Whisky Advocate

Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project (Part 2): My Thoughts and Opinions

May 24th, 2011

I first wrote about it here last week. Have a look if you need to get the background. Today, I’m going to give you the details of the 12-bottle first release and offer some brief thoughts on them.

Here’s a breakdown of each bottle number, along with the variables from each bottling:

3 – Tight Grain, Top Cut, Rye Recipe
4 – Tight, Bottom, Rye
35 – Tight, Top, Wheat
36 – Tight, Bottom, Wheat
67 – Average, Top, Rye
68 – Average, Bottom, Rye
99 – Average, Top, Wheat
100 – Average, Bottom, Wheat
131 – Coarse, Top, Rye
132 – Coarse, Bottom, Rye
163 – Coarse, Top, Wheat
164 – Coarse, Bottom, Wheat

As you will see, the variables are the mash bill (wheat or rye as the “spice” ingredient), which half of the tree the barrel was made from (top or bottom), and the grain size (tight, average, course).

Note that the bottle numbers are grouped in pairs (3-4, 35-36, etc.). The odd numbered bottles are from the top cut of the tree, while the even numbers are from the bottom cut of the tree.

My observations and preferences

First, let me say that my opinions are just one person, and there are other opinions out there that differ from mine. Also, if you want to taste these whiskeys without any opinions bias you, this would be a good time to stop reading this post.

One thing I noticed immediately was that the bottom cut (the even numbers) really show a lot more wood influence (and possibly even terroir).  Generally speaking, I preferred the bourbons that were aged in barrels made from the top part of the trees (the odd numbered bottles). In many instances, the wood from the bottom cut dominates the flavor profile.

I sort of feel the same way with whiskeys aged in barrels made from wood with the course grain size (131, 132, 163, 164). There’s a lot of wood influence there. The course grain particularly dominates the more delicate (and vulnerable?) wheat-spiced whiskeys (163, 164). In fact, 163 and 164 were my least favorite of the twelve. Generally speaking, bourbon made from barrels with average grain size seemed to be the sweet spot.

On the flip side, the wheated whiskeys with “top” wood and both tight and average grain (35 and 99, respectively) were quite nice. They were (respectively) my 2nd and 3rd favorite whiskeys. If you like wheated bourbons, you might consider one of these.

My favorite of the bunch: #67: a rye bourbon with average grain size wood taken from the top of a tree. I felt it was elegant, refined, and sophisticated. I could drink this stuff all day long.

So, trying to summarize what I liked most: whiskeys aged in barrels made from the top parts of the tree with an average grain size for the rye bourbon (#67) and a tight grain for the wheated bourbon (#35), because it’s a more delicate style of whiskey.

Has anyone else tried any of these yet? If so, your thoughts?

23 Responses to “Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project (Part 2): My Thoughts and Opinions”

  1. PeteR says:

    John,

    Thanks for the review. I will look for them soon.

    Do you know what char level, proof, seasoning, warehouse the samples came from (your previous post said these factors would be variables as well.

    Thanks!

  2. Rick Duff says:

    Really interesting John.. Thanks for posting!
    It’s great to see the differences in top to bottom parts of the tree.. plus the grain difference.
    Explains some of the flavour of the 40 Creek Confederation Oak.. with the old Canadian tight grain barrels.
    Looking forward to hearing more with future batches.

  3. Vince says:

    John

    I had written this in your first mention of the single oak collection. I have tried the #3 and #99 and I have to say they were two of the most disappointing bourbons I have ever tasted. The #3 has to be the sweetest bourbon on earth. It tastes like a caramel milkshake. It was so sweet and rich that I almost couldn’t finish it. I compare it to a rich dessert you have after a big meal only to regret it afterward. The #99 was better but not worth the price they are putting on these. I did not taste any wood or complexity of flavor in these bourbons (especially #3). I love Buffalo Trace as a distillery and am very high on their products but I feel they totally missed on these. When I went on the web site to review the #3 there were 5 reviews of it, 4 of them were extremely unfavorable.
    I will not purchase another one of these bottles. If they are planning quarterly releases for the next 4 years I think they are going to have a significant sales issue.

    • John Hansell says:

      My contact at Buffalo Trace told me about an hour ago that the general concensus of the whiskey writers at the event was that they liked #99. (I wasn’t there. I had a conflict.) I, too, think it is better than you do.

      Looking back, I would say that 2/3 of the whiskey were a bit disappointing to me (due to the excessive wood influence). But this is an experiment and is expected.

