Most distilleries have a few dozen or so “experimental barrels” stashed away in their warehouses. Buffalo Trace has more than 1,500, but the idea for the Single Oak Project, the Kentucky distiller’s most extensive experiment, didn’t come from master distiller Harlen Wheatley or even the Buffalo Trace marketing team.
“We were sitting in a meeting talking about aging, and Ronnie started to talk about the importance of the tree and picking different trees,” said Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown of longtime warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins.
“It became very clear to us that he really knew exactly what he was talking about in terms of where the tree is grown, how high up on the slope, the moisture level of the ground around the tree, the growth rings per inch of the tree, the fact there is a difference in a barrel made from the top half of the tree versus the bottom half.”
That was back in 1999, and Ronnie Eddins was dispatched to the forests of the Missouri Ozarks to pick a set of trees to test those differences. He selected 96 different trees based on their growth rings and the resulting grain, and the trees were sent to a sawmill for processing.
Unlike most barrels in the industry, which are produced from randomly selected staves, these trees were cut in half, and each half was used to produce the heads and staves for a single barrel.
The idea: to test seven different variables for their influence on the final flavour of the matured Bourbon.
After eight years of aging, the 192 barrels were emptied within a week and immediately bottled to minimise any additional differences. So far, only a handful of distillery employees have tasted the 192 different Bourbons, which are being released in quarterly batches of 12 casks each until 2015.
A case contains one bottle from each of the 12 casks in the release, and with most retailers receiving as little as one case of each release; it will be difficult for any one individual to acquire the entire collection.
For those who do acquire a bottle of Single Oak Project Bourbon, Buffalo Trace is offering perhaps the most detailed provenance of a whiskey’s history ever.
After registering a bottle at www.singleoakproject.com and adding one’s own tasting notes, the distillery will reveal all of the specifics for that particular bottle’s recipe, barrel char level, tree location, entry proof, and finally its warehouse location.
Sadly, Ronnie Eddins didn’t live long enough to see the results of his test. He died in late 2010 after a battle with cancer, about six months before the initial release of the Single Oak Project. At the debut, distillery employees planted a tree at Buffalo Trace in his honour.
Fittingly, it was a Quercus Alba, an American White Oak.
All bottled at 45% ABV
The whiskies in this release varied only in recipe, tree location, and grain size. All other variables remained the same, and pairs of whiskies often differed by just one variable. The three variables were enough to produce subtle, yet distinctly different results. However, to preserve the unique nature of the project, I will not disclose here which whiskies had which variables.
Nose: Baked red apples with brown sugar, nutty with a touch of dark chocolate.
Taste: Peppery with cinnamon, slightly tart apples underneath.
Finish: Long, slow to fade with a touch of mint.
Nose: Very muted, subtle aroma of break baking, hint of hazelnut.
Taste: Slower to reach a peppery peak, muted cinnamon, brown sugar, but no sign of tartness.
Finish: Lingers nicely with a slight spiciness.
Nose: Soft honey, molasses, chocolate.
Taste: Caramel cola at first, with a quickly-rising blast of black pepper that fades slowly to reveal vanilla and a slight nuttiness.
Finish: Long and smooth. Cola with a touch of pepper as well.
Nose: Soft with honey, vanilla, and a slight nuttiness to it.
Taste: Peppery and long, slow to fade with a hint of pears. Caramel on the back of the throat.
Finish: Smooth, long and aromatic with a hint of caramel.
Nose: Muted spices, caramel, toasted oak and some vanilla.
Taste: Two levels of spice with pepper and cinnamon. Both fade to reveal caramel, almond and hazelnut notes.
Finish: Aromatic with caramel cola and molasses, long and sweet.
Nose: Rich and smooth with toasted wood, leather, burnt leaves.
Taste: Slightly sour, tart and peppery.
Finish: Peppery and tart.
Nose: Rich and sweet with honey and apple pie.
Taste: Soft at first with spices and tartness that build in tandem, nutty almond and cashew notes, well-balanced and complex with touches of brown sugar.
Finish: Long, smooth and slightly tart. Mouth-watering stuff!
Nose: Toasted oak, leather and brown sugar notes are there too.
Taste: Vanilla, caramel and cinnamon.
Finish: Long, tart and lemony.
Nose: Woody and earthy with a varnish note.
Taste: Wood tannins, sugary and peppery.
Finish: Peppery and strong.
Nose: Hazelnut, vanilla and caramel.
Taste: Mouth-coating with notes of cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg.
Finish: Long and slow to fade with caramel and vanilla notes.
Nose: Muted, baking bread, red apples. Very crisp and clean.
Taste: Creamy with vanilla and a slowly building touch of spices. Touch of nuttiness.
Finish: Soft, sweet and lingering.
Nose: Smooth with soft cinnamon and vanilla notes to it.
Taste: Mouth-coating, smooth, yet still peppery with brown sugar and caramel providing a good balance.
Finish: Smooth, long and well-balanced with soft spices at the end.
Again, this release differed in only three variables: recipe, grain and char level. Once again, the differences between bottlings were subtle, but still apparent.
Nose: Toasted bread and charred oak, vanilla, honey and molasses.
Taste: Smooth with dark chocolate and molasses notes at first, followed by muted touches of liquorice and allspice that develop slowly.
Finish: Mouth-filling and long. The dark chocolate and molasses notes return.
Nose: Soft with vanilla and honey notes, freshly baked bread (less toasty than #29), hint of coconut as well.
