Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 3

My prior post about the bottling of a Single Oak group buy was all you needed to know that a review of Single Oak Round 3 was coming soon.

Without rehashing history too much, the Single Oak Project is Buffalo Trace’s multi-year project to experiment with seven key variables to see how they affect the profile of a bourbon. At times it’s been called the quest for “the perfect bourbon” – a point that many have correctly noted will not be the end result of this project. I haven’t taken it too literally but have chosen to view this as an in-depth education on these things. However, there are some points to consider – we’ll discuss them later.

The seven variables that are being examined are, once again,

  • Warehouse (modern concrete vs. traditional wood)
  • Barrel char (#3 lighter char; #4 heavier char)
  • Grain tightness (tight, average, wide)
  • Entry proof (125, 105)
  • Recipe (wheat, rye)
  • Stave seasoning time (6 months, 12 months)
  • Stave location (top of tree, bottom of tree)

Round 3 one again carries through with the usual wheat and rye and grain coarseness variables. This time the other isolated variable is the entry proof – the proof that the spirit is at when it goes into barrels. All barrels in this round were bottom cut, concrete floor, #4 char, 6 month seasoned bottles. As always, the final product is bottled at 90 proof and is 8 years old.

As to the primary experiment of 125 vs 105 entry proof, results were inconclusive. I had a marked preference for the higher entry proof on the tight grained bourbons. I preferred the lower entry proof rye and wheat was a split on the average grain, and on the coarse grain it was split – preferring the higher proof rye and the lower proof wheat. If anything this may indicate a slight preference for higher proof ryes and lower proof wheaters, but there’s a lot of experiments left that will reinforce that or negate the assumption.

Wheaters were slightly my preference this time by average grade, though I thought the best barrel this time out was a rye recipe. Once again, the grain coarseness is also relatively inconclusive, though average grain fared the best overall this time. As more experiments are tried, perhaps some clear preferences may emerge. For now, though, it’s 36 bourbons into a 192 bourbon project – many, many more to go.

So what are the highlights?

Barrel 136: The best of round 3

I thought Barrel 136 was the best of Round 3. This was a 125-proof entry, coarse grained rye recipe. This had sweetness up front with peaches in the mix, gained heat on the palate and had lots of dimension, but then went surprisingly into tannic territory on the finish with black tea and red wine playing against the caramel and wood. It was complex and interesting.

Barrel 120: The best wheater

The best wheater in my opinion was Barrel 120 – a low-proof entry that is primarily a big, sweet bourbon that gets some balance and character from some black cherry notes which shine in the finish, balancing black cherry and maple syrup in a really nice combination.

Barrel 56: At least it looks nice

What ones should be avoided this time out? I thought Barrel 56 was a disorganized, incoherent mess. Drink enough of Barrel 56 and you probably will be too. Barrel 167 wasn’t bad, but again didn’t hold together coherently – sour, earthy, tannic, a little sweet, a little dry. I couldn’t put my finger on anything I distinctly didn’t like (again, nothing near as awful as Release 1′s barrels 3 & 4) but it was completely forgettable and disorganized.

Now, before going on to the full paste of tasting notes, a word about the project. As I was entering my reviews on the Single Oak Project website, I started to notice what I think might be a problem for the experiment’s dataset. Apparently in past reviews I’d been stingy with my scores on their site – I just don’t score whiskies the way they do and a 10-point scale is hard for me to reconcile on things like “color”. For me the score is the sum of its parts and saying something has a 9-point finish is hard to do since it’s part of the whole experience. Anyway, my scores seemed to come in consistently higher than previously – but I will say that I still think Release 2′s Barrel 61 is the best of the bunch. However, my scores on the Single Oak Project website doubtless put several ahead of 61 at this point.

Given that these are spaced out every quarter over 4 years, I’m not sure how accurate the final result will be, especially if people suffer grade inflation like I did this time around. That’s a long time to remain 100% consistent in your scoring of profiles for people who don’t do this for a living.

