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Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

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Washington Post article. Excerpt:

More than a decade ago, Buffalo Trace went into the Missouri Ozarks to hand-select 96 trees. Those trees were split in half, then made into staves for 192 barrels, each tweaked according to numerous variables. Half of the barrels were air-dried for six months and half for 12 months. Some of the barrels were charred very dark, and some were charred lighter. Some barrels were filled with wheat-recipe bourbon, others were filled with rye-recipe bourbon; some of the contents was 105-proof, some was 125-proof.

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There are a lot of variables besides the wood. It will be interesting to see how this turns out and what can be learned from this venture. It would be great to do a blind tasting of these products at barrel proof.

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There are a lot of variables across the project, but from what I've read the way in which they will be released (12 varieties at a time, 4 times a year over 4 years) will be planned such that if you buy any two bottles from the same 'release' they will have only one or two differences. They could potentially differ in mash bill, char, top cut vs. bottom cut, or coarseness of the grain, but not all or even most of the above.

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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I got a chance to taste two whiskies from the "Holy Grail" project (as they call) at special tasting last summer at Tales. Presumably these were whiskies that are included single oak project, but I'm not certain of that. In this case, the only difference was in the spacing of the wood rings in the oak used to make the barrel. The taste was dramatically different. (Unfortunately, I can't find my notebook from that tasting).

One funny note from that presentation: they did one experiment with all organic ingredients. They wanted to release it as certified organic in the Experimental series, but initially the government was requiring that they prove the oak used in the barrel had been raised organically. They were appealing that decision, but I'm not sure how it finally came out.

Here is a brief item I did for our daily paper, the Times Picayune, on the series. If I can find the notes from my interview with Harlen Wheatley, then I'll post more details:

The Buffalo Trace distillery has set itself a modest goal: to create the perfect bourbon. They want to release a whiskey that gets a perfect 100 score from every top spirit reviewer. And they’re not depending on luck or chance.

The distillery, owned by New Orleans’ Sazerac Company, launched the “Holy Grail” project in 1994. Since then, they’ve been systematically testing and cataloging every element of whiskey making: the grains, the wood used in barrels and even the atmosphere of the aging warehouses.

“There is not a lot out there,” said Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, “to learn why things do what they do. Really there aren’t even a lot of books on making bourbon. The only way you’re going to learn is in-house.”

The first results were released to the public in 2006 as part of the Buffalo Trace’s first Experimental Collection, half bottles of whiskey with copious notes on the label about why that particularly batch is unique. Currently, the distillery has about 300 experiments in the warehouse, which adds up to 1,400 barrels. Each experiment costs Buffalo Trace on average $10,000, and not all the results are good enough to sell.

Buffalo Trace compares the project to an auto manufacturer creating Formula One race cars. What they learn can be incorporated into the distillery’s other bourbons.

“On our main recipes,” said Wheatley, “we haven’t changed them, but we know why we don’t change them.”

Wheatley thinks no other distillery would undertake such an extensive and expensive project. Unlike most liquor companies, Buffalo Trace doesn’t have to justify its expenditures to stockholders. They only answer to Sazerac Company’s Bill Goldring, and he thinks the experiments are worth the money.

On Thursday, November 11, from 6:00–7:30 sample one of the experimental whiskeys as well as unaged White Dog Mash #1 and regular Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare bourbons at the Bourbon House (144 Bourbon St.). Appetizers will be served. Tickets to the tasting are $30. For reservations call 504.274.1829 or email nobs@bourbonhouse.com.

Edited by TAPrice (log)

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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