Innovation isn’t a word that is limited to the offices of Silicon Valley, as one of America’s oldest liquor brands can tell you. Buffalo Trace bourbon has been applying innovation to their products so much during the past two decades that they now find themselves with more than 5,000 experimental whiskey barrels. This is the largest collection of experimental barrels that this National Historic Landmark Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky has ever held.
What exactly is in those barrels that’s so unique? Early experiments served as originators for the popular trend of aging bourbon in used wine barrels, giving them zinfandel or chardonnay finishes. Other barrel undertakings used woods from around the world, including sourcing wood from states in the U.S. that aren’t typically barrel producing states.
Some experiments focused on varying the ingredients, like trying rice and oats as the primary grain. The Buffalo Trace warehouses occasionally played the central role in variables as experimenters tested whether a concrete or wooden floor yielded better flavors.
At the helm of this research is Harlen Wheatley, originally hired as distillery supervisor in 1995. Wheatley is now master distiller, leading the charge and tasting a lot of bourbon in the process. One of the first experiments that Wheatley supervised used French Oak rather than traditional American White Oak for the aging process. He just got more creative from there.
“Today, our experiments are more focused within the confines of bourbon whiskey,” Wheatley explained recently. “We have hundreds of potential future experiments on our list and discuss regularly with the experimental team to prioritize the most interesting ideas and the experiments that deliver the most useful information.”
Some experiments weren’t particularly successful, but as with any attempt trying something new, the distillery team learned valuable lessons. These missteps, such as using a sour wood for barrels, helped inform future research by the distillery team.
“It’s important to learn from your mistakes too,” Wheatley noted. “We learn as much from our failures as our successes, sometimes even more so from the failures, so that’s why we want to keep a record of them so we have them for future research.”
For better or for worse, these attempts have yielded a wealth of information that Buffalo Trace now has at its fingertips to help bring the best possible bourbon to its customers. All of this knowledge goes into creating brands like its flagship Buffalo Trace, Stagg, Blanton’s, and Eagle Rare, as well as new bourbons like the Single Oak Project.
The distilleries experiments will continue, with a few releases per year. The next release is slated for this spring, and for those who are curious about past releases and where to purchase, visit the Buffalo Trace website.