What sound does a Buffalo make?
Technically, we’re referring to a bison. Fun fact about bison: they’re delicious. Not quite as gamey as elk, but still: good eatin’. A little lean, so I recommend mixing bison meat half-and-half with 85% ground beef if you’re thinking about making burgers. Can you tell I’m struggling for an introduction to this review?
Paradoxically, I drank a lot of Buffalo Trace in the past year, but I have also drunk no Buffalo Trace at all. Both formally (for review here) and informally (with pals), I have enjoyed many iterations of this distillery’s produce. Pappy, Weller, Blanton’s, Sazerac rye, yadda yadda yadda. It’s impossible to throw a stone without hitting one of the more-than-a-dozen labels under which Buffalo Trace sells its 10 million liters of annual output.
Yet, despite its prevalence on store shelves, I have not recently tried the signature Buffalo Trace bourbon. We’ve talked before about how a whiskey’s ubiquity can translate to its invisibility. This has certainly been true, for me, in the case of Buffalo Trace. However there’s also a subtler, more nagging concern: In considering this distillery from every possible angle over the course of multiple interactions, I fear that I have already said everything that can be said about Buffalo Trace, as well as the hype hurricane that churns around its more coveted expressions.
Fortunately, I’m about to be saved by the format, which will give us some philosophical and practical digressions to pursue. In this instance, I have happened upon a store pick of Buffalo Trace bourbon. We’ve covered enough store picks here that I feel an introduction to the rudiments of that process is no longer necessary. Rather, we’ll be grappling with the quandary identified by Adam in his prior consideration of a Russell’s Reserve store pick: given the price premium, are they really an improvement over the reference bottling?
David Jennings, aka Rare Bird 101, previously expressed his skepticism about the ability of Buffalo Trace to be distinguished by extreme deviation from the mean with regards to barrel picks. Though I’m not accusing Buffalo Trace of the practice, I’ve been made aware that certain distilleries don’t permit “off-profile” barrel picks. The selections are sometimes tightly managed, with only conforming barrels (pre-screened by a tasting panel) offered up for individual bottling.
Overall, I’d describe myself as sensitive to this criticism, but also open-minded. There are numerous pitfalls of the barrel pick format, shared in common with the independently bottled single barrels of Scotland. As with all manifestations of this phenomenon, it depends (partly) on who is doing the picking.
Today, we have a store pick from Warehouse Liquors. You’ll recall that the store’s owner, Gene, previously sat down with us to discuss his selection criteria and philosophy. Gene eschews the nerdy focus on the vital statistics of this or that cask and instead allows himself to be guided by hedonistic enjoyment and his own gut instincts about flavors and proportions.
Gene happened to be stocking shelves when I dropped by Warehouse to pick up this bottle. I peppered him with questions about the barrel and the whiskey, to which I received a series of laconic answers delivered in ascending order of terseness. Finally, Gene sighed shallowly and said, “I never let facts get in the way of flavor.”
While this is antithetical to my natural approach of obsessively compiling, collating, and analyzing data, I’m willing to set aside my proclivities in this case and indulge Gene’s method instead. What details I am able to provide come only from public sources; I have no additional information about the particulars of this barrel, other than what is printed on the bottle’s label.
Though the distillery refuses to disclose its mash bills, Buffalo Trace is said to be from Mash Bill #1, which is low (<10%) rye. Expressions that share this mash bill include E.H. Taylor bourbon, George T. Stagg and Stagg Jr., and Eagle Rare.
This is a single barrel selection (barrel #299 from Warehouse Q), bottled at 45%. I paid $31 for 750 ml, which is a modest premium compared with the $25 retail price for a standard bottle of Buffalo Trace (typically 86 proof/43% ABV).
Buffalo Trace Warehouse Liquors Single Barrel Select – Review
Color: Radiant burnt orange
On the nose: Medicinal cherry flavors dominate initially; this smells like Smith Bros’ Cherry Cough Drops, specifically. This has a subtle yeasty and malty accent, like the ambient aroma of a small brewery. I get a bit of celery stalk and some kola nut scents in there. There’s a very faint aroma sitting somewhere between mocha and damp brass. Goetze’s Caramel Creams make a fleeting appearance.
In the mouth: Starting very quietly, this builds up steam as it progresses through the mouth. The palate is most lively as it moves from the front to the middle of the tongue, where it expresses a sweet-and-spicy nip of cinnamon sugar. As this reaches its peak, there are some earthier notes reminiscent of Eagle Rare’s damp clods of soil. The finish has a low wavelength underpinning of the initial medicinal cherry note of the nose, bringing this to completion in a full circle. Texturally, there’s an evenness to this from front to back that is not describable as “smooth” or “flat,” but rather “even-keeled” or something similarly nonpejorative.
This is pretty good, considering the price. It’s got a bit more breadth and depth – both on the nose and in the mouth – than my recollections of the standard Buffalo Trace bottling. For the diehard Buffalo Trace fans in the audience it’s likely a no-brainer, and those of you in Chicago have doubtless snatched up your bottle already. As for me: confronted with both sitting side-by-side, I’d probably spend the five extra bucks and get this single barrel. At a similar cost and ABV as Eagle Rare, though, I think I’d be more inclined toward the latter. I’m scoring it one notch below that expression.
So, I’ve once again rolled the dice with a store pick. While I didn’t clean out the casino, I managed to escape without losing my shirt and, in fact, did slightly better than breakeven. But, that’s not typically the reason I value the single barrel format. I want the weirdo barrels, the ones with off-the-wall flavors, the ones that immediately command attention and never relent. It’s a calculated risk with an asymmetric payoff, but it’s one that I’m happy to take from time to time.
Thankfully, the increasing prevalence of these picks from both larger chains as well as smaller boutique bottle shop means that I’m more likely to run out of funding before I run out of choices. On that note, I’ll raise a glass of this very solid Buffalo Trace to the thrill of future discoveries.