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Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

I am ashamed to call myself a whiskey geek today. Very ashamed indeed. I say this because I cannot tell a lie – no matter how hard I make myself, I can’t get excited about the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Honestly I have tried like hell to get into it. To date, I’ve sampled three bottles (different barrel numbers). They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, but not mind blowing. I still wonder if it will even be worth the effort. Let me explain my thoughts……

For those that don’t remember, Buffalo Trace embarked on one of the most aggressive “projects” in whiskey history earlier this year. That’s not an understatement. You can read more about the experiment here. To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone right to the barrel making source to isolate the components of the wood that impact the finished whiskey more favorably in the eyes of the general public. You can purchase a bottle, log onto the website, enter your thoughts on the whiskey, and see what components/factors impacted the bourbon you tasted. The goal, simply put, is to figure out what sections of the tree (top or bottom cuts), what char levels, grain type (course to fine grain), and other factors yield the best results when mated with either a rye-based bourbon or a wheated bourbon. To date, Buffalo Trace has released 36 Single Oak Project Bourbons (3 releases of 12), each representing 192 possible combinations of flavor factors.

This is cool stuff right? On the surface I agree – it’s very cool. Buffalo trace is going to lengths no other distillery in the world has gone (to my knowledge) in order to improve consistency, and perhaps find the “holy grail” bourbon.

Here’s the thing – I think they have little or no chance of finding what they seek. Is that based on fact, research, or anything concrete? Nope, not a all. Still, I believe they are looking at this in a one dimensional way, focused on isolation of components. What if it’s a combination of top and bottom tree oak that yields more balance? What if variances in grain type actually help? What if it’s a combination of rye-based bourbons blended together that yield the best finished whiskey? What if my brain explodes as I think of the myriad of options that could yield the best results?

Also, and perhaps more critically, what are Buffalo Trace’s plans to execute on the “perfect” bourbon as per the Single Oak Project ratings? How does a distillery scale in such a way as to isolate top tree sections with tight grain (for example) and still produce an affordable bourbon? Does Buffalo Trace intend to buy their own cooperage to control those costs? Will it end up being a $150 bottle? The folks behind this endeavor are a hell of a lot smarter than me, but these are the things that run through my head, and keep me from jumping up an down with excitement.

Bottom line, I feel this will end up being a fun, cool experiment for the whiskey geeks in all of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we all don’t get our hopes up.

What about you? Share with me what you think about Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. Perhaps I’m alone in my opinion here.

39 Comments

  1. I’ve been blogging about this one as they come along and release #3 is inbound, to touch down on Friday.

    Honestly, it’s interesting but I view it more as kind of a bizarre cross between a hobby and a little bit of a correspondence course slash tasting. It’s definitely interesting but given that it’s a four year, multi-hundred dollar commitment (and we’re splitting our cases six ways!), it’s a marathon and it’s kind of effectively burned out my interest for the other unending experimental releases coming out of Buffalo Trace. I don’t care if it’s a tornado surviving 100% amaranth mashbill that was aged on the Alaska coastline where the Exxon Valdez dumped, it’s just not grabbing me anymore. (Though Hansell’s panning of the latest experimentals got me interested enough to do a split).

    All that said… the bourbons released so far are wildly variable. I think #61 is far and away the best and the first of the 24 to date I’d actually buy. I think we all recognize that “the perfect bourbon” is the perfect bourbon for the occasion and there’s not going to (ever) be a bourbon that is universally loved by all. There have been more than a handful in the SOP to this point that I think could be universally reviled though.

    The most interesting thing has been seeing what has an effect – I see the biggest difference between top cut and bottom cut to this point. I still haven’t had release 3 (entry proof) which I could see being important. But grain tightness? Not really predictive of anything for me. Recipe? My favorites have been roughly split between wheat and rye.

    I guess it’s a continuing ed course for me. Very fun but not to be taken on solo.

  2. DBMaster says:

    Think of it as “The Windows of Bourbon.” BT has cracked Microsoft’s model of getting beta testers to pay for that “privilege.”

  3. Tim, thanks for the comment. I have paid attention to your reviews as well on the Single Oak Project on your site (which have been helpful). It’s just becoming something of a chore for me to stay interested in this frankly. Agreed, I think we all know that the “perfect whiskey” doesn’t exist and won’t ever. What Buffalo Trace will learn may very well be invaluable, but it’s important consumers keep it in check. I expect more questions to exist after this is all over.

  4. Ha! Good observation DBMaster.

  5. sku says:

    Jason, I think those are valid points. I’ve tasted two of the three sets so far (courtesy of RC), and there’s nothing perfect in there.

