I’ve just spent two days at Buffalo Trace with other journalists, learning more about the Single Oak Project, the coming distillery expansion, and the philosophy that drives their continued experimentation. It’s been a great time, and really makes me feel good about bourbon’s future. Here’s what happened.
First, I added two words to my vocabulary: “de-ricked” and “re-ricked.” Buffalo Trace has bought back Warehouses R,S,T, and U, the remaining original buildings on the distillery campus. They had been built fast and filled fast in the late 1940s, when the distillery owners didn’t want to get caught in another lack of stock similar to what had happened in World War II.
But bourbon sales dropped in the 1970s, so the buildings were sold and rebuilt as office buildings in the 1980s, which is when the de-ricking took place; all the ricks were taken out, carpet and drop ceilings installed. But lately the occupancy—mostly state government workers—had been slipping, and the real estate company lost the buildings to the bank…Buffalo Trace’s bank. The distillery offered the bank a dollar more than the note on the buildings, and the deal was done.
Two of the warehouses are in the process of being re-ricked now (the other two won’t be cleared of the current tenants until 2017, under the terms of the deal), and the work is proceeding at a furious pace. Construction teams were working hard on the fifth floor, bolting together pine 4X4s, while the first floor was already filled with 10,000 barrels. In January, that first floor was still offices!
That’s only four additional warehouses, though, and Buffalo Trace is finally flexing the full muscle of their impressive distilling capacity. Those warehouses won’t be empty for long. That’s why the decision was made to buy 282 acres on the ridge above the distillery. At least 30 warehouses will be going in on the new property, at 50,000 barrels each, a new warehouse every five months for ten years. They’re already growing corn up there, a non-GMO strain of white corn dating back to the 1860s, to make an estate bottling of bourbon.
There’s only a tightly-winding narrow road up to the property now (which is apparently how the former owner liked it). That’s why they bought a parcel of 50 acres that connects out to Rt. 127, which will become the main access to the site for construction, emergency, and — eventually — barrel trucks. Although…Brown is still toying with the idea of either pumping bourbon up to the site for barreling there, or with a conveyor to get the filled barrels up the hill. Big ideas are bubbling.
There’s one more warehouse that’s of special interest at the Trace. Remember the Warehouse X project, the five-chambered test warehouse? 150 barrels of bourbon are in there now, testing the effects of light on aging. Light? The barrels are opaque, solid oak! But light is energy, and light on barrels warm the whiskey. So some chambers are in total darkness, one’s in natural light, and one’s at half-natural light. What if light makes a positive difference? We discussed, bemused, the possibility of completely redesigned warehouses with walls of glass.
The air-handling systems at Warehouse X, which can heat or cool or change the humidity separately in each of the four chambers not open to the outside, are capable of quickly matching the sudden swings in temperature and humidity common in this part of Kentucky (and were fully half the expense of the construction). Probes in two barrels in each chamber measure temperature and pressure. Fascinating whiskey aging research is being done. (You can read more here.)
But all these new developments—plus a new automated shipping warehouse, expanded gardens and an archeological survey of Col. Albert Blanton’s gardens, an expanded Visitor Center, and another restored building from the 1790s—weren’t even the main reason we were in Frankfort. We were there to taste the top five whiskeys from the Single Oak Project.
A quick reminder: the Single Oak Project was designed to test variables in bourbon aging, in what president Mark Brown puckishly called “Project Holy Grail,” a search for the way to make the perfect bourbon. Bourbons were barreled in oak from single trees, split into bottom and top halves, but varied by things like which mashbill (wheat or rye bourbon), what type of warehouse floor (concrete or wooden rick), and entry proof (105 or 125). (You can learn a lot more about the project here.)
This produced 192 bourbons, all at 8 years old, which were released in batches over the past four years. People who tasted them were encouraged to review them online at the project’s website. The data were collected, put in a spreadsheet, and examined. Recently the last batch was released, and the results of all the reviews were weighed. The five bourbons which scored the highest (with at least ten reviews each) were presented to our group of 9 spirits writers…plus Buffalo Trace’s master distiller, Harlen Wheatley. We sniffed, tasted, swirled, added water and repeated, and them Brown polled us to call out our 5-star ratings on each one.
Release #80 was the clear winner: what was it? Surprisingly close to the distillery flagship, Buffalo Trace! It was the rye bourbon mashbill, aged in a barrel from the bottom half of the tree (the bottom half bottlings did better overall), at a 125 entry proof. We didn’t discuss our tastes, but I found this one to be complex, with wood and grain in good balance and a very nice finish. Apparently the group agreed: #80 garnered five 5-star ratings, and the most any other bottling got was two.
Does the research end there? Of course not. For one thing, there’s a lot of research to be done on warehouse design and siting. Almost every company builds the warehouses the same way, but there’s been no rigorous testing done on whether that’s the best way. Orientation, top of hill vs. valley, in the woods or in open fields? No one really knows, and you get the distinct impression that this ignorance—their own, not just the industry’s—really bothers Wheatley.
Then there’s the whole issue of supply: are they making enough whiskey? Well, who knows? Brown was quite frank about that. “None of us really know what we’re doing,” he said at one point. “We don’t, Beam doesn’t, Brown-Foreman doesn’t. We’re just betting people will keep buying bourbon.”
On a trip where the differences between what things were like 20 years ago—when a younger Harlen Wheatley abandoned the distillery laboratory facility because of a steam leak no one had the money to fix—and today—when Buffalo Trace has the money to have 17 full-time gardeners on staff—kept coming up as a head-shaking topic, it was clear that the bet was just that: a wager, not a prediction.
In the heart of thoroughbred country, maybe that’s just how it’s going to be; betting’s in the blood. Given the depth of research and commitment and experimentation at Buffalo Trace, they seem like favorites in the long run.