The Holy Grail

In their search for the perfect bourbon, Buffalo Trace executives identify three factors for creating whiskey.


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Monty Python references abounded when Mark Brown addressed a roomful of media types during last summer’s "Tale of the Cocktail," but not merely because the Buffalo Trace Distillery president was intending to inject some levity into the proceedings; the larger issue at hand was the distillery’s on-going efforts to produce the ultimate bourbon—a spirit drink reviewers would award the thus far elusive 100 point score, in a project nicknamed “Holy Grail.”

In their search for the “perfect bourbon,” Buffalo Trace distillers and executives have identified three principle factors involved in the creation of a whiskey: atmosphere, wood and distillation. They then broke down each into subfactors, including issues like air-flow, temperature and warehouse position in atmosphere; variety of wood and tightness of grain pattern; and, of course, the distillation recipe, process and finished whiskey proof.

Figuring in all of these elements and adding what Brown calls “the art of getting the whiskey from barrel to bottle,” which involves everything from filtration to the kind of water used to reduce the proof of the whiskey, Brown and Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley arrived at a potential five quadrillion different combinationsa daunting total.

To date, Buffalo Trace has effected 330 of the five quadrillion experiments, totaling some 1,400 barrels of whiskey at a cost of $1.5 million. A major factor in many if not most of these experiments is the variety of wood used to make the barrels in which the whiskey is aged, to which end the distillery has identified a total of eleven locations as actual or potential sources, including Mongolia.

“The rules governing bourbon are a little more lenient than most people realize,” says Brown in explaining the potential for non-American oak. “It simply says ‘charred new oak containers,’ with no country specified,” he adds.

So in addition to Mongolia, Buffalo Trace is able to look to as diverse locations as the arboreal forests of Canada and the famed Limousin woods of France for their barrel needs.

A handful of the distillery’s efforts have already appeared on the market in the form of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, including this year’s 1995 vintage “American Oak Chips Seasoned” and “French Oak Barrel Aged” whiskeys. A far greater number will begin to see the light of day in 2011, however, beginning with the launch of the Single Oak Project.

“The Project is still shrouded in mystery,” says Brown, “But we think when released it will quickly be recognized as the largest experiment of its kind ever undertaken.” Aside from that, Brown would say only that four labels in the Project are scheduled for release in 2011, with the remainder of the releases appearing over a further three years.

In addition to the Single Oak Project, Buffalo Trace plans for further Experimental Collection releases next year and will also be “rebirthing” the Colonel E.H. Taylor line of whiskeys, some of which will be experimental in nature, Brown says. All this bourbon should make for a very busy year for the Frankfort, Kentucky-based distillery team, perhaps even one in which they finally find their “Holy Grail.”

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