    I think BT made a miscalculation is hyping this as the quest for the perfect bourbon. What it actually is going to do is give them an amazing database of research about how different variables impact flavor. This will give them the knowledge to much more accurately control their flavors in vattings of these whiskeys, which could indeed lead to some great stuff. For instance, if they find that top tree, wheated, aged in warehouse K consistently gives a chocolate-like note, that is something they can work with in developing different flavor profiles.

    I assume this is something that goes on all the time (though probably not to this extent) at distilleries – experimenting with variables and seeing what happens. The difference is that BT is letting all of us join in on it. Personally, I appreciate that for the educational experience (and it’s highly educational) even if the bourbons themselves are not great.

    This is like bourbon college. Like college, it’s sometimes fun but often hard work, even a slog. But I’m guessing it will be rewarding at the end.

  6. Tom says:

    Jason, I can relate to your thoughts on the single oak project. I’ve been able to receive samples of each of them (although I haven’t gotten through all yet), and so far there haven’t been any that have blown me away. And yet, the whiskey nerd inside of me is ecstatic that I’m having the opportunity to participate and try all of them, and I will continue on for the next few years and I’m sure I will enjoy the process and discussions.
    The issue I’ve had is the same that you mention, the perfect whiskey is unobtainable for a number of reasons, and it definitely won’t come about through a methodical process such as this. The majority of fantastic whiskies are developed through painstaking blending of countless barrels to obtain a perfect marriage of flavors. And the single barrel prizes are found in giant warehouses, where thousands of other selections have been sampled and rejected. This makes the process of filling barrels allocated for single barrel release, with an expectation of them being superb, daunting.
    The benefit I see in this process for Buffalo Trace and enthusiasts is the opportunity to begin understanding which variables are contributing which flavors to the final blended product. This can lead to Buffalo Trace diversifying the type of barrels used with the goal of combining them in different ways (which could loosely be compared to Four Roses success in releasing their single barrel variations) and coming up with some pretty exciting new expressions.
    In the meantime, I confess that I will continue to get excited about the releases and look forward to progressing through each of them. If nothing else, it provides further excuse to talk with other whiskey lovers about new expressions.

  7. Wood Is Good says:

    I can find, upon release, a Pappy 15, 20, and 23; I can buy two (sometimes more) bottles of all the Antiques. But I have yet to see one bottle of any Single Oak Project on any of the shelves I frequent. (I live in the NJ/NYC area. Maybe I’m just not going to the right places . . .)

  8. theBitterFig says:

    Provided we accept the premise of BTSOP 100%, a problem is inherent since a very important variable isn’t dealt with – time. The old saw with bourbon is that wheated bourbons don’t really come into their own until they’re a little bit older than rye-based bourbons. Every aged spirit goes through peaks and valleys in the aging process, particularly depending on barrel style (old barrels for older spirits, etc), and the baseline eight years of the BTSOP ignores all that (out of practicality likely; I doubt the goal was to enforce the antiquated idea that arbitrary age statements are significant). There’s probably an interesting interaction between entry proof and age that’s entirely out of the scope of the experiment.

    Plus, let’s also remember that a lot of the fun experiments aren’t legal. How about a crooked whisky made from an illicit mashbill (33% each rye, wheat, and malted barley, or whatever else crosses the imagination)? How about comparing the same juice matured in new and refill barrels (Wild Turkey vs. a hypothetical “American Pheasant”)? How about more top-quality blended American whiskies? High West has some (of course, not in my state), but the labeling process no doubt hinders the concept.

  9. Ryan says:

    I don’t see the point in asking for our help and then making it inaccessible. I mean, I just can’t afford a bunch of $40 375 ml bottles of mediocre bourbon. I would LOVE to buy a set of miniatures that highlight some of the differences, but otherwise, no chance I’ll drop $80 just to see just one difference.

  10. Keith says:

    I haven’t taken the plunge and purchased a bottle yet. My local store is selling them for $64, which is a lot more than I’m willing to pay for 375 mL. That said, I like that Buffalo Trace is putting forth this effort. Like SKU said, it gives them a lot of information about their own bourbon and let’s us share in the experience. Plus, they are selling 1/2 bottles of bourbon for full bottle prices.

    I’m glad that a big distillery is experimenting. They’ve got the resources and will to do it, and the project will only end up in our (bourbon drinker’s) favor.

  11. Theo says:

    If I’m spending that much on a bottle of bourbon it will be for something I know is special, not something experimental like this. I’m all for the experiment, I’m just not sure they should be asking people to pay such a premium to participate.

