“Buffalo Trace is already making the bourbons of the future.” It sounded bold until we stopped to think about it. Whiskey has to age before it can qualify as bourbon, so technically, every distiller is making “the bourbons of the future” today. Our guide, Freddy Johnson, wasn’t trying to set Buffalo Trace apart from the competition with his words. Still, after we spent an afternoon learning about the company’s quest to make the world’s perfect bourbon, his phrasing seemed prophetic.
Johnson is a third-generation employee of Buffalo Trace. His grandfather worked there for 52 years under Colonel Blanton. His father worked for 47 years with the late Elmer T. Lee. A blown-up photo of his dad is shown on most tours, and Johnson pointed it out with pride. “At 94 years old he was the only living person to work at this distillery that personally touched every millionth barrel that’s ever come through here”, he said. Johnson’s a relatively new employee compared to the rest of the family. “I’ve been here for about 13 years, keeping a promise that I made to my father and my grand dad over 35 years ago.” Still, he’d been exploring the grounds since the age of five. Over the course of a few hours, we learned that there wasn’t much Johnson didn’t know about the company.
Most people understand that aging whiskey is where a lot of the magic happens. But what exactly is going on inside the barrel, and why white oak is the wood of choice, is harder to figure. “White oak has a special property called Tylosis. It actually inhibits alcohol molecules from passing straight through the wood,” Johnson explained. “When the whiskey warms up inside the barrel, the molecules expand, just like a two-liter soda bottle when it gets hot. The pressure is so great in the barrel that it pushes whiskey out into the grain of the wood, through the char. And when it does that, because the water molecules are smaller than your alcohol molecules, it actually pushes some water out through the grain of the wood. So that’s your Angel’s Share.” Resistance to leaking is one reason why the use of white oak is dictated by law in the production of bourbon. The other is flavor.
“The movement of whiskey in and out of the wood is a crucial element to its flavor. The alcohol molecules are trapped in the wood and it breaks down the saps and resins. And so when the whiskey travels back the other way, either when it cools down or when the pressure changes, it pulls those flavors from the sap and the resin and the color from the char back into the barrel.” Though the class of wood shares a few common characteristics, like most things in nature, no two oak trees are ever truly alike. “A truck comes in with a load of barrels. They were all made at the same time. They’ve all got the same char. They put the same whiskey in those barrels. You put the whiskey right next to each other in the same warehouse. You come back seven years later and the whiskey is different.”
“A white oak tree is to bourbon what a grape vine is to wine, what peat is to scotch.”
The impact of these natural discrepancies isn’t unique in the spirits world, as Johnson pointed out. “A white oak tree is to bourbon what a grape vine is to wine, what peat is to scotch.”
In the quest to gain a better understanding of the interplay between whiskey and wood, Buffalo Trace kicked off the Single Oak Project over two decades ago. It began with a trek by then-Warehouse Manager Ronnie Eddins to the Missouri Ozarks to select 96 white oak trees. The trees were then systematically cut and turned into 192 barrels. Details like the exact tree used as well as the location of the wood on the tree was noted. Barrels were then subjected to various factors known to influence the aging process: Batches were air dried for different amounts of time; some were charred darker than others; they were also filled with different whiskeys of varying proofs. After eight years of aging, the results were first introduced to the public in 2011 through a collection of limited-edition half bottles. Twelve new bottlings followed each quarter for the next four years, showcasing various elements. Release One, for instance, focused on tree size as well as the number of rings found in the wood used in a barrel. Release Two highlighted where exactly trees were grown, as well as a difference in chars.
Even before launching the limited-edition series Buffalo Trace’s production team was learning valuable lessons. “That’s when we discovered that where an oak tree grows has a lot to do with the taste profile”, Johnson said. “They discovered that even the top half of a white oak tree and the bottom half of that same white oak tree will produce different flavors.” He gestured to a nearby slice of wood perched atop an experimental barrel inside the massive warehouse. “It’s where this tree grows for the 70 to 100 years before you cut it to make a barrel out of it that the roots pick up flavor from whatever is around the base of tree.”
The search for answers didn’t stop in the Ozarks. Over 2,000 experimental barrels have been created from white oak found all over the world. “They went as far away as Mongolia… just to create different taste profiles for the product.” By 2011, the process had already isolated 125 of the over 300 chemical flavors known to be found in bourbon.
It’s long been known, however, that wood is not the only factor involved in a bourbon’s maturation. As Johnson said, even Buffalo Trace’s early founders knew as much. “What the settlers discovered was that by using different types of materials, like different kinds of brick and stone… the placement of the warehouses when they built them, each of those things would enhance different characteristics in the white oak and bring out different flavors.”
Put bluntly, a warehouse’s design and internal environment is key. “What you begin to understand is, these quadrants are setup, and depending on where I place these barrels in this warehouse and on which side of the warehouse and on which level, I can extract different chemical flavors from the white oak itself”, Johnson said.
The differences between barrels across warehouse locations are a factor that all bourbon distillers consider these days. But BT was one of the first to take direct action on optimizing all the storage conditions that they could. “We were the first distillery to introduce climatically controlled warehouses.” According to Freddy, maintaining a consistent temperature range insured the maturation process of the barrel never ground to a halt. “When the temperatures inside that barrel reaches 45 degrees or cooler, it goes dormant. You might as well have it in a glass jar.”
As we exited warehouse C, Freddy called our attention to a series of discolored bricks forming the upper right hand corner of the building. They were a permanent reminder of the act of god that inspired an entirely new scientific approach to studying an environment’s impact on warehouse aging. The lighter stones were replacements from the aftermath of a natural disaster in 2006. “Tornado comes through here, slams the distillery. Flipped 200- and 300-year-old sycamore trees like they were toothpicks. But the trees saved the distillery. It kicked the tornado up…and peeled the roof off like a sardine can. A lot of the brick, we don’t know where it went.”
By some miracle, none of the barrels on the upper warehouse levels were destroyed. Though, in the words of Freddy, they were “exposed to some of the most adverse conditions you could ever imagine.” Opening the casks in question yielded quite a surprise. “When they started tasting the bourbon in those barrels, they discovered some unique taste profiles they had never encountered before.” The whiskey in those barrels was released in 2012 under the Colonel E.H. Taylor label as a limited-edition Warehouse C Tornado-Surviving Bourbon. The marketing stunt received rave reviews.
“What that tornado did, is it caused them to re-think how barrels of whiskey are aged”, Freddy explained. The insight eventually resulted in Buffalo Trace building the only warehouse of its kind in the world: Warehouse X. It was the first new building constructed on the property in more than 60 years and opened in December of 2013. Like a Truman Show set for whiskey, the $1,000,000+ facility, made of brick, concrete blocks and skylights, is designed to give distillers complete control over the aging environment. Four independently operated chambers are inside, capable of holding 30 barrels on ricks a piece. The rooms were built to study the impact of factors such as natural light / UV, temperature, humidity and airflow on barreled whiskey. There’s also an open-air breezeway of the same size, where barrels are aged in the natural elements.
It still remains to be seen whether systematically deconstructing every element of bourbon’s maturation process can ever yield the holy grail of whiskeys, though early samples of select experiments have impressed the fortunate few who’ve tried them. Given the amount of time invested in the project already, we don’t see Buffalo Trace losing their focus anytime soon. “They feel that the best bourbon in the world has not yet been made. So the quest is to make the perfect bourbon.” That sounds about right; Buffalo Trace’s slogan is “Honor Tradition, Embrace Change”.