For the Love of It

For the Love of It

The influence on ageing of key warehousing conditions

Production | 25 Apr 2014 | Issue 119 | By Dave Waddell

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Hear this, hear this. The latest chapter of Buffalo Trace distillery's now well documented search for the so-called 'perfect Bourbon' began last November with the official opening of Warehouse X. Old news, I know, but only in so far as it happened - before Christmas. More interesting is the fact that Warehouse X aims to break the lock on a largely untested area of whiskey making: the influence on aging of key warehouse-specific conditions. Most interesting, however, is what it and Buffalo Trace's impossible quest tells us about what makes making something like whiskey so damn important. I hope I have your full attention.

To begin with the science, Warehouse X is a $1 million 30 X 60 ft concrete and brick building with a holding capacity of at most 150 barrels. It's divided into four independent chambers, a control barrel breezeway and a small outdoor rick. It will test four independent variables: natural light, humidity, airflow and temperature. Each variable will be tested consecutively, for a period of two years, across all four chambers. Thus, if testing, for example, the possible effects of humidity on aging, the specific humidity range is expected to range 20% either side of the control levels. A further 6 year experiment will follow up on promising results. Barrels are set for loading mid-April. The effects of natural light are to be tested first. Try saying Warehouse X fast, several times.

Compared with something like Buffalo Trace's dense and still ongoing Single Oak Project, Warehouse X looks and sounds relatively simple. And it is - to a degree. However, while I've no idea as to the particulars, holding the experiment's many extraneous variables constant is sure to blow a few brain cells. Apart from ensuring non-warehouse specific fair test conditions (from formula to process to entry proof to oak type, grain and seasoning to stave number), I think a degree in psychometric engineering would be the minimum qualification for the purpose of understanding, for example, exactly how to maintain the same constant temperature across four different specific humidity climates. Or maybe not. I'm just a writer.

Anyway, the point here is not Warehouse X per se, however splendid that may prove to be. Nor is it science itself, however impressive it is that a distillery should have on its books 1,500 plus in-barrel experiments. Rather it is, for me, the seemingly divine culture of a distillery that should happily and scientifically commit itself to reaching for the unreachable: the perfect Bourbon, the Holy Grail, a bottled Eldorado. Why? Taste as an exercise of the individual's right to freedom of expression is especially championed at Buffalo Trace. Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T Lee's favourite tipple was his namesake and a dash of Sprite. Legendary Warehouse Manager Ronnie Eddins preferred the spice of his rye bourbons. Leonard Riddle, another warehouse demigod, falls on the side of the Wellers. One drinker's 100 score is another's 99. Everyone's perfect Bourbon is someone else's second best. There is no perfect Bourbon. Why the chase?

The short and easy answer, of course, is that the Holy Grail is not the Holy Grail. It's the quest that's holy - not the imagined cup. The actual grail, to bastardise an Edward de Bono type notion, serves as useful thing to think, make and create with. It's a godly idea. It's a binding force. It's curiosity's religion. Take the Single Oak Project: Whichever of the 192 Single Oak Project bottlings is eventually voted in by its enthusiastic following, it won't, I'm telling you, be the perfect Bourbon. It'll be one of a number of good Bourbons. Indeed, since it is the subject of a democracy, it may prove only to be an approximation of a good Bourbon, a final best fit. Which is as it should be: The final Single Oak bottling, the winner, is the necessarily imperfect by-product of real learning. A project that has taken as its defining subject the aging prowess of barrels fashioned from the tops and bottoms of 96 trees is a project that makes for a hothouse of future creativity. Sazarac President Mark Brown's not saying much about anything in this department, but I'll eat my best shoes if he and master distiller Harlen Wheatley aren't right now drowning in future Single Oak inspired projects, Warehouse X included. To repeat: It's the quest that's holy - not the imagined cup.

Even so, why here, why Buffalo Trace? It goes without saying that every distillery worth its salt strives for better product, but none, as far as I know, has seen fit to turn its plant into a holy ground. Brown has gone as far as to say that Buffalo Trace's 'real goal' is to make the distillery into a 'complete mecca for (the) whiskey enthusiast.' Wild, dumbass words? Sure, out of the mouth of just about anybody but Brown. See, for Brown, every drinker drinking whiskey is an enthusiast in the making, a lesson learnt, as he freely admits, back in the bad old pre-distillery days of Sazarac baby-stepping its way through the less than rewarding world of contract whiskey. Think on its first dally with Benchmark. Think on all those letters of complaint. Know this: The consumer is not a fool. Good whiskey really matters. Everyone's an enthusiast - or could be. Result? Enthusiasm's as good for business as it is good whiskey. This is not rocket science. It's having a calculator and a heart. It's a pragmatist dreaming.

