Buffalo Trace is well-known as an innovator. They’ve won awards for it, they’ve seen plenty of ink (and pixels) for it, and they even sell the results of this innovation as their Experimental Collection; selected barrels from a reported 1,500+ variations aging in various warehouses. Distillery president Mark Brown has likened the multi-decade experimental project to a car company’s Formula 1 racing program: technical innovation to improve the general process and product.
But up until now, the experiments have focused on recipe (different grains and proportions), barrel (type of oak, size, seasoning, entry proof, and the whole Single Oak project), and things that are easily changed one or two or five barrels at a time. The E.H. Taylor microdistillery is able to feed that kind of experimentation with very small batches of different distillate. But now things move into a new arena with the christening of Warehouse X, a building expressly designed to test the effects of environment on aging. (Buffalo Trace has always designated their warehouses with single letters; the sequencing of “X” for this experimental warehouse was happily fortuitous.)
The idea for Warehouse X started years ago, literally with a sketch on the back of a napkin, a conversation between Mark Brown and former warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins. “If it hadn’t been for Ronnie Eddins,” Brown said in tribute, “there wouldn’t have been the energy for the Experimental Collection. I was intrigued by his ideas for warehouse experimentation. All the research on aging has been done to get rid of it. What about getting more out of it? Why not a glass roof, bigger windows, or smaller ones?”
But warehouses aren’t cheap, not even small experimental warehouses, so the idea slumbered for years, until a tornado tore off the back of Warehouse C in 2006. For six months, until repairs could be made, the barrels aged in the open; no wall, no roof. The whiskey was eventually bottled as E.H. Taylor “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.” It was, as Brown admits, a bit of a stunt, some fun.
“But the whiskey was great!” he hooted. “The whole debate on warehouse experimentation resurfaced.” Master distiller Harlen Wheatley got a $250,000 budget to design and build a small warehouse with four different bays and a “patio.”
It turned out to cost more like a million dollars when everything was said and done. One bay will age whiskey in total darkness, one will cycle in temperature (on varying schedules), one will be subject to changes in humidity (“Humidity’s a mystery,” Brown said), and the fourth will be affected by changes in airflow. The patio will try to replicate the effects of the tornado; open-air aging.
Brown thinks sunlight on the barrels may be the key, though the thought worries him, in a humorous way. “We’ll look like a bunch of chimpanzees if all we needed to age the perfect bourbon was a field full of barrels and a guard tower,” he said with a grin…a wry grin.
Of course, the question is…”the key” to what? When Buffalo Trace embarked on this project some years ago (officially; Ronnie Eddins had been running it off the books for years!), there was talk of the “holy grail,” the “perfect bourbon.” Like bourbon, we’re all older, more mature, and more mellow now (and maybe a bit woody, too), and talk of the “perfect bourbon” makes us edgy. Who’s to say what is the perfect bourbon?
Indeed, Brown agreed, and easily acknowledged that different people have clearly different ideas about it. The purpose of the experimental program is to learn what will create different character in bourbons so that the process can be more readily controlled and optimized for flavor, and sometimes very different flavor. After we’d seen the warehouse, we sat down to taste whiskeys that had been aged in Mongolian oak (incredibly smooth and fruity at only 5 years old, but at about $1,000 a barrel, don’t expect a lot of it), four and six grain bourbons, and a shockingly different — peppery, sweet mint, explosively spicy — 1 year old whiskey that Brown and Wheatley mostly grinned about without saying much, other than that it was “bourbon.”
It was clear that this project is not about changing Buffalo Trace, or Elmer T. Lee, or the Antique Collection. “We’ve thought a lot about the project on a technical level,” Brown said. “We didn’t think about retailing it.” However, he did say that there are some Experimental Collection projects that will go commercial, and allowed that the portfolio had room for “one more brand.”
Brown also emphasized that while innovation looked to the future, the distillery’s recent recognition as a National Historical Landmark (there were new banners up all over the grounds) looks to the past. The process of approval brought out even more about the site’s history, which goes back over 200 years (older than most Scotch whisky distilleries).
“This is a crusade for us,” he said. “We feel we have a custodial role; we have to get this distillery intact to the next generation.” Despite some low points, Buffalo Trace has survived, and as we walked around the distillery, it’s clear that it is thriving, stronger than ever. There are plans for expansion, something I never would have guessed would be needed when I first toured here in the 1990s.
But innovation, like the Experimental Collection and Warehouse X, begets success, especially when linked to the independence that’s characterized Buffalo Trace. Don’t expect the desire to investigate the art of bourbon manufacture and aging to change here any time soon.