A couple weeks ago, hot on the heels of Round One of the Single Oak Project, I received the second shipment of twelve 375mL bottles. A few days later they were parceled out into samples and myself and the same group of people from Round One got our next fix.
Round Two isolates some different variables. Whereas Round 1 was examining top vs bottom cut for the barrel staves, with further variables in grain density and recipe, Round 2 examines barrel char. There are two barrel chars being tested: #3 and #4 – basically a shorter and a longer char. Round 2 again uses grain density and bourbon recipe as its other two variables.
However, this round is not directly comparable. Round 2 was aged in a different warehouse than Round 1 (concrete floors vs wood); had a different barrel entry proof (105 vs 125) and the barrel staves were seasoned longer (12 months vs 6 months). As a result it’s hard to draw a direct comparison to Round 1.
However, we can look at some of the things in common. I thought Barrel 3 from Round 1 was one of the worst of the batch (certainly it still is). Barrel 31 in Round 2 is the closest to it: #4 char, fine-grained, rye recipe, both are top cuts. However, where Barrel 3 was a C, 29 is a B. 29 was aged in a concrete floor warehouse vs. 3′s wood floor. The smart money is on two different variables though: 29′s lower entry proof (105 vs 125) and longer seasoning time (12 months vs 6). What’s the key difference? It’s hard to say, but hopefully in the coming years it will be revealed.
However, obsessing about comparisons in minute detail makes for a boring entry to write and read. With so much in play, it’s more helpful to look at broad trends.
I had a marked preference for rye recipe bourbons with rye recipes taking my top spots – though a wheater took the top spot this time. Last time it was more rye-heavy, so this will be an interesting one to track since recipe seems to be in play.
Grain played an uncertain role again: I found myself generally preferring the tight grained bourbons this time, regardless of recipe, but the coarse grain was not far behind. Average grain was the least favorite however. There seems to be no set logic as to the role grain will play in the final whiskey.
As far as char? I almost always preferred a #3 char to a #4 – there were a couple ties but this element was quite consistent throughout the release. The #4 chars were frequently sharp, piney, woody, and disagreeable to me. The #3s were much sweeter, smoother, and easy drinking. However, I found the flavors were less developed. As my friend Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats observed of Round 1, the bottom cuts had a more intense flavoring than the top cuts – so perhaps a bottom cut, #3 char would be the ticket?
As far as a quick summary of the barrels:
If you can only buy one: Barrel 61. In my opinion this is the best of the series so far, 24 variants in. It had an intensely fruity nose which was great, going as far as getting raspberry notes involved, as well as soft grains and smooth vanilla and caramel flavors. The palate was light but well-flavored with the fruit and berry notes in abundance, with some nice spicy flavors, some pleasant wood. I thought it was creamy and rich and sweet, but never cloying. The finish was again berries and vanilla, with light grain and maple syrup notes. In my opinion it could be turned up a bit more on the flavor intensity, but it was a solid B+ whiskey.
The best rye recipe: Barrel 29. This barrel suffered from the #3 char problem of underdeveloped flavors, but I found barrel 29 to be easy drinking and very thick and creamy. There was some good pepper and oak, as well as light fruits. It was, however, not exceptionally well balanced in my opinion.
Barrels to avoid: Nothing was as strongly objectionable as Round 1′s 3 & 4. 63 & 191 were my least favorite but neither was completely objectionable. 191 had a bitter and dusty note on the palate and finish that tends to wreck otherwise good whiskies for me anyway (Old Pulteney 12; Aberfeldy 12; more than a handful of Japanese whiskies I’ve had…). 63 was dry and peppery and generally tannic but did not have much going on for it as a whole.
Again, these are just my opinions. There seem to be less reviews this time around – I found a review at Drinkhacker for comparison, but neither John Hansell or David Driscoll have posted reviews.
For fun, after completing the tasting, I also tried my hand at “correcting” errors I perceived with my own vattings. I’ll put my mixing prowess on display here. The short version is, I’ve got a lot to learn – my mixes were uniformly worse than any single barrel on its own. This is a fun experiment to do and I will be doing from here on out.
My blends were all three bottles apiece, roughly an ounce total, and equal parts of each barrel in the final mix.
Barrels 61+127+191, 45% ABV “Tim’s Blend #1″
Nose: Initially sharp; maple syrup, some butter and toffee. Sweet with some graininess.
Palate: Medium-thick mouthfeel. Sweet and syrupy – maple syrup for sure. Some toffee, some corn, a little vanilla. Warm on the palate. Vague banana note.