All of which is true, no doubt. However, whatever the education of burnt fingers, the advantages of being owned by a company happy to give brands a home in which to roam, a leadership bent on exploring the 'four corners of Bourbon' making, the greater truth as to why something like Warehouse X exists, and why it should serve as the distillery's latest adventure in its perfectly impossible quest, is profoundly simple: it's always been

here. Here, I said that too quickly. It's always been here. Please, read on.

Brown, you will know, is fond of likening Sazarac's acquisition of the distillery to that of somebody buying a table-top sale picture only to discover, once home, a Rembrandt lurking beneath its less than averagely worked over-painting. Tear down the razor-wire fencing, work it back to that red brick, uncover an unbroken architectural history of American distilling, and the rusted old juice maker's beginning to look like something suspiciously special. Taste the whiskey - and not just the Age Internationals, the Blanton, the Hancock, Rock Hill Farm and the Elmer T Lee. Taste the stuff with no name - in different warehouses, on different levels. Damn, it's good, good, good. Someone's already pushing the boat out, and for lord knows how long. Hell, half of the Stitzer-Weller Weller stock's here. Suspicions confirmed: it's a Rembrandt.

Long story short, Brown's picked up a baton that only looked like it had been dropped. Post prohibition Scotch / Canadian influenced tastes, poor owner decisions and a world turning its back on Bourbon meant little to the likes of Lee, Eddins and Riddle. They stayed here because the then George T Stagg Distillery was more than just a distillery. It was home, a place of magic, a place filled with people for whom whiskey was more than just a drink, a place that is also a way of life. Example? Those 21 experiments Ronnie Eddins had secreted away - for the sheer love of it. Brown didn't dream up the idea of a holy quest. He's not inventing a brand new holy land. He inherited it, re-emphasised the significance of a legacy (E. H. Taylor Jr, George T Stagg, Albert Blanton, Orville Schupp) that is in fact the legacy of American whiskey making, added to the family, and ramped up the experimentals. Plain and simple.

Seen this way, and to finish where we began, Warehouse X is neither test tube baby nor final map. On the contrary, it's the scientific child of an old conversation between different period warehouses, a white coated stab at answering questions batted back and forth between concrete, brick, wood, position and level. It's a pre versus post-Prohibition hypothesis dusted off in a laboratory, the inevitable culmination of the long observed influences of a collection of warehouses designed by time, geography, passing fashion and the particularities of circumstance. It's the most recent chapter in a distillery that has almost always - in some capacity, either as a matter of policy, or in the hands of renegade individuals - been engaged in chasing beautiful rainbows. Yesterday, that was courtesy of Elmer T Lee and Ronnie Eddins. Today, it's Mark Brown, Harlen Wheatley and the still present Leonard Riddle. Tomorrow... well, Buffalo Trace - the Single Oak Project, Warehouse X - asks as many questions as it answers. You may now rub your hands in holy anticipation.

Tasting notes

Buffalo Trace

Deep amber whiskey. Complex aroma of vanilla, mint and molasses. Pleasantly sweet to the taste with notes of brown sugar and spice that give way to oak, toffee, dark fruit and anise. This whiskey finishes long and smooth with serious depth.

WL Weller 12 Year

Old Aromas of lanolin, almond, creamed corn and toasty vanilla. The mid-palate flavor is heavily wheated, layered and moderately sweet. Long, oaky, and intensely smooth finish.

George T Stagg

Lush toffee sweetness and dark chocolate with hints of vanilla, fudge, nougat and molasses. Underlying notes of dates, tobacco, dark berries, spearmint and a hint of coffee round out the palate.

Blanton's Single Barrel

A deep, satisfying nose of nutmeg and spices. Powerful dry vanilla notes in harmony with hints of honey amid strong caramel and corn. A medium finish composed of returning corn and nutmeg flavours.

Fact Box

Buffalo Trace Distillery

113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601

Tel: (502) 696-5926


It is open to visit Monday through Saturday, and offers several tours: Trace (an introduction), Hard Hat (detailed and deeper), National Historic Landmark (cultural / architectural) and ghost.

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