    I also agree with Jason that they won’t find what they’re looking for. It seems impossible to me that they can actually control and isolate the specific elements they’re trying to test. Plus, they’re relying on the subjective tastes of random individuals. It seems on this on Buffalo Trace . . . wait for it . . . can’t see the forest for the trees :)

  12. Lazer says:

    Ralfy once commented, “asking which is the best whiskey is like asking which is the best flower in the botanical gardens.” Enjoying whiskey is like enjoying art or music, there is no best, just different.

  13. AaronWF says:

    I’ve seen one or two on a shelf going for $60 around here, and I’m just not interested. Binny’s only sells them by the case. Maybe I’m just not a whiskey nerd, because this project has never really drawn me in. I’ll be interested in the results, but for the price of admission to participate, I’m doing Buffalo Trace a favor more than I’m doing myself one.

    I’d much rather spend the money on one each of the Four Roses single barrel recipes. $55 for 750ml of distinct, barrel proof bourbon IS my cup of tea. Drink them on their own and/or explore the infinite vatting possibilities.

  14. Andrew says:

    Instead of mass producing this stuff and having the drinking public provide feedback, I would be happier if they were to produce much smaller barrels of this stuff and just send it to a select population of tasters for analysis. Would feel better it being sampled by individuals such as yourself, Jason, as well as sku and Tim who have a background and comparative knowledge to work from. After a round or two of that, then they can come out with their special editions at the elevated price points. “Project” to me says it is a work in progress and not something I am interested in to be honest.

  15. @theBitterFig early on I talked to Sku about this one and had to agree – age was an interesting variable that wasn’t accounted for. Makes me wonder if there’s a secondary line of experiments based on this first set that’s more internal-only. It’d make the project impossible to market, so I get that much: each year would add 192 bottles to the tally and it’s going to take 4 years to go through one year/192 bottles. I have to wonder if BT already has their answer or had a good idea going into it? No idea. Idle curiosity to engage over the next three and a half years I guess.

    @AaronWF I really, really want to do the 10 recipes of 4R. When I was exposed to what yeast alone could do to the character of whiskey it blew my mind.

  16. MW says:

    Well, it has been a success already – look how much coverage & discussion has been caused by this project. In the end, it’s all about marketing, getting their name in front of people & building a reputation as striving for something better. AND w/all these releases, it’s ongoing. I’m sure they are doing experiments in the background that we may never hear about – in fact, they have NOT released some of the whiskey because it was not good.

    I think it’s brilliant on so many levels. I do think some improvements will come from this experiment – how much will that whiskey will cost? Who knows, maybe it will be an improvement to whiskey at all price points or maybe it will be a very good/very expensive special release. But the fact that they are willing to TRY says a lot about the people in charge at BT. I admire it even though I know that they are marketing (verb) to me.

    I do think they are charging too much $ for these bottles & if they REALLY wanted so much feedback, they’d price them lower &/or in smaller bottles. But I’m not sure that’s the ONLY aim (getting lots of people tasting it)…& they have said they are NOT going to make $ on this specific project. The payoff comes down the road & in all the market value they are building – & that’s what it’s really about. Many whiskey lovers have this romantic idea of distilleries “creating” all this artistic whiskey for the LOVE of it – yes, I’m sure that most of the head distillers enjoy creating but really, it’s always about the money!

  17. Anorak1977 says:

    All they need to do is slap a “van winkle” label on those bottles and off they go, regardless of quality :)

  18. Joe Serapilio says:

    I’m with you Jason.I purchased two bottles at $52.Nothing to write home about.

  19. Vinny Lynch says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’m an evolutionary biologist, but I tend to take a long view of things. While it might be true that a c

  20. JWC says:

    i’ve always thought that bt’s sale of their experiment to the public was a publicity stunt. btac, pappy’s, col eh taylors – good to great bourbon and SUPER marketing. i WAS interested but $65 per 375ml bottle?! i already spend WAY too much on the premium and limited edition bourbons and ryes (as well as scotch) and dusties. i COULD do it i guess but i WON’T. besides, like you, i believe that their approach (if we were to take them at their words) is fundamentally flawed. even if they were to find the PERFECT bourbon (?! – I guess we all have the same taste buds), how on earth can they replicate it in any decent volume?

    you know, quite a few of the bourbons of old were pretty darn good stuff, even the bottom shelf stuff. compare the dusty old fitz, old forester, old grand dad and old taylor to the current offerings with those labels. nuff said.

    one of the main ingredients of bourbon, corn, is very now than what was used a long time ago. saw an excellent doc on corn. very interesting. if the corn has changed that much, how can bourbon NOT be affected?

