Distillery Focus

Ready for it's close-up (Buffalo Trace)

Liza Weisstuch dons her white coat to see what's been cooking in the Buffalo Trace lab.
By Liza Weisstuch
It was one of those rare occasions you have to see to believe, the kind of happening in league with the unveiling of a long-lost Rembrandt painting, or the performance of a never-before-heard Mozart symphony. Nonetheless, there they sat: nine squat bottles from nine different Buffalo Trace experimental batches, each one with hand-printed and numbered labels, the dainty script revealing what makes each bottle’s contents distinct from every other bourbon ever produced. Sound hyperbolic? It’s not. But don’t take my word for it. When Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s master distiller and the evening’s guest of honour, walked into the stately private dining room of a steakhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, he didn’t conceal his astonishment.“This is a one of a kind thing,” said Harlen in a slow southern drawl. “Nobody in the country has all these. The first three I haven’t seen in maybe three years,” he added, referring to the first experimental batches to be bottled under his watch – bourbon aged in French Oak barrels for 10 years, Twice Barreled bourbon, which went into new oak casks after aging eight years and eight months, and Fire Pot Barrel, which aged in a barrel made of wood dried out at 102°F for 23 minutes before filling. They were released in spring 2006. Then, as now, there’s only one barrel of each experiment.The dinner was orchestrated by Ryan Maloney, second-generation owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, about 55km outside of Boston. Maloney has made bourbon and Scotch such primary focuses at his sprawling store that he began holding mini whisky festivals on the premises two years ago. He’s also one of the longest standing clients of Buffalo Trace’s barrel selection program. He made his first trip to the distillery in 2004 and chose three barrels to be bottled exclusively for sale at Julio’s. He’s selected barrels every year since, often making the pilgrimage to Kentucky for the tasting. This past June, he purchased seven barrels, including Sazerac 6 Years Old rye and the coveted Pappy Van Winkle 15 Years Old.One of his latest projects, in addition to building a speakeasy-style tasting room in his store, is the Loch & K(e)y Society, an online whisk(e)y club that Julio’s launched in early March. It’s a cyber-place where single malt and bourbon aficionados and would-be aficionados ask questions, post reviews, and talk shop.When Harlen first stepped up to lead the 30 or so guests in a tasting of the rare elixirs, he announced there are about 1,500 experiments currently in the warehouse in Frankfort, Kentucky. With the myriad batches, the intention is to isolate and manipulate aging factors to gain new clarity on how bourbon acquires its nuanced flavour. He waxed rational about each finished experiment and rattled off some fanciful, if somewhat outlandish-sounding, possible trials. What if, for instance, they were to make various barrels, each from the wood of a separate tree, and compared flavours after aging? What if one tree was from a sunnier part of the forest than another? And so on.First up: the Fire Pot. The reasoning behind it, he said, was to learn exactly how a barrel’s char affects taste: “What happens when you heat the staves slowly versus fast?We want to see how it affects the flavours along the lines of aging wood. What does burnt wood do to a barrel?” he said. Another round presented two batches released in 2007 – one a bourbon aged six years and three months before being transferred to an American Oak Zinfandel barrel for eight years, another a 10 years and four months old bourbon that finished in a Zin barrel for eight years. The younger whiskey’s butterscotch and sweet notes were more distinct and has a much shorter finish compared to the older bourbon’s smokeforward notes that lingered until long after the steak arrived.The annual release is always a surprise.(The latest was finished in a rum cask.) Given that each batch is only a single barrel, it’s easy to understand why each release is anticipated by collectors eager to get their hands on the very limited supply. Among those collectors, of course, is Ryan Maloney.Given how infrequently the batches hit the market, you could say it took longer to plan this dinner than a royal wedding.“I love when people push the envelope, when they stay within the general meaning of something, but stretch out what’s possible.They’re still making whiskey in the realm of bourbon, the essence is to try to make bourbon better. Experiment with something that’s going is make bourbon better,” he said, acknowledging that some people may object, especially traditionalists. “I love when people do something almost for the betterment of the industry. People are going to butt heads, but the only way to move things forward is to deconstruct it.”