Friday, August 30, 2013

Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2: Experimental Hotbox, #7 Char and French Oak

For the bourbon drinker with empirical leanings, Buffalo Trace periodically comes out with 2 lines of quasi-experimental offerings: the Single Oak Project and the Experimental Collection. The SOP is a sprawaling project mainly focusing on (you guessed it) oak, while the BTEC is more varied. The latter is really fun for me, because many of the offerings really seem to be products of a "I wonder what would happen if we..." sort of conversation than those of a marketing discussion. The BTEC have often been odd, always sort of overpriced, and sometimes awful (BT even regrets the oat bourbon, I hear). Though these are overpriced when compared to bourbon bought simply for pleasure (~$50 per 375), they are often fun and novel.

Keeping with the recent theme of Buffalo Trace's 15% rye mashbill, we will look at three BTEC whiskies (they are not all legally bourbon) that differ most obviously by their cooperage (also age). Before we begin, it is best to review that Bourbon is legally a spirit made using at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof and entered into unused, charred, oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (among other requirements). Distillers vary on how they char the barrels; Buffalo trace typically chars theirs for 55 seconds (#4 char), but for this release they experimented with different oak aging regimens.

The "Hotbox"-treated bourbon was put into barrels made using staves that were toasted before being assembled into a barrel and charred in the traditional fashion. The hope here was to improve the flavoring potential of the uncharred oak layer that absorbs and exchanges whiskey during aging.

BTEC Hotbox Toasted Barrel (16 years, 8 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: Hot attic, orange peel, some tropical fruit (hint of bananna, maybe papaya), caramel and vanilla.
Palate: Medium-thin texture, well-controlled alcohol. Wheater-like wood influence and nuttiness. Little rye spice, but age notes of acetone, coconut, almonds, maybe a bit of ginger.
Finish: Very tame, mildly tannic, medium sweetness and length. Fruit and vanilla persist the longest.

Overall this is an excellent bourbon that reminds me of Van Winkle wheater offerings more than anything else out of Buffalo Trace. For whatever reason, this barrel seems to show a lot more wood, nuts and fruit than rye spice, chocolate or char notes. I suspect the toasting added some of the extra oak flavors that take such central prominence in older wheaters. The aging here sure didn't hurt. I really like this and would love to see it at a bit higher proof (to solve the thin mouthfeel) and at a slightly more reasonable price (though it is nearly 17 years old).

The #7 Char experiment differs in oak treatment from the BT standard practice by charring the inside of the oak barrels for a full 3.5 minutes instead of the usual 55 seconds. I suppose that this experiment should at least demonstrate the upper end of the influence of charring on the finished bourbon.

BTEC #7 Heavy Char Barrel (15 years, 9 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: Apples, milk chocolate and charcoal. Also some rye spices. Overall reminds me of a more muted Blanton's
Palate: Similar in weight to the Hotbox. Overall pretty mild. Corny sweetness, apple, faint spices (clove and ginger), again milk chocolate and some butter.
Finish: Very easy, warming and sweet. Tannins appear at the very end, though not unpleasantly.

Overall this is a much more subdued experience than the Hotbox. It is nice, but not what I would have hoped for a 15 year expression of a bourbon that starts out essentially as Blanton's. I suspect that the huge amount of char may have acted to "charcoal filter" out some of the flavor. This reminds me a bit of the George Dickel Barrel Select in it's drinkability. The result is mild to be sure, but not interesting enough to call a success, or to go out of your way to find.

Finally, the French Oak experiment. Typically, bourbon is aged in American white oak (Quercus alba). For this experiment, #2 mashbill new make was entered into barrels made of French oak (both Quercus robur and Quercus petraea are called French oak in wine/spirit making, the latter is more likely here). In winemaking, French oak is considered to impart a fruitier, spicier and more "exotic" profile to wine, compared to the sweeter, vanilla dominated profile of American oak. Interestingly, in this experiment, the barrels were toasted only, thus making this whiskey not technically a bourbon as it has never seen the inside of a charred barrel.

BTEC 1995 French Oak Barrel Aged (15 years, 3 months old, 45%ABV)
Nose: First impression is rum-finished Scotch. Incense, floral perfume notes, overripe mango, white chocolate and a scented-candle note I can't quite place.
Palate: Medium bodies, drier and more astringent than the above. Very wine-like and a bit bitter. Wood tannins are evident, but little of the typical vanilla/caramel/butter seen with charred oak. A funky note that reminds me of single malt or pot-still Irish.
Finish: Astringently tannic and a bit bitter. Some spice/incense lingers, as does a fruity sourness.

Overall this is an odd one. I would never have picked this as an American whiskey. I would have guessed either a Balvenie* I've not yet tried (the winey, funky notes are reminiscent), or maybe a wine-finished Scotch. It is very a very interesting illustration of the effects of oak and a very unusual drink; just not one I find pleasant, unfortunately. I have to applaud the willingness to experiment and the dedication to empiricism, but I have to categorize this as an informative failure.

I have to say I think these experiments of Buffalo Trace's are really pretty cool. We get to see the effect of so many of the different contributors to a finished whiskey. As I've said before, I think we all get too hung up on mashbill, when so many other variables come into play, in this case cooperage. Proof also seems to be a major factor in how enjoyable and intense a bourbon is, but really just changes intensity, rather than character. Warehouse location seems really under-appreciated when you see how different the AAA tastes compared to Blanton's. Entry proof is another big one, but that will be another post.

So are any of these worth buying a full bottle of? Not really at these prices. I split these half bottles with a friend, so it was worth it to me for curiosity and novelty, but I'm not sure I'd drop $100 a fifth on any of them But if BT were to produce larger quantities of any of these at a lower price, I'd definitely go with the Hotbox. And not just for the name.

I'm off on a brief hiatus for a road trip; along the way I hope to find some interesting things to share. I will also turn my attention soon to the excellent Four Roses distillery, that I have so far neglected for no good reason.

* Despite the reminiscence, I will clarify that I like Balvenie, before you start to object!


  1. Wait a minute, I recall a 19 and 23 year old Giant French Oak Barrel experiment from last year. Where did this 15 year old French Oak Barrel (which doesn't appear to be a giant) come from?

    1. From a liquor store in New Jersey? I don't really know otherwise. I can't even find a press release.

  2. You scored any of the New BTEC Wheats?

    1. Not yet. I ordered 2 from the PLCB who advertised that while they could not give you specific bottles, they would try not to give duplicates. Being what they are, they sent me 2 of the 125s... My friend Greg, who figures into this blog as my partner for most of the larger tastings, got the 115 and the 105. We should have a tasting any time now. I'd been waiting to find some of the 90, but I'll likely have to give up. I think the next few articles may focus on 4R, specifically the role of yeast in bourbon-making, but then soon after I think a few on entry proof would be a perfect place to discuss the wheat experimentals.

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