Taste: Creamy at first, with cinnamon building slowly to a peak, then fading to reveal a touch of molasses cookies leading into the finish.
Finish: Spicy and sweet balance consistent with the taste. Good mix of cinnamon and some molasses cookies.
Nose: Toasty and warm with notes of roasted almonds, vanilla, honey and caramel.
Taste: Honey and caramel at first, with a strong hit of cinnamon that builds but doesn’t overpower the sweetness. Good balance.
Finish: Dry and sweet, fading to a subtle touch of allspice. Excellent!
Nose: Muted spices, nutmeg, vanilla and honey with a touch of brown sugar.
Taste: Honey and caramel with good spiciness of chilli powder and a slight pepperiness fading to reveal a note of cocoa.
Finish: Lingers with cocoa and dark chocolate and just a hint of spices.
Nose: Buttery with a soft touch of ginger and cocoa. Simple and clean.
Taste: Starts off buttery with a smooth build up of spiciness balanced with touches of cocoa and dark chocolate. Consistent and smooth.
Finish: Lingers with a soft note of liquorice.
Nose: Soft balance of allspice, ginger, nutmeg and coconut.
Taste: Mouthfilling, intensely spice with black pepper on top of caramel and honey notes. Finish: Lingers with dark chocolate and a touch of honey.
Nose: Strong, oaky with vanilla, leather and brown sugar notes.
Taste: Chewy and thick with caramel syrup sweetness underneath notes of red apple tartness, liquorice and a touch of dark chocolate.
Finish: Touches of dark chocolate, nutmeg, and lingers nicely.
Nose: Linseed oil, leather, vanilla and toasted oak.
Taste: Caramel cola and maple syrup notes at first with a quick build up of cinnamon that doesn’t overpower, though. Slight tartness of red apples as well.
Finish: Very long and well-balanced with notes of cinnamon, red apples and caramel.
Nose: Aromatic with brown sugar, molasses and vanilla notes…good sweetness!
Taste: Thick and sweet with maple syrup, molasses cookies and touches of caramel. Subtle touches of leather and tobacco add balance.
Finish: Lingering and sweet with molasses and maple syrup.
Nose: Rich and sweet with dark chocolate, a touch of toasted oak, vanilla and coconut.
Taste: Spicy and intense blast of pepper at first fading to reveal notes of vanilla, coconut cream pie and a hint of liquorice.
Finish: Spicy, lingering and slightly tart.
Nose: Sweet with molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup and vanilla.
Taste: Cinnamon and molasses balanced well with touches of caramel and maple syrup.
Finish: Hints of oak with molasses cookies.
Nose: Roasted almonds, hazelnut, brown sugar and vanilla.
Taste: Almonds, allspice and vanilla.
Finish: Long and nutty with a touch of allspice.
The bottles in this batch also differed in recipe and grain size, but entry proof was the third variable. All other variables remained consistent.
Nose: Toasted oak with a hint of campfire smoke, maple syrup, vanilla, rye bread with butter.
Taste: Tart apples with cinnamon spice and a touch of almonds underneath.
Finish: Caramel cola and vanilla notes. Long with a touch of tartness.
Nose: Soft with caramel, dark chocolate and a hint of nutmeg.
Taste: Deceptively spicy with black pepper and chilli powder notes.
Finish: Fades quickly.
Nose: Nutty with roasted almonds, coconut and vanilla notes.
Taste: Creamy and sweet with brown sugar, molasses, vanilla and a touch of allspice.
Finish: Short with a touch of caramel.
Nose: Sweet and aromatic with maple and caramel notes.
Taste: Caramel ice cream topping with a nice touch of spicy baked apples with cinnamon.
Finish: Sweet and long with caramel.
Nose: Oak, almond and molasses notes.
Taste: Sweet at first with a nice spicy bite of cinnamon that develops slowly.
Finish: Fades slowly with cinnamon and subtle hints of brown sugar and fudge.
Nose: Old leather, tobacco, sandalwood and vanilla notes.
Taste: Creamy and rich with a good balance of allspice and cocoa with a hint of pipe tobacco.
Finish: Lingering with pipe tobacco and leather. Score: 7.8
Nose: Fresh-cut oak, hazelnut, vanilla and caramel come through.
Taste: Spicy with a burst of black pepper and liquorice undertones, touch of brown sugar.
Finish: Liquorice and vanilla, turns slightly tart with red apples.
Nose: Muted oak, vanilla, almond and hazelnut notes emerge.
Taste: Spicy with a black pepper note that builds to a plateau and lingers with almond and red apple notes.
Finish: Lingers with black pepper and touches of vanilla and caramel.
Nose: Soft and muted. Caramel and vanilla notes with a touch of almond.
Taste: Deceptively spicy with cinnamon and vanilla notes balanced by caramel sweetness.
Finish: Complex with a good balance of cinnamon, caramel and vanilla. Very consistent overall.
Nose: Nutty with almond and hazelnut notes. Hints of allspice and cocoa.
Taste: Spicy and intense with cinnamon and almond notes. Dark chocolate underneath with a hint of ganache as well.
Finish: Short and sweet with ganache and hint of brown sugar.
Nose: Warm and aromatic with allspice, caramel and toasted oak.
Taste: Dry with caramel, allspice, oak and vanilla notes.
Finish: Short and dry with mild spices.
Nose: Caramel-sweet with honey and vanilla.
Taste: Honey and allspice with a touch of red apples as well.
Finish: Lingering with consistent notes of honey, allspice and red apples.