman — one of the largest spirits companies in the world — both it and the Woodford Reserve line have received numerous national and international accolades. The industry’s independent register has identified Woodford Reserve as the No. 1-selling super-premium Kentucky bourbon in the world and the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked as the top-selling ultra-premium Kentucky bourbon in the world the past two years. Morris said he’s more proud of these sales positions than he is of awards his company’s brands have claimed.

Personally, Morris was the 34th individual inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame in March 2016. He called the international award “very humbling,” particularly because only three other American distillers entered the Hall of Fame before he did.

Though he’s already reached a high status within his industry, Morris has plenty he’d still like to achieve before his apprentice, Elizabeth McCall, takes the mantle as Brown-Forman’s next master distiller. Morris said he envisions continuing to “rewrite the history books in American whisky and Kentucky whisky, specifically with Woodford Reserve.”

And when he does decide to hang ‘em up?

“I have seen other great master distillers who have retired and passed away. Over time, people forget them because they’re gone. Maybe in their company they are remembered,” Morris said.

“I don’t have any delusions I’m going to be on the $10 bill someday or something like that. I just really hope when the history of Kentucky bourbon and Woodford Reserve is talked about, I’m still somewhere on the page.”

Photos courtesy of Woodford Reserve