The following passage was excerpted from F. Paul Pacult’s new book on the history of Buffalo Trace Distillery, Buffalo, Barrels, & Bourbon, available now wherever books and eBooks are sold. It has been lightly edited from its original version.
The 375-milliliter bottles of the Experimental Collection cost $46.99 each and are in painfully minute quantities for consumers due to the diminutive size of the experiments. This collection includes off-the-charts experiments on barrels that have been toasted and charred in varying degrees of intensity to ascertain the effects of the burnt oak on whiskey, the employment of different types of grain combinations in the mash bills, like those involving rarely used grains such as oats and rice, and the use of unusual types of wood for the late stages of the maturation process, including the use of wine barrels that previously housed zinfandel and chardonnay.
To give a glimpse at a recent example of this program that came out in April of 2020, the 23rd such release, the premise focused on the importance of water, according to master distiller Harlen Wheatley. This individual whiskey employed a bourbon recipe that included wheat, along with corn and barley. The whiskey was pumped into a new barrel on December 10, 2007, at 114-proof (57 percent alcohol) in Warehouse C and allowed to rest for four years. It was then pulled from the barrel, reduced with water to 100-proof (50 percent alcohol), pumped back into the same barrel and left to mature in the same warehouse for eight additional years. Said Wheatley of the experiment’s purpose, “We’ve always known water was a necessary component in making whiskey. This experiment helped us to understand how important a role water actually plays . . . The result of this experiment led us to a bourbon that is actually one of my favorite experiments.”
Another of the distillery’s experimental endeavors into the unknown is the Single Estate project. This fully agricultural undertaking utilizes 282 acres of nearby land to cultivate different strains of heirloom corn, such as Boone County White corn, which dates back to 1876; Japonica Striped corn, a purple kernel variety from the 1890s; Neon Pink Popcorn; Royal Blue; Hickory Cane White; and CF790 Conventional corn. In the autumn of 2020, an ancient strain, simply called Indian Corn, dating from 1000 BCE was harvested with middling results. The concept here is to determine how varying strains of corn that are different from the most widely employed strain, the hybrid called Yellow Dent, will fare in the production of bourbon. Since by law any straight bourbon’s makeup must contain a minimum of 51 percent corn, the outcome of this project potentially may affect the future of bourbon production in terms of the most critical base material. Every harvested crop is distilled and rested in barrels on site with the eventual purpose of becoming a new line of whiskeys termed the Single Estate collection.
Then, in the continuing saga of Buffalo Trace’s search for bourbon’s Holy Grail, there is Warehouse X, a relatively small building tucked inconspicuously into Buffalo Trace’s maze-like industrial complex. Warehouse X’s experiments examine the impact of environment on the aging process. Built in four distinct, hall-like chambers, experiments have been afoot since 2014 that include the measuring of humidity levels, airflow currents, sunlight, and temperature and their collective and individual effects on barrels of whiskey and their contents. After the first three years of operation, no less than 3.5 million data points had been collected. As of October of 2020, the single experiment that registered how changes in temperature influence a whiskey’s maturation patterns had alone yielded 1.3 million points of data.
Harlen Wheatley described Warehouse X’s purpose in a 2017 interview with writer Tim Knittel of DistillerBlog, saying, “The Warehouse X project – we called it ‘The Future of Aging’. So for us it’s about how we treat our barrels in the future, to make plans for the future, based on these results, which unfortunately will take 20 years to get what we need.”
An entire battery of calibrations are taken regularly in Warehouse X, including monthly quantifications like lumen readings to monitoring sunlight levels in each chamber, temperature, airflow, humidity, and psi pressure, meaning the units of pressure expressed in pounds of force per square inch in a prescribed area. The information gathered down the road from the Warehouse X exercises will likely dictate how new warehouses should be constructed and possibly how established warehouse space can be refitted to gain the maximum advantages from the temperate north-central Kentucky environment.
Acknowledging that the commitment to innovation, revolution, and restless transformation that permeates the Buffalo Trace culture can be viewed from the outside with admiration, as well as you-must-be-kidding skepticism, master distiller Harlen Wheatley reacted by saying in 2020, “Our motto is ‘Embrace Change.’ Embracing change means not resting on our laurels.” The distillery’s quartet of major experimental projects, the Single Oak Project, the Single Estate program, the Experimental Collection, and Warehouse X, could not be conceived of and then carried out by a company that didn’t have deep resources and an equally fathomless ocean of resolve that starts at the top level of management.
Wheatley summarizes his vision on three of his pet projects like this, “Warehouse X is focused on the environment. Single Oak is focused on the trees, how they are turned into wood, which in turn are turned into the barrel, so we focused on the tree. The [Single] Estate is focused on the grain, a little bit on the soil, but mainly on the grain . . . Warehouse X is probably a minimum of 20 years. The Estate program is probably forever, there’s no end to that one. And Single Oak was kinda finite . . .” Pondering the sheer logistical complications posed by the SOP, Wheatley laughed. “It was kind of a nightmare . . .” But such can be the price of derring-do.