  21. Bmac says:

    I should say that whiskey production in general has been around for hundreds of years. The knowledge is already out there. The secrets to producing a good whiskey are already known:

    1) quality ingredients
    2) clean, pure, water.
    3) Location.
    4) TIME!

    The time I have spent with whiskey does seem to indicate the difference between good and mind blowing is location and time. Taking Pappy Van Winkle’s technique into account. Put the whiskey in the barrel at low proof; aging very slowly by placing the barrels at the bottom levels of the warehouse; aging no less than 12 years. He’s even said that if at 15 years it doesn’t taste right, they let it sit 20 years, if that isn’t right they let it sit for 23 years. In a way, you have to make whiskey to taste rather than be slavish about “it has to be a certain exact date or it’s worthless.” Maker’s Mark states that they do this.

  22. Andy says:

    A major variable being left out (besides time) of the BT project is yeast. Four Roses is the prime example of this use of the yeast variable, and Jim Beam products are very distictive because of their use of an age-old wild yeast. I suspose the inclusion of “single oak” in the project name implies that yeast was not intended as a factor to find “the perfect bourbon.”

  23. Wade says:

    In my bunker, I have almost the complete BTAC collection, not just this year but every year. I love Buffalo Trace including their regular expressions and the BTAC. The BTEC – experimental collection, has been hit or miss and they now sell for $75 a pop which is just overpriced for 375ml bottle.

    The Single Oak project I hate and it sours me on the whole company. I have never tried and will never try. They want me to do their research and pay $75 for a half bottle of bourbon? If they want my, or other expert opinions, they should be sending us samples for free.

  24. Vinny Lynch says:

    Perhaps it’s because I’m an evolutionary biologist, but I tend to take a long view of things and build upon over a century of basic research to do my own work. Perhaps it is the case that some combination of variables produces the “best” bourbons, but you will not know until you break down individual components and see how they affect the taste and structure of the bourbon. Like in doing science, you have to first start simple before you can work up to more complex interactions.

    For this reason I think what BT is doing is fantastic, I like the idea of (maybe) knowing that fine grain wood contributes X while wood from high up the tree contributes Y to wheaters and Q when wheat is replaced by rye.

    Does that mean they will be successful? Probably not, taste is subjective and variable among us so there can be no such thing as “best”. The marketing of the Single Oak Project I find, quite frankly, stupid but the goal of breaking down what components contribute to bourdons taste I find commendable.

  25. Thanks for the comments all. Very good stuff!

  26. Matthew says:

    My point of view regarding BTSOP is informed by my background of design and research. I have a thing for prototypes and the process of prototyping.

    Two variables compromise our receipt of BT’s effort: price and availability. The real value of this experiment is in the aggregate. BT knows this and wants to collect data from us, the consumers, and try to locate something meaningful (if their is something there). Our problem is that we do not have the luxury of trying the range of expressions to appreciate the whole.

    One similar example is Mikkeller’s single hop series (MSHS). MSHS does not cover all the variables contributing a beer (or even all available strands of hops), it begins to challenge us how to be critical. Maybe (I hope) BTSOP is the first in many grand experiments (of different scale) that challenge us.

    While prototyping does not always yield a solution, it does point towards a direction. Maybe future experiments will be more accessible in price and scale.

    Cheers!

  27. Ethan Smith says:

    I felt the same way immediately after the project was unveiled. See mid-way down this page:

    http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/showthread.php?t=15702&page=2

    While I’m sure they will learn much from this experiment, they will NOT arrive at the “perfect bourbon.” Like said above, there are too many variable not tested in this experiment too. Again, I wish them luck with this project and I hope it does yield new and exciting products, but I think they should use the project more as just research instead of a quest for the perfect bourbon.

  28. Justin Victor says:

    Jason,

    I recently found your site when it was mentioned by Chuck Cowdery in his blog. I will now add your site to the whiskey resources I check regularly.

    The Buffalo Trace project is quite easy for me to ignore as NONE of the stuff ever makes it to my neck of the woods. (Tulsa, OK) And I am almost glad about that in a way. It is borderline abhorrent to me that BT is charging ULTRA premium prices for “beta” whiskey. I do applaud them for the efforts in experimentation. I do applaud them for making whiskey fans a part of it all. But the price to be included would “exclude me”. So i guess I will just read about it.

    You have a great site. I look foreword to catching up on your content.

    Justin

  29. TJ Taylor says:

    I am excited about this project. Research is critical and that’s what this is. The more information you have about the influence of variables the better the master distiller’s choices may be when trying to create or match a desirable flavor profile.

