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Buffalo Trace’s Quest for Whiskey Perfection

Is there a such thing as the perfect whiskey? If so, then Buffalo Trace believes they know how to make it.

Last week I posted about David Driscoll’s K&L Wines podcast with Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. If you listened to it (and love whiskey) then I bet you sat up in your chair when Harlen mentioned the mind blowing products coming from Buffalo Trace in April. It was a mere whisper of information with very little detail. In fact I’ve been doing research since trying to figure out what’s coming our way. Information is scarce.

Well, Jason Wilson of The Washington Post has published an article that might be a follow up to that little nugget of info from Harlen. You can check out the article here.

To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone to great lengths to identify what makes up the “perfect bourbon”. They’ve compiled ratings from top publications, identified which levels and aisles of their aging facilities produce the best whiskey, and which distillation factors make the biggest impact. According to Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown, they even have a name for all of this due diligence, “Project Holy Grail”. As in the quest for the perfect whiskey.

Let’s hope we find out sooner rather than later what Buffalo Trace has in store for us. Frankly, I’ll settle for *close* to perfect and be just fine. I’m having way too much fun to see the quest to come to an end.

35 Comments

  1. I hope they come up with a tremendous dram, and that it’ll find its way to Europe… That seems to be a recurring issue.

  2. Sjoerd, I hope it makes it’s way over to you guys also. We’ll see what they have going on soon. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Robo says:

    Sjoerd – Don’t feel left out. I’m in New York City and a local spirits shop with a Whisk(e)y focus said they can’t get the soon to be available Col. E.H. Taylor Jr. Old Fashion Sour Mash Bourbon because the local Distributor doesn’t like to make these special Buffalo Trace offerings available here. I can understand if they’re not available because it’s a limited bottling but, just because they don’t want to make it available seems a little suspect.

  4. Robo – too true! I’m having the same issue finding E.H. Taylor. Few shops are able to tell me when they’ll have it or if they’ll have it. But that’s really surprising that they aren’t making it available in NYC. Is there a reason why they do want to that you are aware of.

    Good luck to all of us.

  5. Robo says:

    Jason – Not too sure what the real reason why is. Here’s the one sentence answer that the Spirits buyer from the shop sent me:
    “The distributor for Trace here in NY – Southern never brings these into NY- they don’t want them.”

    Southern is a pretty big Disty so I wonder if there’s just not enough volume for them to be interested? Buffalo Trace isn’t even listed under the products section of their website for the New York or Kentucky region. I agree that something like this not being available in a market like NYC to be very surprising. Actually i would lean towards it being absurd. Hehehe.

    Do you have any in-roads with BT to inquire about this? Or the availability of the special bottlings in general?

  6. Robo that’s crazy. One thing I’ve learned is the complexities of distribution are immense, but let’s see what we can find out. I’ll check around.

    And if anyone else reading knows what could be the issue here please let us know.

  7. David Jameson says:

    If you guys find any in the New York area, I would love to know where. I’ve just called several places in Brooklyn and nobody seems to have even heard of the E.H. Taylor product.

  8. Texas says:

    I never thought of NYC as a big bourbon area, Single Malts yes, but not bourbon. However one would think that they would definitely release a premium product there…

    I can’t afford $70 bucks right now, so I did not look for it here at Spec’s in Houston, but if it is here I am sure JWC has some already.

  9. Texas says:

    Something I have wondered, and I apologize if it is a stupid question. It seems like Stitzel-Weller Old Fitzgerald from 50′s through the early 70′s is recognized as some of the best bourbons of all time..even those only aged 6-8 years. The current Old Fitzgerald from Heaven Hill just isn’t very good.

    Can’t the methods, mashbill, ingredients, be duplicated from Stitzel-Weller days? Or is Buffalo Trace already trying to do that. The fact that HH has the Old Fitzgerald name, but Buffalo Trace has an arrangement with the Van Winkle family is very confusing to me.

  10. Rajesh says:

    Jason,
    As always, outstanding post – it should be interesting to see what Buffalo Trace conjures up.
    As relates to Robo’s comment around the lack of availability of Buffalo Trace’s ‘special’ offerings in the NYC area – I would agree w/ most of the comments in this post. I called several stores in the NYC area when I was trying to get a hold of the 2010 BTAC (and the George T. Stagg in particular) and was surprised to hear from some large retailers that they had not heard of the Antique Collection from their distributors.
    As it turned out I was able to find both the Stagg and PVW 15 (2 bottles !! — thanks for posting that outstanding review Jason!) in upstate NY. Quite a few of the stores here seem to have a good relationship w/ BT – they have a sizable offering marked “Selected for store” and a large selection of Buffalo Trace products (one store even had the 2010 Thomas Handy on shelf last week) – is this something that’s particular to the NYC area I wonder ?
    Now to start calling stores to see if I put my name on a list waiting for the E.H Taylor to arrive….
    Lastly, thanks again Jason – your blog is phenomenal…