      • Vince says:

        I’ll go back and try to #99 John. To be honest, I had that one after the #3, it was better but the #3 may have destroyed my taste buds, everything tasted real sweet after that. I understand its experimental, I was just surprised at how unpleasant I felt the #3 was. It would be easier to swallow if it was $20 for a half bottle. I paid $63 in Louisville at a place that usually has good prices. I can get a Pappy 15 for that!

        • Red_Arremer says:

          Always safer– for your wallet– to stay with the tried and true, Vince. But if you’re commenting here you probably shell out for new exciting and possibly disappointing whiskies quite a bit.

          • Vince says:

            I do Red, and at times I am disappointed (never as much as with these though) and other times my journey is rewarded. But there is certainly something to be said for the tried and true!

  4. Scribe says:

    John, I always learn something from postings on here — truly. But this post was one of the most educational. Very helpful to “the shopper” in me as well! Thanks so much for taking the time to review them!

  5. [...] John Hansell of Malt Advocate weighs in, with similarly mixed opinions — and some different [...]

    • Rick Duff says:

      Would be nice if this kind of post could be blocked.

      • Mary says:

        I second that!

      • Scott says:

        This is probably John’s blogging platform treating trackback entries as comment posts. Pretty common on the interwebs, so far not really spammy here, and not obtrusive unless people comment about it.

        Anyway, John’s review, and the other tasting notes that are beginning to emerge from the first release, have me wondering. BT seems to be claiming in interviews and press releases that the happiest outcome for them will be if they find the one magic combination that makes the ultimate whiskey: This spirit, aged in barrels made from this part of this tree with this level of char = Perfect Bourbon™. Which is fine as far as marketing BS goes; it’s a fun idea. But what the tasting notes I’ve seen so far, and John’s are the best of the lot so far in terms of a systematic approach that honors BT’s systematic efforts, seem to point to is that the real best-case outcome here will be a sufficiently improved understanding of the oak so that careful management of aging in barrels made from a variety of wood types will produce better whiskey when spirit aged in different barrels is blended.

        The possibility of making better, or anyway more consistent, single-barrel bourbon would also seem to be a possible outcome of the project. But the real dividends seem to be in a better understanding of how a variety of wood types can be managed and accounted for when combining multiple casks for bottling.

  6. Gary Gillman says:

    John, good comments. If I understand how this whole thing is put together, there are no “control” barrels. In other words, it is impossible to know if the terroir factor really exists. If each recipe (mash bill) had also been aged in a regular barrel (i.e., where the staves derive from a broad variety of trees and parts thereof and regions), one could tell whether the singularity of the wood source made a difference. In this sense I think an opportunity was lost.

    Gary

  7. Gary Gillman says:

    I should add, by control barrel I mean too not just the same mashbill in a regular barrel, but aged in the same part of the warehouse (ideally side by side) for the same time and brought down to the same bottling proof.

    Some of these mash bills are I would think the same as those in current production (e.g. for Elmer T. Lee, Weller 107, etc.) but you’d need “all the above” to make a perfect comparison.

    Gary

  8. Dan says:

    Thanks for these posts on the project. I find it very interesting.

    What I also find interesting is that BT has enlisted the bourbon-drinking public to do a lot of research for them. It’s very clever.

  9. sam k says:

    My samples arrived today. I have not read John’s post nor any of the comments. I’ll be setting some time aside this weekend for the flight and will report back soon. I’ll be joined in this effort by my lovely wife, Amy, who won’t touch a beer, but will dive into whiskey with reckless abandon.

    The random sample bottles look like a pharmacy! Thanks again John, this is going to be a blast!

  10. Texas says:

    John I am just curious, if you were in another profession and not get these as a free sample would you go out and purchase all 12 to participate in the study?

    • John Hansell says:

      That’s a great question. If I were a typical whiskey consumer, the answer would probably be no. But, as a professional, I would want to find a way to taste all of them, even if I had to split the case of 12 with like-minded enthusiasts. (That;s how Malt Advocate got started, BTW)

  11. Red_Arremer says:

    Heard my samples just arrived at the place of the person who’s taking them in for me. Should be picking them up tomorrow and posting reviews up sometime next week. Can’t wait. Thanks again John!

  12. jeff Nelson says:

    John
    I too really enjoyed #99…. may have to grab a 67 next week!

  13. [...] and char level. Details below in the press release. You can find my thoughts on the first release here. (Photo below is of Round [...]

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