2016 Whisky Wind-down, 21: Tatanka! 

Today’s dram: Buffalo Trace, Single Barrel

Today’s tasting notes: So, this was acquired a bit by accident. We were running low on bourbon, but I didn’t feel like the longer drive to the excellent bottle shoppe where I normally shop. Instead I visited a local package store. It’s a pretty good store on its own, but it has a lesser selection. I wasn’t looking for anything special, though, just an inexpensive everyday bourbon. Buffalo Trace was about the best bet of what was on offer, but they were out of standard 750 ml bottles. They did, however, have one 1.75 liter bottle available. Though it was more than I intended to buy, the price was good, and hey, it’s not like my wife and I won’t eventually get through this.

It was only when I got home that I noticed the small gold sticker on the side that says “Tower Spirits Single Barrel Select.” Weird. Especially since the shop I went to wasn’t Tower Spirits, and they did not charge me a premium single barrel price. Huh.

So I looked up the Buffalo Trace single barrel program and learned — as I suspected, having some familiarity with this concept — that Buffalo Trace allows high-volume buyers the option to buy all of a single barrel and have it bottled exclusively for that store.

How this bottle ended up at my local independent shop I have no idea. 

I also had no idea how this bourbon would vary from regular old Buffalo Trace. Note that it isn’t cask strength; this is the usual dilution, just all from one barrel, not the typical blend of 20-30 that make the standard Buffalo Trace. (That’s considered small batch, I think.)

This could be subtle or stunning, depending on any number of factors in production. And what characteristics was the Tower Spirits buyer into? Is this stronger, smoother, sweeter, milder, wilder, what?

I didn’t want to just try this blind, but fortunately we happened to have a smidge left in our last bottle of regular Buffalo Trace. (This was what prompted the shopping trip, after all.)

And so, my wife and I set up a side-by-side tasting.

The results?

The color is a shade darker, but the aroma is identical (or close enough for our senses, anyway). 

On taste, we agree the select version has a bit more of an edge to it and is slightly less sweet than the regular. These are subtle differences, though, between essentially two versions of the same product. This select barrel would have been paired with other, sweeter, milder barrels to make a batch of the regular. 

All in all, good stuff. I plan to pick up a bottle of the regular to have on hand for future comparisons. We can share this fun with whisky-loving guests. 

Today’s thoughts: My wife has a Buffalo Trace shirt that says “Party Animal.” Pictured upon it is a large buffalo, standing stoically on a bluff.

That’s basically me, at parties.

Also, I will drink your whisky.

Today’s bourbon trivia: Buffalo Trace is a fun distillery. The wife and I visited during our whirlwind Kentucky bourbon vacation last year. Located adjacent to the Kentucky River in Frankfort, it’s like a little village that makes bourbon. The distillery has been around since the late 1700s and has had several names and owners over the years, but it has almost never stopped making bourbon. (Even during Prohibition, when the bourbon made there was sold for <cough><cough> medicinal use only.)

Today, the distillery makes several brands besides the namesake, and their production method is common to distilleries that have multiple lines. Some distilleries have a complex system of barrel rotation that, combined with careful blending, results in a consistent house style for a particular bourbon line. (Maker’s Mark takes this to an extreme by not even making more than the one base bourbon.*) Buffalo Trace doesn’t do that. They have several mash bills, and they send certain barrels of certain ones to certain levels of the racks and they leave them there, for however many years they deem necessary. Four years later, the same base bourbon, made with the same mash bill, is two different bourbons when one was aged at the ground floor and the other in the attic. Bottle one and call it George T. Stagg. Bottle the other and call it Eagle Rare.** Science!

Also, and I mean this seriously, a rickhouse is what heaven must smell like.

I say that partly in jest, but it’s grounded in bourbon lore. As the whisky ages in these buildings, which are not climate-controlled, the natural cycles of heat and cold move the liquid in and out of the wood, drawing the oak flavor and the natural wood sugars released in the charring, making raw whisky into bourbon.*** One reason Kentucky is such good bourbon-making country is the variance of the weather throughout the year, accelerating this process. In the midst of that, some is lost to evaporation, and that is why the air smells so wonderful. Bourbon makers call this loss the “angel’s share” because it rises away. The longer the aging, the more the loss. Which, aside from the time involved, is a factor in the cost of older aged bourbons — there’s just less of it.  On a related note, Scotch whisky does not suffer as much loss, what with the more stable year-round temperatures there versus Kentucky. That stable temperature is also why the youngest Scotch whisky for sale is usually at least 10 years old, with 12 far more common and the good stuff taking 15, 18 or more. Time works slowly in Scotland.

Today’s toast: To party animals everywhere: Be excellent to each other. (And party on, dudes.)


* — If you read Whisky Wind-down 24, you know 46 is just an alteration of the base style. (Basically, they follow one process through to completion, creating the namesake bourbon, but sometimes they then experiment from there. So far, they’ve only marketed and sold one of those experiments. I don’t count cask strength versions separately, since those are still made with the same process, just undiluted at the end. (You could turn a cask strength whisky into its standard version, though you would have to be an animal — not a party animal, just a terrible person — to do so.)

** — These are examples only, not exact, though those are both brands made there. Four years, by the way, is the minimum for Kentucky straight bourbon to be sold without an age statement. (If it’s younger, you’re supposed to say so.) Good bourbon commonly ages a bit longer, at least six or seven years. (If memory serves, that’s the standard for brands like Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark. But people we talked to everyone say time is never exact. Master tasters begin sampling, then keep checking up until it’s deemed ready. Merciful squid, what a job.)

*** — Several of the the folks we talked to on our tours repeated variations of the phrase, “We don’t make bourbon. We make white dog. Nature makes bourbon.” (White dog is what bourbon makers call the raw whisky that comes off the still. Were they doing this illegally, it would be called moonshine. Side-note: Ever had moonshine? Or white dog? Talk about harsh! Imagine straight-up vodka. From a not-so great vodka maker. Add some acid. That’s about it. It’s amazing what time on charred wood turns that stuff into.)

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