Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Buffalo Trace, Single Oak Project, Barrel #63

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, single barrel, 45%, $47

They do a lot of experimenting at Buffalo Trace. So much so that they installed a separate micro-distillery about six years ago and recently built warehouse X, which allows them to vary environmental factors during the aging process. They’ve been releasing the results of some of their test runs under the Experimental Collection label since 2006, with many of those bottlings having origins dating back to the mid 1990’s. But their boldest such undertaking began in 1999, when they started the Single Oak Project.

This is a series of 192 single barrel bourbon bottlings which are differentiated by seven variables. Six of the variables have two options each, and the seventh has three, giving 192 possible combinations. First, 96 White Oak trees were selected from the Missouri Ozarks. The selected trees were categorized by their grain structure and split into three groups; 1/3 of them having course grain, 1/3 of them having average grain and 1/3 of them having tight grain. Next, each tree was cut in half, giving a top and a bottom. As these tree sections were milled into staves, they were tagged and tracked so that each barrel could be made entirely from an individual tree section.

With the first two variables down, they had six groups of 32 barrels to which they could apply the other five variables. First, the staves were air seasoned for either 6 months or 12 months. Then the barrels were given either a #3 char or a #4 char. They were then filled with either rye recipe bourbon or wheated bourbon, with a barrel entry proof of either 105 or 125. Finally, they were either aged in Warehouse K (with wooden floors) or Warehouse L (with concrete floors).

The significance of some of these factors is less obvious than others. Apparently a tree’s chemistry varies along its height. The lower half has a higher concentration of lignins and the top half has a higher concentration of tannins. This is a really interesting variable because it is not normally an option offered by the cooperages that supply the barrels, whereas char level, grain structure and stave seasoning time are. As for warehouse style, both K and L are constructed with brick walls. But the wooden floors of warehouse K allow for more airflow, resulting in bigger temperature differences through its nine floors and from season to season. Conversely, the concrete floors of warehouse L act to moderate the temperatures, keeping them more consistent through its five floors and from season to season.

Once filled, the barrels were all aged for 8 years, then they were bottled at 90 proof. They are offered only in the 375ml format, with a suggested retail price of $47. Rather than putting them all out at once, Buffalo Trace is releasing them over the course of four years, 12 barrels at a time, every three months. Those releases started in the spring of 2011 and now just two remain to be seen, with the last one scheduled for winter 2015.

The whole purpose of this endeavor is feedback. While samples of every bottling have been sent to a select number of whiskey journalists (Drinkhacker and Scotch & Ice Cream consistently review each release), they are primarily relying on reviews posted by consumers to the Single Oak Project website.

There does seem to be a segment of the bourbon community that loves to hate Buffalo Trace, which I believe to be a vocal minority. While I’m certainly not part of that group, I do have some criticisms of this project. Don’t get me wrong though; I love the concept of this grand experiment, I just have some issues with manner in which it was implemented.

First is the conveyance of information, which is somewhat haphazard. I recently had a similar complaint about the E.H. Taylor Jr. collection. I understand that they are looking for unbiased reviews of these bottlings, so it makes sense that you are only able to access the “DNA” profile for a barrel number after you complete a review of it. At the same time it is a little annoying that I can’t view any of the information about the other barrels when I have no intention of buying more Single Oak Project bottles.

Also, the info put out on the website and in press releases isn’t as thorough as it ought to be. I had to do quite a bit of digging to find blogs with official statements describing the difference between the two warehouses and the top and bottom halves of the trees. Some sources report the grain structure for each barrel as tight, average or course, and others simply list the number of rings per inch. It took me quite a while to determine that they were calling 11 to 14 rings/inch average, 10 or less course and 15 or more tight. As far as I can tell the range goes from 7 to 21 rings per inch.

It looks like all of the barrels from warehouse K were on its seventh floor, and all of the barrels from warehouse L were on its third floor, but that information was not clearly stated on the website, as it should have been. There are also a few additional variables that are being tracked, but they are not discussed anywhere. The barrels are listed as coming from trees harvested from location A or location B, but no further information is provided. Also, the number of staves in each barrel is listed, and as far as I can tell they range from 30 to 65, but this is another topic that is not expanded upon.