    Holy Grail of Bourbon? It’s in the mind of the beholder. Many of us may have already tasted it, for what that means to us individually . Or we may taste it in the future as a result of their meticulous research.

    Kudos to BT

  30. Bmac says:

    Seems I read a review where someone managed to acquire a full set (or maybe it was sent to them for review) and they rated each version. There was a wheated recipe that got a good score. I would have been on board for seeking that number out, until I learned that it’s a mere 350ml bottle for 80+ dollars. That is far in excess of aggressive pricing. So i echo many of the statements here that I like the idea, and I hope something wonderful fruits from it…but I just cannot take part :(.

  31. Keith W. says:

    Jason, first I would like to THANK YOU for a terrific site. This is my first comment, but not my first visit : )

    At any rate, I think what is really interesting about the project is the identification not of the “perfect” whiskey, but of themes, trends and patterns. For example, what if the “top cut” whiskeys are rated consistently higher than the “bottom cut?” I think these patterns COULD be very telling and lead to the next level of “testing” with a reduced set of variables. Or, it could simply lead to more product development in a certain area (using more “top cut” barrels or identifying that they add characteristics such as “sweetness” which would be valuable for more informed blending recipes.

    The challenge is turning a lot of raw data into actionable intelligence, and I applaud BT for taking a systematic approach to gathering that data. And what kind of research could possibly be more fun?

    Thanks again for a great site and best wishes for 2012!

  32. Ray O says:

    Buffalo Trace’s endeavor is somewhat comparable to the Pentagon’s pursuit of state-of-the-art weapons systems. They spend a lot of money and don’t always reach their goals, but they will learn something new along the way that will be useful for later projects. Buffalo Trace will not reach its goal of making the perfect bourbon because–as noted several times already–what’s perfection to one is not necessarily perfection to another. If Buffalo Trace learns anything that will improve on some of their fine bourbons, however, how can we bourbon drinkers be opposed?

  33. Andrew says:

    @Ray O — My main objection is the cost/product ratio. While we are probably all agreed that we would pay good money for known product out of BT, they have some good stuff, I have a hard time spending the kind of money they are asking for unknown product. Would rather they come out with a package of 7-8 50ml bottles at those price points which would allow us to sample each of the experiments without having to commit to the bigger bottle, the bigger price, for a single product to taste. If they truly wanted feedback selling packs of 50ml bottles would make better sense. I could give them feedback on 7 or 8 products instead of just one. Then, if I really liked one of the batch I could then go out and drop some serious coin.

  34. Ray O says:

    Andrew, I am with you on the 50 ml bottles. I saw a 350 ml bottle of Experimental at a local liquor store for $51. Per ml, that’s a lot more than the cost of Stagg, Van Winkle or William Larue Weller and we at least know the quality of those bourbons. Buffalo Trace, what about the idea of a set of 50 ml bottles?

  35. wood is good says:

    ^^^ the above comments—here here. Not only would it be a more attractive buy, BT would get more people to offer opinions. (Plus that’d hopefully mean more product in the stores so I could actually FIND one without having to resort overpaying on FeeBay.)

  36. Andrew says:

    This is perhaps nothing new. Remember seeing a post some time back about 50ml sample bottles of the BT Single Oak Project. Turns out it was John @ Whiskey Advocate talking about how he had a complete set. So, these exist at least in some form. Perhaps they were just for trade shows and reviewers. Would love to see them made available to the general customer.

    When I used to travel I would frequently try to find a local shop to pick up a small bottle (200ml to 375ml) or several small bottles (50ml) to have in the hotel room in the evenings instead of spending time at the bar or raiding the mini bar. Now that I come to think of it, I do not ever remember seeing a BT product in 50ml. Will be something I will have to keep in mind in my future travels.

    http://www.whatdoesjohnknow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Buffalo-Trace-Single-Oak-Project-1st-Release-Low-Res-23.jpg

  37. sam k says:

    Andrew, john is referring to the 50ml samples he bottled up himself and sent to two of his blog commentors. I was one of the lucky recipients.

    John received the set of 375ml bottles, the only way that BT bottles the project.

    BTW, I think they avoid the 50 ml bottles with limited releases such as these simply because of logistics involved.

  38. Andrew says:

    Thanks for clearing that up, sam k.

  39. TJ says:

    In contrast to some others I am extremely excited about BT experimental projects. This is raw, basic research. You never know what you will find. I never thought BT actually meant they would create the Perfect Bourbon from these experiments. What I know is, as their knowledge increases, the Master Distiller will be able to influence flavors more discriminately. This will lead to better Bourbon in the future.