Finish: The banana/juicyfruit note comes through. Somewhat bitter and woody.
Comment: It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite balance like I want. Still a little blandly sweet but with a sharpness that impairs drinkability. Decent enough try.
Barrels 29+157+189, 45% ABV “Tim’s Blend #2″
Nose: Faintly earthy, vanilla, toffee, sweet notes of fruit. Sweet and grainy as well.
Palate: Dry initially, spicy and with some heat. Oak, pepper, cinnamon, some maple syrup and sweetness. Faint tannins.
Finish: Warm, slightly spicy, tannic with notes of black tea and oak. Faintly earthy again, with more of a wet soil note. Dusty but also with a faint furniture polish kind of scent.
Comment: A better attempt than the other vatting, but a bit on the sharp side that doesn’t quite have balance to it. Again the sharpness overpowers the sweetness.
Barrels 31+95+159, 45% ABV “Random Chance”
Nose: Dry and peppery. Oak, some solvent. Very faint vanilla.
Palate: Slightly sour and sweet like white dog can be; faintly vegetal. After a moment, some toffee, vanilla and cherries. Faintly medicinal. Somewhat oaky.
Finish: Warm and sweet – actually a decent balance of oak, fruit, toffee, vanilla. Some cherries in there as usual. It’s not a bad finish!
Comment: Interesting experiment as good as any of my intentional ones, with a much better finish. Becomes pretty decent on the palate – shame about the nose.
Barrels 63+93+125, 45% ABV “The Leftovers”
Nose: Sharp and prickly, piney. Dry. Slight vanilla.
Palate: Thick mouthfeel, warming slightly. Slightly piney, vanilla, slightly buttery. Sharp and peppery, oaky. Faint cherries.
Finish: Warm and dry, with some cherries up front as well as vanilla and light toffee. Butter and caramel. Somewhat musty.
Comment: It’s a little too sharp for me to enjoy, a very dry and prickly nose. The palate picks up but the finish is the best. Unfortunately again, this is not a great vatting.
Clearly blending has a lot more to it – you can’t just take three things, mix them, and walk away with only the best of each. This magnifies everything – the flaws especially.
Want to see all the scores so far? Check the Single Oak Scorecard.
Full Tasting Notes for Round Two:
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 29, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Initially strong but settles down. Somewhat of a gentle mix of pepper and wood with light fruits (cherries, plums) in the background.) Slightly generic alcohol note in the middle next to a lightly butterscotch note.
Palate: Thicker and richer. Creamy. Not warm. Good oak influence, light heat from pepper. Buttery. Vanilla. Cherries. Slightly bland, the flavors are underdeveloped.
Finish: Warms slightly, gives a dry blast of pepper and oak. Some vanilla in there too. Lasts mediumish length. Early kick of black cherries, and almost – for a moment – a slightly menthol/medicinal note.
Comment: The flavor is underdeveloped and would be great if it was a little more in focus. That said, it’s easy drinking as can be and I’d probably keep some of this on hand. Thick mouthfeel!
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 31, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 16 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Stronger prickle with some pepper. Pronounced sweetness on the nose – primarily vanilla with some toffee on the back. There’s some butterscotch and general alcohol notes. Some wood to it but not overbearing.
Palate: Thick, creamy mouthfeel. Some pepper on the palate, plum and back cherry, slowly warming, sweet taste. Slightly bready at moments.
Finish: Warming for a moment, with black cherries and a slightly medicinal note. Somewhat dry, somewhat oaky.
Comment: This one is a little sharper and thinner but still enjoyable. Less easy to pull the notes out of than 29 but the flavors are more intense (just not there in abundance) Again, this is middle of the road but I’d buy it.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 61, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 19 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Fragrant and fruity. Berries in abundance, some raspberries even evident. Grainy and smooth; corn and wheat. Light pepper notes. Some wood, a little toffee and caramel. Vanilla.
Palate: Light on the palate. Gently spicy, wood, vanilla, black cherries, creamy and rich. Sweet but far from cloying.
Finish: Warming gently and settling down; the fruits and berries again hold strong with raspberries, plums, black cherries. Grain provides a light bed for it all with vanilla and maple syrup at the edges.
Comment: This is an easy drinker and insanely fruity. I’d buy a bottle of this. My ideal would be turned up a little more but this is really enjoyable.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 63, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Slightly dusty and grainy, with some spice and wood present. Faintly earthy. Dry.
