Size Matters – At Least When It Comes to Whiskey

One of the reasons that the spirits world is so fascinating today is because of all the experimentation that is going on. There are so many different distilleries, large and small, doing so many different things that the sky's the limit when it comes to the possibilities for new products, techniques and innovations.

Case in point: the excellent work being by Buffalo Trace Distillery. I've mentioned their fascinating Single Oak Project a couple of times, and although I haven't yet had the opportunity to taste any of their offerings, they've been getting rave reviews. (I just read F. Paul Pacult's thoughts on the subject last night.) But not all of their experiments produce positive results, as the company recently announced:

Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a  warehouse for six years.

The results were less than stellar.  Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

“As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons.  Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time.  Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned. 


Interesting information — and controversial as well. Apparently some people, especially those involved with the smaller whiskey distilleries, took this announcement as a insult. Briefly, the craft whiskey distilleries often age their whiskey in small barrels, thus accelerating the process and allowing them to bring their product to market faster. They felt that BT was making a blanket condemnation of their methods (and their whiskey).

I'm going to take Buffalo Trace's statement at face value and not speculate on their motives. Because ultimately I think what they're saying is likely true, and therefore it's valuable information. Based on their experiments, they concluded that making traditional bourbon whiskey in small barrels doesn't work.

That's not to say that good whiskey can't be made in different ways. But this particular one apparently didn't work. If that's a challenge to small producers, I think it's more because of the results, rather than the announcement. And if craft distilleries are able to make tasty bourbon in small barrels, then the proof will be in their product.

As I stated at the outset, part of the beauty of today's spirits business is that different people are trying different things. And that's good. Ultimately, the consumer benefits, and good drinks are had.