I’m fairly fascinated by complex role that the wood plays in whisk(e)y making. From the basic differences between American (Quercus alba) and European (Quercus robur) oak to the subtle changes that occur when one decides to dry the stuff naturally rather than in a kiln (there’s a tannin-eating fungus among us!). For the most part, all of these procedural nuances were probably discovered rather randomly as a result of trial and error as distillers and whisky makers explored and expanded their craft. Only recently has the careful study of wood and spirit taken on a more scientific sheen alongside the more serendipitous discoveries, but the motivation is the same: there’s no whisky without wood, so how can we use the wood to make better whisky.
Buffalo Trace has long been something of an anomaly in American whiskey, publicizing and bottling its experiments while other distillers rarely make public their exploratory wanderings. Their most recent endeavor, the Single Oak Project, might be their most ambitious yet. In 1999, Buffalo Trace set out to make “the perfect bourbon”, their Shangri-La, their El Dorado, if you will. Granted, this sounds a lot like marketing speak, but once you take a look at the depth, breadth, and detail of this project, you’ll see just how ambitious it is.
True to the name, it all started with the wood, 96 oaks were chosen with a range of ages (and therefore a range of grain structure, tannins, and lactones like vanillin). These trees were harvested, milled into staves, air-dried naturally according to two different schedules, and eventually made into barrels, two from each tree. Once coopered, the barrels were given two different chars, one heavier, one lighter, and then filled with spirit. Two different recipes (a wheated and a rye-heavy) and two different barreling proofs were used as were two different warehouse styles. With all these variables, Buffalo Trace had a lot of tracking and analyzing to do over the eight years these 192 barrels were maturing, but now the wait is over and the bourbon is being bottled and sold. Starting in May, they’ll release the first series, 12 in all, of these single barrel bottlings, with the following series being released over the next four years. Each bottling will be 375ml and retail for around $46, a fairly steep price even considering the uniqueness of the project. Buffalo Trace will be soliciting feedback and reviews via their website where fans can create a profile to track their experience with every bottle from the project…thereby coming to a public consensus as to the what may be the perfect bourbon.
While I don’t consistently mention every marketing campaign and new expression that hits the shelves, every once in a while there are those that warrant more attention. Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project is such an ambitious, innovative one that, even if they don’t find “the perfect bourbon”, the results are going to be pretty damn interesting (and probably delicious) for any bourbon/whiskey fan.