  11. David and Robo, I’ve sent some feelers out to some Buffalo Trace folks. Let’s see what they say.

  12. Texas, no such thing as stupid questions man. And this stuff is confusing for everyone. I’m going to leave out a lot of detail mostly because I won’t pretend to know every single one of them. As an overview, Stitzel-Weller was closed almost 20 years ago. When S-W closed, the brands that were made there were sold. Old Fitz was one of the brands, and it was bought by Heaven Hill way back in the early 90′s I believe Buffalo Trace bought Weller. That’s how those two were separated. In so doing that I’m sure some stock was purchased to keep the brands going and probably the recipes and how to continue making it. Heaven Hill bought Old Fitz and then later they bought the Bernheim Distillery in the late 90′s.

    There was a lot of old stock at S-W as you know. Julian worked out an arrangement to pull from that for his Van Winkle products. Then of course he set up the partnership with Buffalo Trace because obviously they had to have some sustainability.

    Now, that said, please know that Heaven Hill and Bernheim do some of the best work in the business. Old Fitz is certainly not what it once was, but that may be more about prioritizing the best stuff for more prominent brands. It’s tough to say and shear speculation by anyone that might take a guess, but i know what you mean. It would be wonderful if it were what it once was. And I can’t imagine a fantastic distillery like Bernheim couldn’t do it.

    As for all of the methods and mash bills to mimic the S-W products – Buffalo Trace has all of that capability. The 10 year old and 12 year old Van Winkle products demonstrate just how well they can do that (to my taste buds). I personally worry very little about slipping quality in the Van Winkle line just because S-W stock is depleting. I think we’ll be okay there.

    Again, I may have some things out of place or order, but that’s a general overview of how things went down.

  13. Rajesh, you’re always too kind to me man. Lucky you to pull off a Stagg and PVW15 purchase – WOW! That’s a rarity so enjoy it.

  14. JWC says:

    Texas, I’ve been on the lookout for the E.H. Taylor here in Houston but no luck. Hoping to snag a bottle or two of the Pappy 15 this Spring but they are not yet in either. Being on the lookout for these limited offerings is a pain in the butt. Texas, Spec’s has the Knob Creek SB on sale, @$33/34. GREAT DEAL right now.

  15. JWC, we are talking “SB” for “Single Barrel” and not “Small Batch” right? Seriously? $34 for that? That’s like one of the best whiskey deals around right now. Scarf it up!

  16. Dave says:

    I liked that article in the Post, but can answer his question “How far away, exactly, is Weller from the holy grail?”

    The correct answer is, “Get out your measuring stick. Start at the OWA 107. Begin measuring until you reach the Pappy van Winkle 15 year old, and then go one inch past that.”

    I tried sipping from my limited supply of PVW 15 here at home the other night. I have a glass of whiskey after work all of the time, so I’m sampling a lot of different bourbons, and I’d forgotten how good it really, really is. It’s just amazing. Weller is nice, but it’s a pale imitation (though I will take any Weller over the current Old Fitzgerald any day!)

    Julian van Winkle has said that the old (12?) 15 year old S-W Old Fitz from when his grandfather was distilling was his “desert island” bourbon. I’ve never had the luxury of trying that, but I’ll bet BT and the VW guys determine the “holy grail” as one which meets or exceeds that quality of bourbon. I would be willing to bet that this “holy grail” bourbon (or one of its brothers) will be christened the new Pappy/ORVW/VW 15.

    This should have us excited.

  17. JWC says:

    Jason, yes. The new Knob Creek Single Barrel is on sale for $34. I plan on getting a few more bottles of it while it is on sale. If/when it becomes popular, I don’t think the price is going to be as sweet.

  18. Robo says:

    Jason – Thanks for sending out some feelers to your contacts at BT. Hopefully you will get a positive response from them. I also hope that the answer isn’t because of the limited number if bottles.

    On a related note I found a bottle of 17yr Eagle Rare and Sazerac Rye today at a liquor shop in about a half hour from my house in Connecticut. I bought the Eagle Rare and was tempted to get the Sazerac too. However, I was on my way back from a visit to New Hampshire where I bought a bottle of Evan Williams SB 2000 (they’re still out there) for $23.99 and a bottle of 18yr Elijah Craig SB for $34.99. The State of New Hampshire controls all the liquor so it’s usually pretty cheap.

    Anyway, since the store in CT had the Antique Collection bottles I’m going to reach out to them about the E.H. Taylor too. What the heck right? Bit can’t hurt.

