Some bourbon is better than other bourbon. That's a given. But what makes it so?
Buffalo Trace is on a mission to find out. The inspiration for the quest was the storm-weathering 2012 release, E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C "Tornado Surviving" Bourbon.
On April 2, 2006, a storm with tornado-strength winds damaged two Buffalo Trace warehouses. One was Warehouse C. The roof and brick wall of the multistory structure was torn away but the barrels survived.
Not only survived — they apparently thrived.
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When Buffalo Trace released the unique bourbon in December 2012, it was widely hailed as richer, more flavorful and just generally fabulous, with an aroma of dried fig and cloves.
Reviewer Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal dubbed it "utterly decadent and voluptuous."
A year later, if you can find a bottle, expect it to be $600 or so. And Buffalo Trace can't exactly make more.
Or can they?
Enter Warehouse X, their new experimental warehouse, the first new building on the 130-acre campus since 1952.
It's small, just one story, with four single-rick bays and another in an open breezeway.
The idea is to conduct a controlled experiment to see which single factor makes bourbon better.
"In the beginning we'll just experiment on the light," said Amy Preske, spokeswoman for the distillery, which is owned by Sazerac.
Sometime in the next two months, barrels will be filled and placed in the chambers — all from the same batch off the still, all subject to the same conditions except for the breezeway barrels.
The only variable will be the amount of light each chamber receives. Then they will taste it and see whether it made any difference.
And after five years or so, they might release the results for fans to try, as they have with their other running experiment, the Single Oak Project. That project uses barrels made from 96 oak trees made into two barrels each, then it plays with virtually every other possible variation, from the level of char to the recipe for the liquor inside.
Distilleries like to create special whiskeys, and they are popular with fans, who will pay more for something different, particularly if it is also rare.
Some experiment with yeast strains or the recipe for the mash bill, but Buffalo Trace takes the concept to extremes. In addition to the Single Oak trial, the distillery periodically releases small batches from its Experimental Collection, which uses barrels of totally different woods, or mash bills using unusual grains, or whatever wild idea somebody had a few years ago to try. By contrast, the Warehouse X plan seems simple.
After light, Buffalo Trace will test heat, air flow and humidity.
"That's 20 years of experiments right there," Preske said.
To the uninitiated, the whole thing might seem like a lot of effort, but bourbon makers have long acknowledged that much of the magic happens in the barrel, not in the still. In the barrel, the raw white whiskey mellows as it moves in and out of the charred wood with the changes in temperature.
The late Buffalo Trace master distiller Elmer T. Lee, one of the original makers of single-barrel bourbons, knew this.
"The warehousing — that's where it gets its character, from the wood and the aging process," Lee said in an interview this spring, one of his last. He died in July at age 93. "It's the same basic formula, but the aging process in the warehouse gives it flavor."
The scientific approach is a marked contrast to the way a lot of warehousing is done. Distilleries have varying systems — some use multi-story warehouses; others use one-story ones. Some rotate barrels; others never do. But they know some spots produce better, "honey" barrels. They just don't know exactly why, apparently.
"There really hasn't been any research done on what is the best way to warehouse," Preske said. "There's a lot on barrels, especially after Prohibition, on how to age it up faster."
So to sort out the variables of Warehouse C's success, Buffalo Trace has engineered a $1 million test warehouse, built of red brick, with skylights and separate HVAC units, for about 100 barrels.
"It's a lot of money for a little bitty warehouse and only somebody crazy like us would do that," Preske said. "But eventually we might find the perfect bourbon."
The mystery of the Tornado Bourbon might never been solved. One theory: that the best environment is not a warehouse at all, but an open field dotted with barrels. And armed guards, presumably.