Tasting Through the Buffalo Trace Experimental Series

Courtesy Buffalo Trace
Courtesy Buffalo Trace

Does anyone remember Kenny Rogers Roasters rotisserie chicken? Their cunning tagline was, “It’s the wood that makes it good.”

This the basic concept behind Buffalo Trace’s experimental Bourbon series known as the Single Oak Project, for which they aged Bourbon in barrels built entirely from wood from a single part of the tree, using a different location of the tree to age each whiskey. Having done this for a few years now, with much appreciation from Bourbon geeks aficionados, they’ve learned that the wood really does play a huge role in making it good. Or, in some cases, perhaps not as good as others. Yet there were still some questions left unanswered, apparently. So in this 12th round of the series, Buffalo Trace decided to use barrels built only from either the top or bottom halves of the tree. All the whiskeys were treated with the same Char level, warehouse type, stave and entry proof.

Another experimental series has also just been released, this one with Rye. Four different Ryes were given the same length of aging time -11 years, 9 months to be exact- but had different proofs upon entry. Says Buffalo Trace, “A key learning… was that entry proof does affect Bourbon flavor, and it does affect evaporation rates.  Also, different barrel entry proofs will produce varying flavor elements.”

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project 1st Release Hi Res
Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project 1st Release Hi Res

Even though we know these basic whiskey truths to be self evident, I still had to find out for myself.

I tried twelve of the Single Oak Project Bourbon samples as well as all four Experimental Proof Ryes with fellow whisk(e)y nerds enthusiasts Keith Allison and Ellie Tam, of NYC Whisky and Whiskey Roundtable.

One of the reasons I chose these two to taste along with me is they are fun people to drink with I have known them to have diverging tastes from mine, and in the spirit of the experiments themselves, I figured we would all have different opinions on the whiskeys and varied review of each one. What surprised me is we were all pretty much on the same page about nearly all of them.

First up, the Single Oak Project

We had four clear favorites. Not that the others were bad, per se, but they weren't as interesting in character. What was fascinating is all twelve truly did run the gamut in the Bourbon flavor wheel - berries, citrus, apples, raisins, nuts, grains, waxiness, chocolate, malt, caramel, spices and coffee, all quite different from the other.

Note, the # refers to the barrel #:

  • #47 had a surprising tropical fruitiness on the nose, and was very rich and nutty, with a bitter-in-a-good-way finish that reminded me of walnuts. But the reason we all liked it was the slight muskiness detected throughout. As Ellie said, it made her think of what Matthew McConaughey must smell like. Yep, this one got a resounding “alright, alright, alright!”
  • #111 had that pleasant cherry cough syrup thing that some Bourbons tend to give off. The finish was sweet and slightly hot. A classic. As Keith pointed out and we all agreed, sometimes the best Bourbons don’t taste like anything other than plain old good Bourbon, and this was a fine example of that.
  • #15 smelled of freshly cut wood but not a whole lot else, but then had some weight to it on the palate. A bit cereal-ly, with some citrus peel, spice and milk chocolate malt. The nose was so light that it was an unexpected surprise when the flavors were so intricate on the tongue. I’ve personally never tasted a Bourbon quite like this one.
  • #16 to me initially resembled a Campbeltown Scotch more than it did a Bourbon. I caught a whiff of smoke on the nose, as well as something sweet and floral, like heather. The only thing that gave it away as a Bourbon was a telltale sweet corn caramel finish at the end.
  • Honorable mention - #144, which tasted uniquely of caramel, berries, citrus peel and coffee.
Rye Mash Entry Proof Family
Rye Mash Entry Proof Family

The Entry Proof Ryes - note that in this case # refers to the entry proof of each whiskey when it lay down for its nap:

  • #90 had that classic Rye pie spice with a bit of a banana finish. Very smooth on the palate, pleasant burn at the end. We all agreed this was something we could keep drinking.
  • #105 had more fruitiness, but was much hotter and spicier. The finish was all red hot candies.
  • #125 was somehow the softest of the bunch, despite having been the strongest upon entry. We kept tasting maple syrup, pears and sweet spices. Maybe at this point we were just craving pie.
  • #115 was a combination of all that came before, but as Keith pointed out, very varnishy on the finish, which distracted from anything else. For us, this was the weakest of the four.

It was a privilege to have the opportunity to taste through this series, even if I didn't fall croze over bilge over every single one. These whiskeys are highly subjective and created for the love of whiskey, to learn from them, hence the term "experimental." Hey, if Buffalo Trace wants me be their guinea pig again, I am more than happy to oblige.