Making good whiskey takes time. Try though they might, no distiller or producer has yet found a way to shortcut Father Time. There simply is no substitute for the years whiskey spends slowly aging in wood.
This desire is nothing new. While perusing a monograph from 1884 (The Complete Bartender: The Art of Mixing Plain and Fancy Drinks by Albert Barnes of the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City), I discovered the following recipe.
IMITATION OF BOURBON WHISKEY.
To 15 gallons of whiskey, add 3 gallons of Bourbon whiskey, 3/4 pint of simple syrup, 1 ounce of sweet spirits of nitre. Mix them well together, and color with sugar coloring.
So if you happen to have some sweet spirits of nitre on hand — the folksy name for ethyl nitrite, an ingredient used in patent remedies that's been banned in the United States since 1980 — you're good to go!
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.
The latest news from Buffalo Trace Distillery, easily one of the most forward-thinking distilleries in the world. They're trying more interesting (and delicious) things with whiskey than anyone else I can think of. If you see a bottle of this, definitely pick it up.
The latest in the Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. Bourbon Collection from Buffalo Trace Distillery is an extraordinary barrel proof, uncut, unfiltered rye recipe bourbon.
Weighing in at a hefty 134.5 proof, this small batch bourbon was aged for seven years on the sixth floor of Buffalo Trace’s Warehouse C, built by Colonel Taylor in 1881.
When your experience this uncut and unfiltered Bourbon, “an aroma of cooked, berries meets the nose, followed by a rich caramel and slightly floral smell. The taste is bold – full of spice that fills the mouth with a distinct flavor of toasty vanilla, dried oak and pepper. The finish is long and satisfying with a powerful rye character and lingering hints of fruit."
The Barrel Proof Bourbon is the fourth in the line of the E. H. Taylor, Jr. collection of whiskeys to be released over the next few years. It joins the Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon, Single Barrel Bourbon and Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon released within the past year. Like the previous three releases, this Barrel Proof Bourbon will have very limited availability and will be packaged in a vintage label and canister reminiscent of Taylor’s bottles nearly one hundred years ago
Taylor is widely considered one of the founding fathers of the bourbon industry, fighting for the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, nearly three decades after he purchased the distillery that is known today as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. During his time, Taylor implemented several innovative methods still used today by Buffalo Trace, such as climate controlled aging warehouses. In addition to his bourbon interests, Taylor had political ties. He was the great-nephew of President Zachary Taylor and elected the mayor of Frankfort, state representative to the Kentucky General Assembly and a member of the State Senate.
The Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Barrel Proof Bourbon will be available in June. Suggested retail pricing is $69.99 for a 750 ml bottle.
One year ago Buffalo Trace Distillery unveiled its Single Oak Project and its quest for the perfect bourbon. Now as the fifth round of Single Oak Project Bourbons are released, there has been much excitement and many reviews, but still many questions to be answered.
The fifth round of experiments will focus on three variables, the recipe, rye vs. wheat; the entry proof, 105 vs. 125 proof; and wood grain size, tight, average, or coarse. All of the other variables such as barrel stave seasoning, aging warehouse, char level, and tree cut (top or bottom) remain constant.
As with the other four releases, Buffalo Trace hopes whiskey enthusiasts can continue to rate each whiskey they taste online at www.singleoakproject.com. To date, more than 1700 accounts have been created online, and nearly 1,550 reviews have been given on the four various releases so far.
The whiskey reviews have been tallied and the leading barrel after one year is…. a three way tie!! Barrels #10, 106 and 184 are all tied for first place. With all three of those barrels having different variables, it seems the only thing the three have in common is that the oak was harvested from bottom half of the tree! The other six variables of the leading barrels vary.
“Quite a mixed bag so far,” said Kris Comstock, bourbon brand manager. “It seems the only thing people can agree on so far is that they like bourbon aged in barrels made from the bottom portion of oak trees, opposed to the top half. Good thing we have 3 more years, 144 more barrels, and thousands more reviews to come!”
After a consumer reviews a bottle online, they will be availed of all the aging details and provenance of the barrel. They can interact with others who’ve also reviewed the barrel, compare their reviews, and even learn for themselves which characteristics they enjoy most, in order to help them select future favorites. Participants online will earn points after each review and most importantly, help Buffalo Trace Distillery create the perfect bourbon!
The Single Oak Project is part of an intensive research project Buffalo Trace Distillery started conducting in 1999 by hand picking 96 trees with different wood grains and then dividing them into a top and bottom piece, yielding 192 unique sections. From there, staves were created from each section and were air dried for either 6 months or 12 months. After all the staves were air dried, a single barrel was created from each tree section, resulting in 192 total barrels. These barrels were given either a number three or a number four char and then filled with either wheat or rye recipe bourbon.
To further the variety of experiments, the barrels were filled at two different proofs, 105 and 125 proof. And if this wasn’t enough, two completely different warehouses were used, one with wooden floors and one with concrete floors. In total, seven different variables were employed in Buffalo Trace’s ultimate experiment.
For eight years the Distillery continued with its tracking process, creating intricate databases and coming up with a potential of 1,396 tasting combinations from these 192 barrels!
The Single Oak Project Bourbon is being released in a series every three months from 2011 through 2015 until all of the 192 barrels have been released. The first releases hit select stores in 2011. This fifth release will reach stores towards the end of May. Like all the other releases, the quantities are very limited. Every case will contain 12 bottles, each from a different barrel. The fifth release is made up of barrel numbers 1, 17, 33, 49, 65, 81, 97, 113, 129, 145, 161, 177. All releases will be packaged in a 375ml bottle. Suggested retail pricing per bottle is $46.35.
At the conclusion of the Single Oak Project, the Distillery plans to take the top rated barrel based on online consumer feedback, make more of that product and launch it under the Single Oak Project nameplate.