Overall, Release 3 was agreeable but didn’t have a lot of stand-outs. That’s good in the case of the standouts of Release 1 (mostly bad) but unfortunate compared to Release 2 which I thought was fairly strong. On average though, most of these were decent enough and at least worth a try.

Once again, Drinkhacker has a different take on things. That’s the only set of full notes I’ve found for Release 3.

And now, the tasting notes and ratings for this set of 12 whiskies.

Want to see all the scores so far? Check the Single Oak Scorecard.

Full Tasting Notes For Round Three

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 8, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Floral. Slight caramel. A little cinnamon, some orange, vanilla. Rather light on the nose. A bit of corn and general grain.
Palate: 
Mouth-coating and rich. Big push of caramel initially, followed by vanilla, cinnamon, light orange and a bit of black cherry. Starts a gentle warming. 
Finish: 
Strong, big black cherry note at first, heat not present on palate and finish is assertive. White pepper, a bit of marshmallow, light hay. Moderately woody. Nice and long-lasting. 
Comment: 
Really enjoyable finish. This one builds and builds. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 24, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Caramel and vanilla; maple syrup; thin and lightly solvent in nature. Medium wood. Slightly piney.
Palate: 
Slightly thin. Bitter wood initially, followed by black cherries and a bit of marshmallows. A light orange note, a touch of maple syrup. Gains heat; somewhat dogged by the bitterness though throughout.
Finish: 
Hot and dry. Bitter wood and a hint of vegetables (celery root; romaine), a fair amount of cherry, some black pepper. 
Comment:  This is kind of a strange mix of bitterness and heat. Doesn’t work for me. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 40, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Moderate corn sweetness and a gentle grainy aroma. Maple syrup, light caramel. Very faint white pepper. A bit of blackberry and pomegranate juice on the nose. 
Palate: 
Moderately light mouthfeel, sweet initially with corn notes and some faint maple syrup, a bit of caramel. Gently warming pepperiness. Very mellow. A bit of bitterness that takes a vegetable and greens character. Moderate wood. 
Finish: 
Pepper from the palate and some wood, with a little of the grain from the nose. Some cherry tartness. 
Comment: 
Uncomplicated but pretty enjoyable.
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 56, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly sharp and spirity. Moderate bananas and a bit of marzipan. Red wine. Light grains, faint marshmallow note. 
Palate: 
Thin. Mildly astringent yet oddly buttery. Somewhat woody. Szechuan pepper. Light maple syrup. Moderately warming. Black cherry undertone. 
Finish: 
Hot and initially dry. Maple syrup continues. Slightly medicinal. More straightforward pepper notes; black cherry. Dry in the mouth. Some dry wood. 
Comment: 
Interesting for the assemblage of flavors, but it doesn’t hang together coherently. It’s kind of all over the place. 
Rating:
C

