Life is so very interesting — you never know what opportunities will come your way. Less than a decade ago, Elizabeth McCall was on a path towards becoming a therapist after graduating from the University of Louisville with a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Yet, change was in the wind after a casual meeting with an acquaintance. All of a sudden, instead of counseling adults, she was on her way towards a career with the Brown-Forman Corporation. Since then, Elizabeth has steadily been working her way up in the company. In February, she was promoted to Assistant Master Distiller for Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve. At age 33, she is one of the youngest female distillers in the United States. She is the second person in her family to work in the spirits industry, following her mother, who worked for Seagram’s in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Elizabeth McCall.
“Brown-Forman makes everything themselves. We take a lot of pride in all the products we produce, and I really just want to tout it to everyone,” says Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve and today’s FACE of Louisville.
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How did you get the job working for Brown-Forman?
I was approaching graduation from the university. My little brother was having a high school graduation party, and there was a mutual family friend there who worked for Brown-Forman. He overheard me talking about needing to find a job and how I wasn’t very inspired by what was out there. He told me that someone from the company was going to leave, and I should send in a résumé if I was interested. He said it was a very entry-level position, so I might be overqualified based on my education, but that Brown-Forman was a great company to work for. I was like, “Sign me up!” A good company with good benefits — I was very excited.
What was your first job with the company?
I began working in the sensory department with the research and development team. I focused on quality. For any product any human interacts with, you first do a sensory test, whether it be on the color, the taste, the aroma — all those things. We are looking at it from a very scientific standpoint. Psychology plays a strong role, and I had that basic understanding of human experimentation and testing and physical analysis, and we were applying those principles to alcohol interaction with people.
What was your next step within the company?
I stayed in the sensory department, but I kept getting promoted within my role, so I gained more responsibility. I was upgraded to Associate Sensory Scientist.
“This year Woodford Reserve has become the presenting sponsor for the Derby. It is such a good fit,” says Elizabeth. “Woodford Reserve is located in the heart of horse country. We are the only bourbon brand that matures side by side with young thoroughbreds. It’s part of our story. We’re surrounded by horse farms and the equine connection is really important.”
How did you eventually become involved with Woodford Reserve?
I put it out to my managers that I’d be interested in any opportunity to go out and speak about any of the brands — I’d love to do it. It wasn’t a job that was posted. They were looking for the right person to fit the job. You can have a really technical person with the understanding, but you also want to have somebody who can speak in front of 300+ people and be okay with it. Our Master Distiller Chris Morris then asked me if I wanted to train to be a master taster, and I started out focusing on Old Forester and Woodford, and over time it evolved to focusing on Woodford Reserve.
How have you developed your palate over the years?
Working on the sensory team helped me to develop that palate. It was daily exposure and tasting and beginning to notice different attributes. I was one of the creators of the Descriptive Panel, which we still use today in the sensory group, to evaluate whiskey. It was all on the job. Practice makes perfect.
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What is involved with your position as Assistant Master Distiller?
It’s multifaceted. It’s ensuring the quality of Woodford Reserve, working on innovation, growing different grain recipe concepts and barrel finish concepts and working with our Master Distiller Chris Morris on those. There’s also brand ambassadorship — being a representative and going out into the community and making everybody fall in love with Woodford Reserve. I educate our sales force and distributing folks on the whiskey category as a whole. I’m getting into the distillery and getting my hands dirty within production due to my experience in the flavor and batching side of it. I’ll get to the cooperage, where we build our barrels, and I’ll spend time on our stave mills and just understanding all areas of what makes a good bourbon.
“My brother jokes that anything I pick up I ‘nose’ to see what the attributes are,” says Elizabeth. “As an assistant, I’m still learning as well.”
What do you do as a brand ambassador for Woodford Reserve?
I go all over the world. Australia is the furthest I’ve gone. I do a lot of trips around the U.S. I just got back from South Carolina a few weeks ago. We do a lot of events. Woodford is very focused on culinary, so we’ll do Woodford-paired dinners. I also speak to the trade a lot, like bartenders, about what makes Woodford a step above the rest.
Besides your new position with Woodford Reserve, what other interests keep you busy?
I’ve been on the board of Green Hill Therapy for the past five years. It’s one of the only places in Jefferson County where kids can receive physical and occupational therapy utilizing horses — which is called hippotherapy. I was drawn to it because it’s kids and horses. It’s near and dear to my heart.
What hobbies or pastimes do you enjoy?
I do horseback riding, and I love hot yoga — but I never have much time for that anymore.
Which restaurants do you like visiting in Louisville?
I like Seviche and Porcini.
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“I’ve done a lot of women and whiskey events. We do events where we can talk to consumers about Woodford Reserve brands and what makes each one so unique,” says Elizabeth.
If you could live anywhere else besides Louisville, where would that be?
If I could split my time, I would head to the beach, possibly Florida. But I’d have to return to Louisville. It’s where my family is.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share?
If you have a thought or opinion about your career or life in general, you don’t always have to do what’s laid out in front of you. Be confident in yourself and what you want to do, and speak up about it.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Woodford Reserve, animals and horseback riding.
Thank you, Elizabeth, taking the time to share with us. And special thanks to Gretchen Bell for these lovely photos.
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