    By the way…the Eagle Rare is INCREDIBLY good. Well worth the $.

  19. JWC says:

    Robo, get the BTAC Saz. It is very good – one of the best ryes out there. Difficult to get here in Texas. I have not had WhistlePig yet. But the only ryes in the same league as the BTAC Saz in my opinion would be the Van Winkle Rye and Lot No. 40 (discontinued Canadian Rye).

  20. JWC says:

    Jason, a question: how do we upload an image (user profile kind of thing)?

  21. Texas says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, JWC. I need to get the KC Single Barrel before that price goes away.

  22. Texas says:

    Jason thanks for the explanation on the SW, HH, BT thing.

  23. JWC, great question. Let me check into it because I’m really not sure. I’ll find out though – stay tuned!

  24. Guys, speaking of Ryes, I just got the new Bulleit Rye. It’s made by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). Bulleit did an okay job on the transaparency thing, but they can still work on it a little. That said, the juice in the bottle is outstanding – really a fantastic rye at a great price. Will have the review out this week.

  25. Alan says:

    I’m not up on the rye whiskey. Closest thing I’ve had is the BH you just reviewed. Looking forward to your writeup on ryes and the differences between them and bourbon pours. Give me a good recommendation to try for starters. Your reviews are very helpful and accurate.

  26. Alan, I think for Rye I’d start with the Russell’s Reserve Rye (Very Good) and Rittenhouse (if you can find it). Both of those I feel are outstanding products are tremendous values. Then take a look at the new Bulleit Rye. Many just chalk Rye Whiskey up as being spicier and hotter. That *can* be true but not always. These are all very accessible whiskeys. The Bulleit, the High West Double Rye, and the High West Rendezvous Rye are all very different and fantastic. I love Rye immensely and I am so glad it’s becoming more available.

  27. sku says:

    Thanks for raising this issue Jason. This actually concerns me. Based on the article, they aren’t trying to make the perfect Bourbon but a Bourbon that will get top scores from the top critics. Chasing scores is not the same as making great whiskey, and my concern, as alluded to in the article, is that this will lead to a standardization of flavors as happened in wine in the ’90s when Parker was the uber-critic. If everyone is suddenly hunting for the perfect score from a small group of critics, flavor profiles narrow and outliers, which might have unusual flavors, get pushed aside. That being said, I have great faith in Buffalo Trace and they have always been on the cutting edge and put out a variety of products, so if anyone is going to try this, I’m glad it is them. I just worry about what direction this could take.

  28. Texas says:

    I agree with sku, also it bothers me that it sounds like it is all very much like doing some sort of lab experiment (e.g. isolating 125 of the 300 chemicals in bourbon). I know modern distilling does involve some of that, certainly more than it used to, but it makes it sound very artificial. The point I made about S-W bourbon..they didn’t analyze chemicals they just found a recipe and process that worked very well, likely by trial and error and then stuck by it.

  29. Steve and Texas, you guys are dead on. The article’s interesting and I appreciate the dedication to making great products. As Steve mentions, BT is as forward thinking as anyone. Their Experimental Collection beats many things the craft/boutique guys are doing 9 times out of 10. But it is concerning to think they are targeting reviews and scores to get their “perfect” bourbon. They might respond in saying they chose 3 very different palates in order to cover a range, and that was just one component to the research. Regardless, your points are very valid. We shall see where this goes.

  30. Dave says:

    Hmm. I must say I have faith in BT — not only do they produce some of the best stuff out there, but they have quite the variety of flavors, from the *damn* good ryes they produce, to the “young” Van Winkles, to the high rye recipes of ETL and Rock Hill. And THEN you have the Experimentals and the Antiques…

    Then again, they do produce Ancient Ancient Age, a bourbon whose finish tastes like dirt.

  31. Dave I do to, and I think many agree. The question is does this set the precedent for others to do the same?

  32. Texas says:

    ..don’t get me wrong, I love BT’s stuff. From the fantastic for the price McAfee’s Benchmark to the GTS and WLW. Great stuff. The tone of the article has me worried about the process or end goal. OTOH one cannot always be sure that what you read is truly indicative of their intent or process.

  33. JDW says:

    The E.H. Taylor arrived last week in Seattle and I was lucky enough to get a bottle before it hit the shelves. Helps to have a great local store with a manager from Kentucky. Just thought I would let everyone know it is out there.

  34. Jeffrey, what do you think of this one?

  35. JDW says:

    Hey Jason:

    I am treasuring the Taylor for a birthday present to my best friend who is from Kentucky. Just a few more weeks and then I will report back with my impressions. This is definitely the longest any bourbon has been in my possession without any sampling!

    Jeffrey