My tasting travels have led me up from Tennessee into the blue hills of Kentucky, to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a family-owned enterprise that dates back to 1787 with a history of experimentation that dates back to 1987. Periodically they bottle a few of their experimental barrels and make them available to the rest of us, something uncommon among distillers who generally tend to keep their experiments behind closed doors. I like to think they entail elbow-length black rubber gloves and great puffs of orange smoke, but only their mad scientists know for sure. Each experimental whiskey that is released by Buffalo Trace is very limited and rare. The latest bourbon releases are part of the more than 1500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in their warehouses. The distillers played around with unique mash bills, types of wood and, as in the two reviewed here, barrel toasts. On January 15, they released two bourbons that were crafted to study the effects of extreme heat on oak barrels upon the flavor of identical mash bills placed inside.
Master distiller Harlen Wheatley discovered the surprisingly dramatic differences in taste brought about by something as simple as an extra heavy barrel char. He took the same mash bill used in their other brands, Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s (Rye Bourbon Mash #2), and subjected it to two different heat experiments. Get your lab goggles on…
Hot Box Toasted Barrel:
For this experiment they placed the barrel staves into a “hot box” at 133 F, then steamed the staves before assembling the barrel. According to their site this is process meant to drive flavors deep into the wood. The rye mash was then left to age for 16 years and 8 months.
Color: Warm amber. Nose: Wedding cake. In the mouth: Wonderfully vanilla, followed by a touch of caramel and low fruit tones with a very easy finish. It sort of just disappears…
#7 Heavy Char:
Here the distillers used barrels charred for 3 1/2 minutes (their typical char is 55 seconds). Then the barrels were filled with the same mash and left to age for 15 years and 9 months.
Color: If I push myself, I can see a slightly darker hue than the Hot Box. Nose: Oak and caramel. “It’s alive!” In the mouth: The first sip unveils oak and tannins with a caramel finish.This is a dry one, very nice, and with a strong burn. I could taste the rye a bit more in this one.
My personal preference between the two is the heavy Char as I like a bolder, more complex flavor. But if you like a super-smooth finish you’d find a friend in the Hot Box.
If you pick up a bottle of either of these 90-proof experimentals (at $46 per 375ml at buffalotrace.com), you’ll appreciate that it comes in the long neck and stout body of an old-timey utility bottle. Very appealing. My samples, however, came in wonderful tiny clear bottles which lent a wonderful laboratory feel to the whole experience. Hooray for science!