The other issue I have is format and price. There was a lot of buzz when the series was first announced, but that has faded quite a bit over the last three years. It’s an experiment; there are some great barrels and some duds, but most of them are just reasonably good. Of course, reviews vary; everyone has their personal preferences. That being said, I think a lot of consumers are wary of taking a gamble of a ½ bottle at nearly $50, especially when it will most likely be no better than “good”. Even if someone was enthusiastic enough about this series and gave it their full backing, I can’t imagine anyone spending nearly $10,000 to try every bottle.

The bottle that I have was from the second release, so it’s been out for about three years. Admittedly, I’m a little late to the game, but I would think all of the reviews for this barrel should be in by now. I only count 37 of them for barrel number 63. Assuming a yield of 400 bottles (375ml) from a barrel, that’s a participation rate of about 10%. I think they would have been much better off with 200ml bottles at $20 apiece. Or they could have split each barrel into 375ml bottles and 100ml bottles. With the larger bottles priced at $40 and the smaller bottles packaged in groups of 6 for $60 to $65, I think they would have gotten a much better response and a lot more feedback.

As for the reviews, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the folks at Buffalo Trace to come up with a universal format that most people would be comfortable using. They had six categories with multiple choice selections and each was followed by a 1 – 10 rating choice. Most professional reviews (Whisky Advocate, etc) use a 100 point scale, but only 40 points or so are actually used – the worst of the worst never really score below 60. I tried to give scores (something I don’t usually do in general) that considered the full range of the scale. Whether or not others did that could be a bit of a flaw in the system. I also found some oddities in the questions. Color is something I observe and am aware of, but I’ve never considered assigning a quality rating to it. “Dry” and “thin” were options for mouthfeel, but I usually associate those terms with flavor (or lack thereof). The “overall” category presented an odd mix of flavors and sensations as options, it took me a while to wrap my head around that one.

As for the bottle that I have, I’ll list its “DNA” first, followed by the review I provided to the Single Oak Project website (underscored words were additional to the multiple choice options), and finally an overall assessment.

Barrel #63:

Age – 8 years
Entry proof – 105
Recipe – wheated
Barrel char - #4
Stave curing time – 12 months
Tree section – top half
Grain structure – tight, 17 rings/inch
Number of staves – 42
Harvest Location – A
Warehouse location – L / 3 / 27 (warehouse / floor / rick)

Color – Copper
Color rating – 7
Aromas – Butter, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Bread
Aroma rating – 7
Mouthfeel – Creamy, Hot
Mouthfeel rating – 6
Flavors – Caramel, Cinnamon, Leather, Mint, Nutmeg, Molasses
Flavor rating – 8
Finish – Dry, Earthy, Spicy, Long, Hot, Astringent
Finish rating – 7
Overall – Chewy, Dry, Complex, Spicy, Tannic
Overall rating – 7

Full bodied. Starts off a little thin (flavor-wise) up front, but picks up quickly. Good complexity but not all that well integrated. It goes back and forth between its pros and cons (big and spicy vs. astringent and acidic) as it moves from the mid-palate through the finish.

This project is already an ambitious undertaking. I realize that adding one more variable would double the size of it, but I think they could have learned so much more if age was a factor as well. It’s generally accepted that some warehouse locations are better for long term aging, while others produce better quality young whiskey. But what about factors like barrel char level, entry proof and grain structure? Can those be varied to suit whiskey that is destined to be bottled at a particular age? If they had doubled up and made two barrels from each tree section, they could have aged them out to 6 years and 10 years. That would have made this the ultimate bourbon experiment in my opinion.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

E.H.Taylor, Jr. Collection: Straight Rye, Small Batch, Single Barrel and Barrel Proof

While spending some quality time at one of my local watering holes, I noticed that they had four of the six bottlings from the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lurking on the upper shelf. That inspired me to finally crack open my Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bottle a few weeks ago. Now I’m catching up with the rest off the collection, except for the sold-out Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling.

This seems like a good opportunity to look at the background of the man that the collection was named for. Chuck Cowdery has gone as far as to call Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. the most significant individual in the history of American Whiskey.

Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. was born in 1830 in Columbus, Kentucky. He was orphaned early on, and lived with a variety of relatives until he was adopted by a wealthy uncle for whom he had been named (the “Junior” suffix was added at that point to avoid confusion).

At the age of 19, Taylor began a banking career, going to work for his adoptive uncle. By 1860, that position had led to his involvement in the financial side of the whiskey industry. He started or operated no less than seven distilleries during his lifetime; O.F.C. (now Buffalo Trace), Pepper/Crow and Old Taylor among them.

His main role in the industry was that of a financier, and he was a key figure in the transformation of American whiskey into a large, commercial business. Taylor helped modernize many of the distilleries he was associated with. Steam heated warehouses and a more efficient sour mash method are just a few of the innovations he has been credited with.

By the time he was 50, Taylor had transitioned out of banking and become fully immersed in the whiskey business. But by his early 40’s he had also begun to dabble in politics. After serving as the mayor of Frankfort, Kentucky for 16 years, he was elected to the state legislature.

Politically, he became an advocate for whiskey, working tirelessly to pass laws that would assure the purity of the product and protect consumers from fraud and deception. Taylor was a proponent of increased trademark protections, but his crowning legislative achievements were the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection:

Rye: Straight Kentucky Rye, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $70
nose – big and bold, but not sharp or hot. rye spice and clay-like earthiness.
palate – good depth, with vanilla and caramel up front. it starts off fairly dry and becomes even more so as it moves into the finish.
finish – nice evolution of spice notes (cinnamon red hots, spearmint and peppermint) balanced by just enough heat.
overall – full flavored and weighty, but still well composed and approachable.

Small Batch: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $40
nose – the most youthful and spirity of the bunch. caramel, mint and Play-Doh all come through aromatically.
palate – there’s a bit of clay mixed with dry oak. I’m also picking up a mild rye floral/spice note that is reminiscent of Old Overholt.
finish – It evolves a bit, developing some dry spice notes as it moves into the finish, but it is still fairly one-dimensional at any given time.
overall – there’s nothing terribly wrong and it has no obvious flaws, but it maintains a theme of slight immaturity throughout.

Single Barrel: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, Bottled in Bond, 50%, $60
nose – sweetness and soot come through as the primary notes
palate – candy corn and caramel, with some pleasant oak notes
finish – the barrel char comes to the fore as it moves into the finish, providing an interesting interplay with the sweetness, though they do seem to butt heads a bit. Good length as it slowly fades out.
overall – pretty good overall, but it goes a little out of balance (perhaps too acidic) at times through the finish.

Barrel Proof: Straight Kentucky Bourbon, unfiltered, 67.7%, $70
nose – the aromas are dense but subtle; surprising considering the high proof. dark chocolate, sweet corn, a bit of oak and very subtle spice notes.
palate – viscous, very well balanced, a hint of sweetness up front followed by dry oaky notes as it moves into the finish
finish – some warming spice notes rise up first, then it gets a little hot and fiery later in the finish, but in kind of a good way.
overall – an interesting transition from being somewhat mild mannered up front to getting a little surly on the back end.

My overall impression of the five bottlings that I tasted is that the Rye is the best of the group, with the Barrel Proof not far behind. The Small Batch and the Single Barrel are respectable, but they both have some characteristics that keep me from loving them. The Tornado Surviving is the iconoclast of the bunch, but I think it has the most potential to improve given some time to breath.

When you read what others have to say about these whiskeys as a group, the general consensus is that they are overvalued. Being priced (for the most part) in the same range as Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, many people feel that the quality level is not up to the standard set by that iconic range.

While some commenters get very passionate about the subject, I tend to have a more pragmatic outlook. In my opinion, the prices will stand at the level that the market is willing to bear. I think that Pappy Van Winkle bottlings are too expensive and would probably pass them up even if I came across them at suggested retail prices. But, obviously many people are willing to pay quite a premium for them, sustaining the elevated markups.

My criticism of the E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection lies more with the inconsistent manner in which Buffalo Trace has conveyed technical information about these whiskeys. Looking at the Buffalo Trace website, one finds a random hodgepodge of information about the whiskeys in the collection. A little more searching will get you their press releases where more detailed information can be had, but some of that seems to contradict the website and at least one fact from a press release is known to be wrong. And then there are journalists who have managed to extract more technical detail from the company than was originally made available. I’ll do my best to sort it out here.

