Buffalo Trace is full of mystery bourbons; only a few make it into bottles

Buffalo Trace's attempts at making a better bourbon have yielded some worthy of being bottled under its  "Experimental Collection." Master distiller Harlen Wheatley, background, also had rejected some this summer.
Buffalo Trace's attempts at making a better bourbon have yielded some worthy of being bottled under its "Experimental Collection." Master distiller Harlen Wheatley, background, also had rejected some this summer. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — I have tasted the future and it has a kick to it.

Somewhere deep in a warehouse in Frankfort, an experimental bourbon is quietly coming of age. Right now, the mystery bourbon is a little brash, but in five more years, says Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley, it will knock your socks off.

"It's a new top-secret experiment," Wheatley said. He won't say what's in it but he's pretty sure it will make the cut to join Buffalo Trace's "Experimental Collection."

So far, Buffalo Trace has released 23 experiments, including one rum.

This year's successes include two bourbons aged in giant, 135-gallon French oak barrels, one for 19 years and one for 23 years.

But not every experiment is "bottle-worthy." Buffalo Trace, privately owned by New Orleans-based spirits maker Sazerac, took the unusual step in August of announcing that its efforts to produce an acceptable bourbon in small barrels were failures. The 5-, 10- and 15-gallon barrels have been maturing since 2006. Each year, Wheatley checked on the flavor. After six years, he decided to pull the plug, or in this case the bung.

"These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve," Wheatley said in announcing the findings. "The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn't what we would deem as meeting our quality standards. But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels. It's one experiment we are not likely to repeat."

In fact, there have been other failures, including a batch aged in a barrel made of the sourwood tree. "It turned out about like you'd expect," Wheatley said.

Wheatley continues to play around with just about every part of the recipe and the process, from start to finish.

To qualify as bourbon, the liquor must start aging in new oak. White oak is the only kind that will work, but that still leaves a wide range of woods, many of which Wheatley has tried. There is Mongolian oak that took a year and a half to get, still awaiting a verdict. There's also Bulgarian oak that had to be brought on horseback under armed guard.

The most expensive, Wheatley said, is bourbon aged in French white oak, at $700 a barrel, compared to $130 for American oak. But it's been hugely popular, so the distillery has re-created it and re-released it at least three times.

He's tried double-barrelling — aging bourbon for a while in one barrel and then switching to another. He's tried using used wine barrels for the second barrel. Zinfandel, chardonnay and cabernet franc all turned out good enough to sell.

Other distillers have done these things, too, he said.

"All the distillers try it. We take it to another extreme," Wheatley said. "That's all we do for fun."

But Wheatley is pretty much done with trying things at the barrel end; from here on out, he plans to focus on the creation side.

Altogether, there are about 1,500 attempts to build a better bourbon maturing at Buffalo Trace, with five to 10 new ones joining them every year.

How does the distillery decide what to try? The team has a database from which they distill a list of about 100 ideas. Every six months the team goes through them and prioritizes them. Then they run it through their microdistillery and see what happens.

Sometimes what comes out isn't very good. Occasionally, it is interesting enough to put in a barrel and give a few years to run.

"Bad won't get better in the barrel. We've tried that, too," Wheatley said.

New ideas come from everywhere: from employees, from the thousands of visitors to the distillery every year, from people Wheatley just sits down and talks bourbon with.

One came from a California bartender, Wheatley said. He never even got her name and won't say what her idea was. But look for it in a few years.

"That one will be released," he said. "It's a good one."

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