Palate: Warm, coating mouthfeel, warming gently, some spice. Some grains, some dry wood, slightly dusty. Some black tea tannins.
Finish: Black tea, some spice and faint fruit notes. Faint clay, marshmallows.
Comment: Mediocre. It’s dry and peppery and probably will blend well with others but it’s nothing special on its own.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 93, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Dusty initially, grain on the nose with some oak and pepper as well. A solvent note on the nose as well. Some corn, some faint vegetal notes. Quite sharp. Very dry.
Palate: Moderately thick in the mouth. Light cinnamon, pepper, wood, toffee, caramel, vanilla. A trace of vanilla. Some fruits hanging out in the background. Sweet.
Finish: Vanilla, black cherries and a hint of plum, apples, some light oak. Drying. Somewhat weighty finish. Grains hang out the longest at the end.
Comment: The nose really has nothing to do with the palate. Quite strange. Interesting but not great palate, somewhat muted; decent enough finish.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 95, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Grain, with some corn. Somewhat closed off. Slightly buttery, some maple syrup. Oak and faintest vanilla.
Palate: Thin but gaining weight; syrupy; somewhat earthy. Very thick but somewhat bland. Maple syrup, some hints of black cherry. Slightly buttery. Oak, black tea. Increasingly tannic.
Finish: Very quick. Black tea. Some oak. Slightly bitter. Slightly warm and quite tannic. A slightly vegetal sourness.
Comment: The tannins are interesting but it’s not enough to hold this together. It’s quite bland on the palate but pleasant enough on the nose.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 125, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Slightly sharp, soft grains. Slightly sweet. Light hints of marshmallow. Slightly tannic.
Palate: Medium thick. Sweet but not overly so. Heavy maple syrup, light toffee. Faint cherries in the background. Some gentle grains.
Finish: Black tea, apples, gentle grains and light wood. A mild red wine quality as the finish holds.
Comment: Unremarkable. Easy drinking and gentle but nothing special.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 127, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 11 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Strong grain. Medium vanilla, light pepper, some oak. A hint of bubblegum.
Palate: Light, somewhat bitter. Some oak, extremely faint pepper, light bubblegum notes. Slightly bitter and sour.
Finish: Short, light, fleeting, tannic. The black tea note again.
Comment: Nothing much to get excited about. It’s somewhat dry and somewhat sweet but nothing really going on for it in the taste department.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 157, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 9 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Toffee and wood, butter, slight white pepper and oak, light fruit, a little cedar and a little pine. After a while some orange and vanilla develop.
Palate: Light on the palate, initially oaky but buttery; toffee and slight caramel, maple syrup, pepper, becoming slightly sweet and vanilla. Faint orange.
Finish: Drying, oak, black tea, some vanilla and light cherry notes. Light pepper and spice.
Comment: The finish is somewhat unremarkable but this is actually pretty decent. Enough spice to be interesting but not overbearing in any direction.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 159, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Oak and spice initially. Some grains evident but not strong. Mild sweetness – light vanilla, slight marshmallow. The oak gets slightly sharp and has elements of a pine scent. Powdered sugar.
Palate: Medium thick, slightly warm. Moderately tannic – wood strong on the palate, light nutmeg, slight maple syrup. Faint cherries. Black tea.
Finish: Warm and lingering. Some light cinnamon. Cherries. Black tea and rich wood.
Comment: It’s not bad but the flavors seem restrained.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 189, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Initially spicy, some toffee and butter, Lightly spicy. Some oak and very very light vanilla.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel, soft, smooth, juicyfruit gum, vanilla, drying a bit with more toffee. Vaguest hint of banana, peach.
Finish: Smooth finish, more juicyfruit,nice and sweet but not overly so. Vaguely banana and vanilla.
Comment: Not bad. It’s a little restrained and doesn’t quite develop into anything but it’s a different and welcome take on a sweeter bourbon profile, getting some fruit for that. Usually those notes are kind of thick and overpowering but they just add here.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 191, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 7 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor
Nose: Sweet spice, cherries, oak. Light toffee underneath it as a bed along with soft grains. Slight cinnamon and nutmeg. Some grain on the nose after a while.
Palate: Moderate mouthfeel, slightly bitter, warm with pepper and oak, faint sweetness – a trace of maple syrup. Wheat is quite clear after a while on the initial palate. Some cherry as well.
Finish: Warm, slightly musty and dusty. A little earthy. Some apple and cherry faintly present; wood as well.
Comment: A little strong and harsh, the bitterness and dustiness kind of knock this one out of the enjoyability for me.