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.
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.
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.