As for age, none of the bottlings carry an age statement, but Buffalo Trace has announced their ages, mostly through press releases. The Small Batch and Barrel Proof are both aged 7 years. The Sour Mash and Rye are both at 9 years. The Single Barrel is 11 years, 7 months old, and the Tornado Surviving ranges from 9 years, 8 months to 11 years, 11 months. The press release for the Tornado Surviving says all 93 barrels were dumped together. It has been confirmed that this information is incorrect. One of the Bottled-in-Bond requirements is that all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from a single distilling season, and that would not have been the case if all 93 barrels were dumped together. They say it was actually dumped in two batches. I’ve heard that one batch is much better than the other, but there isn’t really a way to tell which batch a bottle is from.

As for warehouse location, most of the bottlings appear to have come from Warehouse C, which is appropriate as it was constructed under Taylor’s ownership. There’s no question about the location of the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving barrels (floors 5 and 6), but I could find no information about the warehouse location of the Old Fashioned Sour Mash bottling. The Rye comes from Warehouse C, floor 1. The Single Barrel also comes from Warehouse C, but no floor is specified. In press releases, the Small Batch and Single Barrel are both touted as having been aged on floor 6 of Warehouse C. But on the website it says those two come from “warehouses” constructed over a century ago by Taylor. That leaves open the possibility that some of the barrels came from Warehouse B, which Taylor also constructed, and seems to contradict the press releases.

With the Old Fashioned Sour Mash, they mention reviving a sour mash method used in Taylor’s time, but no details of the method are given. Chuck Cowdery did some investigating and found that the modern way of souring the mash (which lowers its pH to create a more favorable environment for the yeast) is to add spent liquid from the still into the next batch of fresh mash. Using the older method, that mash was transferred from the cooker to a holding vessel where it was allowed to rest for several days. During that time the pH lowered naturally. Once it was at the right level, that mash was transferred on to the fermenters.

The last bits of interesting information pertain to the mash bills used. Buffalo Trace is kind of secret about their recipes, but we do know that they make a wheated bourbon and two different rye bourbons. I’ve seen a few different estimates of the recipes and while no one knows for sure, Mash Bill #1 is probably 8-10% rye, and Mash Bill #2 is probably 12-15% rye. The press release for the Tornado Surviving states that it is made with Mash Bill #1, and there’s a pretty good consensus that the rest of the bourbons in the collection are from the same mash bill.

The mash bill for the Straight Rye is stated (on the web site and in the press release) as being composed of only rye and malted barley, but not corn. That was true of the eastern ryes made primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania before distilling died out in that region during the decades following Prohibition. As the few remaining rye whiskey brands shifted production to distilleries in Kentucky, their mash bills changed, incorporating corn, and having their rye content drop much closer to the minimum required 51%.

Corn-free ryes originating in distilleries in Indiana and Canada have become pretty common over the last decade. They were originally intended to be used as flavoring components in blended whiskeys, but have made their way to many of the non-distiller producers. The Taylor Straight Rye is the only non-corn rye from Kentucky that I know of. It’s the result of an experiment from around 2003, but they have continued to make some every year so the E.H. Taylor Rye will be an annual release. Unfortunately, they don’t give any indications of the ratio of rye to malted barley in this whiskey.

I like the concept of this collection, but I think Buffalo Trace has missed a great opportunity here. They’re not being deceptive, but they could have been so much more transparent with all of the technical information about these whiskeys and presented it in a much more organized manner.

Imagine if all of the bottles carried age statements, the different batches of Tornado Surviving were identified on the label, and the Single Barrel bottles had their barrels numbers listed on the label. Additionally, they could have consistently identified warehouse locations, given at least general proportions of the mash bills used, and provided a basic explanation of the old fashioned sour mash method.

If they had done that and put all of the information in one place, clearly presented and easily accessible, it would have been a much greater tribute to the legacy of Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. and garnered a lot more respect from the consumers who are most likely to purchase these offerings.