Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., is known for experimenting with methods of making and aging bourbon. They even have their own million-dollar mad scientist lab, known as Warehouse X, where a lot of these odd studies take place. Currently, they have more than 5,000 barrels of bourbon stamped as “experimental,” and only master distiller Harlan Wheatley knows their secrets.
Wheatley is releasing one of these secrets later this month as part of his “Experimental Collection” line of bourbons. Of course he would never tinker with the distillery’s flagship brands like Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, W.L. Weller, Pappy, Eagle Rare or Elmer T. Lee — but what can it hurt to change up a few processes and learn how they affect the final product? That’s the thought behind his recent experiment using infrared light waves on new oak barrels.
The goal was to discern if new and different flavors could be drawn out of the oak, so back in 2009, eight barrels were subjected to two different levels of infrared light waves before being charred. And this is where we get technical and nerdy. Working with Independent Stave Company, Buffalo Trace subjected four of the barrels to 15 minutes of short- and medium-wave frequency at a 70 percent power. The other four were subjected to 30 minutes of short- and medium-wave frequency at a 60 percent power.
After being essentially microwaved, all the barrels were given the standard 15-second char and filled with Buffalo Trace Mash No. 1 (aka white dog). Fast-forward six and a half years, and now it is time to unwrap the bandages, so to speak, and taste the beast inside.
According to the press release (we’re still hoping for samples), the bourbon expressed more distinct notes of wood, caramel, vanilla and spice than a typical barrel at this age, and the short-wave infrared light seemed to affect the inner layers of the barrel, while the medium-wave light altered the surface layer.
The 15-minute barrels exhibited a sweeter taste profile — with a floral nose followed by sweet caramel and dry raisin flavors. Meanwhile, the 30-minute ones came off more oak-forward and spicy — think dried fruit and cracked black pepper.
If you’re just as curious as we are with how these will taste, each experiment is being packaged in 375ml bottles and will be available later this month at select retail outlets (we hear it might be the usual suspects — Liquor Barn, Party Mart, Westport Whiskey & Wine, etc.). All of the bourbons were bottled at 90 proof and will retail for $46.35. The detailed label will inform you which bottle is which experiment. (I’m thinking the 15-minute guy is the one for me.)
And since we’re talking about Buffalo Trace, they’re also celebrating a fascinating milestone they reached last week: On Oaks Day alone (May 6), the distillery clocked 2,273 visitors to its grounds, setting a new record for the 243-year-old distillery. They hosted the fourth annual Oaks Day Festival that day and had the insight to film the comings and goings. Take a look at the two-minute video below, which they’re dubbing “The fastest two minutes in bourbon tourism.”