Buffalo Trace’s Quest for the ‘Holy Grail’

Buffalo Trace Tasting 2On Wednesday night, Mark Brown, the CEO of Buffalo Trace Distillery, gathered a group of wine & spirits writers in Brandy Library for a private tasting. Brown revealed that the whiskies we’d be tasting weren’t ‘typical’ but rather highly experimental concoctions from their R&D department. He introduced Buffalo Trace’s whiskey experiment project. Code named ‘Holy Grail’, the project is focused on experimentation in an effort to craft the perfect whiskey. If you think this sounds like a never ending quest since a ‘perfect whiskey’ would probably never be universally agreed upon, you’re right.

Project ‘Holy Grail’

Holy GrailMark and his team have identified three key components that affect a whiskey’s flavor profile: Atmosphere (25%), Distillation (25%) and Wood (50%). Given this starting point they have labored to understand how best to tweak each variable in order to create a superb whiskey. With regards to atmosphere they’re adjusting things like light/UV ray exposure, humidity, temperature and airflow. For the distillate they are evaluating the different mixtures of grains like wheat, rice, rye, barley, etc. The largest component that affects flavor, wood, happens to be the most expensive resource to acquire. Interestingly enough there are no explicit laws that say bourbon needs to be aged exclusively in American oak. As long as the oak is virgin, it can be from any locale. In light of this, Mark has sent his team globe trotting in search for the best types of oak – even as far as Mongolia!

This project will be an on going endeavor for many years to come and Buffalo Trace intends to experiment with many different permutations. Mark was also very clear about what they won’t do. They won’t introduce additives, food coloring, synthetic flavoring, etc.  In other words, they intend to stay within the realm of traditional whiskey making. And they’re well aware that they’ll probably never find the ‘perfect whiskey’ but they’re okay with that since this project adds an element of innovation and fun to their typical distillation duties.

As part of the project they have hired a full-time R&D person to lead the experiments. Impressively they’ve begun to quantify the variables and results. For example they’ve identified and cataloged esters (chemical compounds that produce flavor in whiskey). They’ve associated each ester with flavor profiles and are in the process of figuring out exactly how to set up conditions to encourage positive flavors in their whiskey while excluding negative ones. They are recording all of the figures associated with their trials and are starting to extract actionable data. I love that they’re attempting to take a quantitative approach towards whiskey making.

Warehouse XBuffalo Trace is not doing this half-way; they have invested $1 million in building a new Warehouse X for experimental barrel maturation. This warehouse is one of the most advanced in the industry and they are able to fine-tune variables like UV/light, humidity, airflow and temperature. The warehouse has five silos – each is meant for a specific atmospheric condition. Read more about it here.

The Whiskey

Buffalo Trace Tasting 1We tried five different experiments which were all bottled at 45% ABV. Here is some limited information about them.  None of these are currently released, but keep your eyes peeled for four experimental bottlings this year. I’ll preface this section with Mark’s statement that he didn’t think any of these were ready to be made into a permanent part of Buffalo Trace’s range. But that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

No. 1 – eight years old, wheat whiskey (at least 51% wheat). This was sweet, but the flavor didn’t hold too well and it quickly became flat

No. 2 – three years old, midnight wheat bourbon. Smelled and tasted of cigarette ash, sesame and burnt things. The least favorite of the bunch for me

No. 3 – nine years old, multi-grain: wheat, rye, corn, mystery grain (likely barley). This dram had very bright honey notes and was quite punchy

No. 4 – six years old, bourbon aged in Mongolian oak which cost $1,000 per barrel and spent 18 months curing. This was my favorite of the evening. It was subtle, but delicious with some orange citrus and honey. Very well balanced and possessed underrated complexity

No. 5 – four years old, six-grain: wheat, rye, corn, barley, rice, mystery grain. This one was okay, it had some intriguing flavors – I swear I tasted rice water

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