Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

Apparently, blasting bourbon barrels with infrared light makes for damn good whiskey

We love to see technology applied to social good. We also love when technology taps into our more hedonistic interests — and a new experiment by Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery definitely falls into the latter category.

Buffalo Trace has been incrementally experimenting with its whiskeys for over 20 years, creating more than 5,000 unique versions using various grain ratios, barrel sizes, and types of wood used to make the barrels. And it seems the company has a particular interest in heat.

“We’ve done everything from our ‘Firepot’ barrel — one of our first experiments, which heated a barrel to 102 degrees for 23 minutes — to our ‘Hotbox’ toasted barrel, made of staves that were placed inside a hotbox and steamed at 133 degrees,” Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley told Digital Trends.

“Within those chambers we can control light, temperature, air flow, and humidity – separately.”

Some of the distillery’s experiments don’t go as planned. The potable ones are released as a part of Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection. And the distillery’s latest experiment is a doozy. It entailed toasting barrel staves with infrared light waves before adding Buffalo Trace’s bourbon mash and letting it all gracefully age for six and a half years. The resulting bourbon “expressed distinct flavor notes of wood, caramel, and vanilla, as well as pepper flavors drawn from the oak,” the company said in a press release.

The infrared light was applied to two separate groups of four oak barrels each by Buffalo Trace’s partner, Independent Stave. One group received a 15-minute toasting of short and medium-wave frequency at 70 percent power. The second basked for half-an-hour in short and medium-wave frequency at 60 percent power.

Related: Keep it classy with these must have accessories for your next drink

Six years later, when the barrels we tapped, Buffalo Trace experts said bourbon from the first barrel had a floral scent and complex flavor profile of oak, tannins, dry raisins, and sweet caramel. The second barrel’s bourbon had more intense wood notes with a taste of dried fruit and cracked black pepper.

You may be asking why — of all techniques — the distillery would want to blast its barrel staves with infrared light. “We knew wine makers had been doing it for years,” Wheatley said. “We wanted to try it out for ourselves to see if it would capture flavors in the charring.” He called the experiment a success and suggested they may apply infrared in the future to varying degrees.

The company is typically tight-lipped about most future projects, but Wheatley did open up about two expansive experiments – Warehouse X and the Single Oak Project.

“Warehouse X is a million dollar warehouse we built to hold a little over 100 barrels, with 4 independently operating chambers,” he explained. “Within those chambers we can control light, temperature, air flow, and humidity – separately. There’s also an open air breezeway with barrels inside that we use as our control barrels. We are nearly two years into our first experiment with light, and have gained some valuable insights as to how light affects the taste of bourbon.”

Meanwhile, Wheatley describes the Single Oak Project as “a massive undertaking with 96 trees that were made into 192 barrels, with bourbon aged for eight years while we studied seven different variables. We then had the public vote on their favorite to help us pick a winner.” Last summer Buffalo Trace fans decided on a champion. But the job isn’t done. “We are actually headed back into the Ozark forest next week to hand select the trees that will become the wood for the barrels for the winning bourbon,” he added.

RelatedThe 10 best whiskies for under $20 bucks

The infrared light experiment opens Buffalo Trace’s 2o16 Experimental Collection. It’s unclear exactly what effect the experiment had on the bourbon – but whiskey geeks are welcome to taste when the products become available later this month, retailing at about $46.35 each.

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
Why AI will never rule the world
image depicting AI, with neurons branching out from humanoid head

Call it the Skynet hypothesis, Artificial General Intelligence, or the advent of the Singularity -- for years, AI experts and non-experts alike have fretted (and, for a small group, celebrated) the idea that artificial intelligence may one day become smarter than humans.

According to the theory, advances in AI -- specifically of the machine learning type that's able to take on new information and rewrite its code accordingly -- will eventually catch up with the wetware of the biological brain. In this interpretation of events, every AI advance from Jeopardy-winning IBM machines to the massive AI language model GPT-3 is taking humanity one step closer to an existential threat. We're literally building our soon-to-be-sentient successors.

Read more
The best hurricane trackers for Android and iOS in 2022
Truck caught in gale force winds.

Hurricane season strikes fear into the hearts of those who live in its direct path, as well as distanced loved ones who worry for their safety. If you've ever sat up all night in a state of panic for a family member caught home alone in the middle of a destructive storm, dependent only on intermittent live TV reports for updates, a hurricane tracker app is a must-have tool. There are plenty of hurricane trackers that can help you prepare for these perilous events, monitor their progress while underway, and assist in recovery. We've gathered the best apps for following storms, predicting storm paths, and delivering on-the-ground advice for shelter and emergency services. Most are free to download and are ad-supported. Premium versions remove ads and add additional features.

You may lose power during a storm, so consider purchasing a portable power source,  just in case. We have a few handy suggestions for some of the best portable generators and power stations available. 

Read more
Don’t buy the Meta Quest Pro for gaming. It’s a metaverse headset first
Meta Quest Pro enables 3D modeling in mixed reality.

Last week’s Meta Connect started off promising on the gaming front. Viewers got release dates for Iron Man VR, an upcoming Quest game that was previously a PS VR exclusive, as well as Among Us VR. Meta, which owns Facebook, also announced that it was acquiring three major VR game studios -- Armature Studio, Camouflaj Team, and Twisted Pixel -- although we don’t know what they’re working on just yet.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Meta Connect's gaming section mostly ended. Besides tiny glimpses and a look into fitness, video games were not the show's focus. Instead, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wanted to focus on what seemed to be his company’s real vision of VR's future, which involves a lot of legs and a lot of work with the Quest Pro, a mixed reality headset that'll cost a whopping $1,500.

Read more