The following passage was excerpted from F. Paul Pacult's new book on the history of Buffalo Trace Distillery, Buffalo, Barrels, & Bourbon, available for preorder now or on September 8 wherever books and eBooks are sold. It has been lightly edited from its original version.
Kris Comstock was the Buffalo Trace Distillery senior marketing director when I interviewed him in late 2020. Kris departed in January 2021, but his insights still ring true. Having worked at BTD since January of 2003 strictly on the marketing side, Comstock had his finger on the company pulse. He succinctly summarized this company desire to always push the envelope, saying, “Experimentation is in our DNA. It’s been there since E.H. Taylor and his pursuit for excellence . . . True, we’re a big distillery but within this complex we’re also a craft distillery that experiments.” Concurred current master distiller Harlen Wheatley, who assumed that role after Gary Gayheart’s retirement in 2005, “We’re carrying the torch that E.H. Taylor lit in the 1870s, no doubt.”
A superb example of an employee who embodied the commitment to being bold and venturesome was the late warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins, a contemporary of Elmer T. Lee. Eddins was hired in 1961. After initially working on the bottling line and in the shipping department for several years, he was assigned to warehouse operations. In 1984, the year of Blanton’s Single Barrel release, Eddins was named to one of the more inconspicuous but vital distillery jobs, that of Warehouse Manager. Working in tandem with his friend and colleague, Leonard Riddle, Eddins became a respected authority on such issues as the best way to inspect new barrel stave deliveries, properly filling the barrels with whiskey, laboriously hunting down leaking barrels in the warehouses and then patching them up, determining the optimal warehouse placement for the newly filled barrels, and understanding the seasonal temperature variations of each of the company’s roster of 13 warehouses. Eddins’s position demanded that he master these tasks in order to closely monitor the aging cycle of every barrel, all 300,000 of them. Rarely does someone come along with the acumen and uncanny insight of a Ronnie Eddins.
But Eddins’s story is one about pure curiosity, an unbridled inquisitiveness that mushroomed into something spectacular. As part of his job, Eddins traveled to the Independent Stave Company in the Missouri Ozarks region to examine and choose white oak trees for use as barrels. One could say that Eddins was that rare individual who could clearly see the forest for the trees. On one particular trip in the late 1990s he selected 96 old white oak trees for a specific undertaking that would eventually be dubbed the Single Oak Project (SOP). Eddins, with the blessing of new CEO Mark Brown, had a quest, a personal mission to try to find the right combination of key factors with which to make the ideal bourbon. The baseline of the experiment would be the 192 barrels, gleaned from the top and bottom halves of the 96 trees. Eddins’ idea, in conjunction with the distilling team, was to ascertain how 192 bourbons would react in 192 individual barrels, with each barrel’s maturation being guided by a unique set of conditions based upon seven variables. Could the Holy Grail of bourbons be identified using these criteria?
The seven factors that would come after eight years of barrel aging to produce 192 distinctive experimental bourbons were:
- Mash bill: the recipe consisting of either a corn-WHEAT-barley or corn-RYE-barley combination
- Variety of warehouse: a wooden rick floor or a concrete floor
- Length of barrel stave seasoning: oak staves left either 6 or 12 months in open air and elements so that natural impurities can be leeched out
- Char level of the oak barrels: level three or the deeper level four – bourbon by definition must be aged in new oak barrels that have been fire-charred on the inside to varying degrees, defined as being on a scale of level one, the lightest, to level four, the most heavily charred
- Top or bottom half of oak tree: each tree provided only one barrel from each end.
- Grain of the tree: designated as tight grain, average grain, or coarse grain – the grain type involves cell size, surface appearance, degree of porosity, and direction of the wood cells
- Entry proof: degree of alcohol percentage of the whiskey when it is pumped into the oak barrel, either 105-proof/52.5% alcohol or 125-proof/62.5% alcohol
The concept, as well as the actual preparation for the 192 barrels, was mind-bogglingly complex. Veteran whiskey journalist Liza Weisstuch, who participated as a taster in the project, called the SOP, “. . . the human genome project of the spirits world. Just think of the sheer mindboggling mathematics of it all. Only Buffalo Trace would take on such an epic project in order to learn more about the production process.”
For easier understanding of the intricacies of the project that was undertaken by Eddins and the Buffalo Trace team, I offer the following two paragraphs as, hopefully, illustrations of the scope of the SOP and what it proposed to determine:
- Under the guidelines of the SOP, Whiskey #1 would have a factor list that would include having corn-wheat-barley recipe, a barrel taken from the top of a white oak with tight-grained staves that were seasoned outdoors for six months, then charred to level three. The whiskey would be pumped into the barrel at 105-proof and the barrel would be stored in a warehouse with a concrete floor.
- Whiskey #2, again purely for example’s sake, would purposely share all the same variables of #1 except for one, the mash bill recipe, which would instead be corn-rye-barley rather than number one’s corn-wheat- barley. With six of the deciding factors between #1 and #2 identical, tasters, both professionals and average consumers, were charged with the task of discerning which recipe was preferred and, more importantly, why.
For the purpose of obtaining as much professional and private data as possible, when the whiskeys were deemed ready to disperse Mark Brown decided to open up the SOP to acknowledged whiskey journalists (including yours truly, spirits critic Christopher Null, the aforementioned Liza Weisstuch, Lew Bryson, Chuck Cowdery, and others) as well as to any consumers who expressed an interest in participating. Liquor stores also became involved acting as conduits between Buffalo Trace and consumers. Over a four-year span, the journalists and consumers took part in this intriguing exercise, answering a questionnaire that featured a dozen questions that arrived with each of the 16 sets containing 12 individual bourbons. The distillery reported that, “In total, 5,645 people participated in the Single Oak Project which collected 5,086 unique whiskey reviews. On average, each of the 192 whiskies was evaluated 26.2 times.”
Aside from being a clever public relations coup for the distillery, the Single Oak Project served to provide exceptionally detailed information about what types of bourbon could be produced in the future using different criteria. The most highly regarded bottling of the 192 proved to be SOP #80, a luscious bourbon with a heavy rye percentage that was matured in a level-four char barrel from the bottom half of a white oak tree with average grain. The staves were air-dried for 12 months in the open air and the entry proof was 125. The barrel was stored in a concrete floor warehouse for eight years.
But, was the accumulated data worth the herculean effort? “The knowledge gained from conducting this research experiment is priceless,” concluded Mark Brown. “We can now compare and confirm how each of these variables in the bourbon-making process affects the finished product, which will only assist our experimental program and help us create even better whiskeys in the future.”
Could the SOP barrel #80 be bourbon’s Holy Grail? In the view of some whiskey lovers, perhaps it can be. The winning formula has been reproduced and is currently aging in Frankfort. The projected release date is 2025. What is so undeniably compelling boils down to the unbridled spirit of adventure that permeates the Buffalo Trace Distillery team. Predictably, there have been some muttered concerns by intramural rivals that Buffalo Trace’s mission to push boundaries might be as much P.T. Barnum as genuine scientific interest. One thing is certain, however: Many people who are making American whiskey follow Buffalo Trace’s exploratory excursions more than for the fun of it.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Buffalo, Barrels, & Bourbon by F. Paul Pacult. Copyright ©2021 by Spirit Journal, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.