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 72, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Woody, musty, with a slight pine note. Butterscotch and some caramel. Light vanilla. There’s a slightly roasted, nutty note – peanuts and cashews. 
Palate: 
Moderately thick. Slowly warming. Bitter wood. Some caramel notes. Light cherries. Very very faint dusting of pepper.
Finish: 
Caramel, light vanilla, medium wood. Some pepper. Rye spice with some floral notes. A bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: 
A bit harsh – kind of unpleasant. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 88, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly piney, with moderate wood. Maple syrup, black pepper. Some faint caramel. 
Palate:   
Initially slightly sour; with wood present. Some maple syrup. Sugary notes present as well. Extremely faint vanilla. Light caramel. Some black cherries.
Finish: 
Warming slightly. Wood carries through, a bit of the sweetness plays counterpoint to the wood. Pepper goes more in the white pepper direction. Vanilla and light marshmallow notes are present. A little black cherry and black tea.
Comment: 
It’s not bad. It’s a little hotter on the palate than I’d normally like but it’s pretty decent. The dark fruit notes are a touch too dark. 
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 104, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Caramel and grain, with some wood. A bit of yeasty, fresh-baked bread. A bit sharp on the nose.
Palate:  
Somewhat thick mouthfeel; pleasant grains, gentle caramel and light maple syrup sweetness. A dusting of powdered sugar and a hint of fresh doughnuts. Building heat; marshmallow and cherry notes show up. Medium wood
Finish: 
Black tea tannins initially. Sweet but with some heat. Heavier maple syrup, powdered sugar. Raspberry jam and a bit of wood.
Comment: 
Sweet with some interesting depth. Not bad at all. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 120, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Medium wood, caramel, fairly upfront pepper across the nose. Extremely faint black cherry; some dusty grain. 
Palate: 
Sweet caramel, maple syrup in abundance, vanilla and leaning toward marshmallow. Faintly earthy like clay; gentle warmth. 
Finish: 
Caramel and vanilla come through; black cherry starts to build on the finish and has maple syrup as a counterpoint. Nice, gentle grain. Pleasantly lasting. 
Comment: 
Lightly nuanced; primarily a big, sweet bourbon. The finish is really a nice counterpoint on this one, giving some more dark fruit tartness. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 136, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet on the nose – maple syrup; medium wood presence; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon; a faint touch of peach.
Palate: 
Warming but sweet – a slight dab of chili oil with caramel; rich mouthfeel. Plenty of vanilla and a faintly earthy touch. Light grains, rye, and becoming slightly dry with a hint of bitter wood. 
Finish: 
Warmth recedes beyond what’s left on the tongue – black tea tannins and a hint of red wine. Some light caramel, wood notes heavy as well as grain.
Comment: 
Some interesting heat and spice presence here. The nose hides a lot on this one; the palate has heat but not too much, and then the finish goes more tannic. Pretty interesting. 
Rating:
B+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 152, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Dry on the nose, with an even mix of pepper and wood.Fairly sharp; a bit of prickling. Very dry rye notes with a faint hint of black pepper. A touch of red wine as well.
Palate:  Caramel, sweet but with a slightly sour edge to it. Plenty of heat on the palate. A bit of maple syrup and cinnamon. A slight bit of black cherry that’s just a touch syrupy and sweet too.
Finish: 
Drying off again – rye, pepper, a hint of celery root. A bit of orange and cinnamon as well. Moderately long finish. 
Comment: 
Too dry on the nose and on the finish for me to really like this one much. Not bad; just personal taste. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 167, 45% ABV
Nose:
Somewhat dry. Cinnamon. some corn providing sweetness, caramel and a little toffee. A hint of vanilla. A bit of soft wheat grain. 
Palate:
Vanilla; caramel and some toffee. A bit of earthiness. A bit of orange underneath everything. Faint grain. Slight sourness.
Finish: 
Drying slightly, with some light grains evident. Vague sourness and some corn notes. A bit of black tea tannins. 
Comment: 
This one is a bit hard to pin down in terms of a distinct identity. It doesn’t really seem to have a coherent identity. It doesn’t taste bad but I’d never remember this one. 
Rating:
C

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 184, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet notes of caramel and maple syrup balanced by wood and white pepper. Some black cherry provides depth on the nose. Some lightly dusty notes and a bit of corn and some soft grain notes. 
Palate: 
Sweet initially, warm on the palate. Gentle heat. Light presence of black cherries; some caramel. Vanilla present but not a strong note. A bit of wheat, a bit of corn, and moderate wood that’s well integrated. 
Finish: 
Sweetness, with black cherries, white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some moderate wood and some light corn providing a bit of a sour note. The finish eventually goes just a touch more sour with wood and a light young vegetal note. Black cherries eventually emerge after that – a nice, long finish.
Comment: 
This has some good nuance and tastes like a younger Weller. The finish is just a touch off of where I’d like but this could age out into a great whiskey. 
Rating:
B

 

5 thoughts on “Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 3”

  1. Tim, interesting comment about score consistency among reviewers.  My thoughts?  I think that they aren’t going to use people’s scores at all.  They have master distillers there taking notes, and they’ll form their own opinions.  And since it’s their job and they know what they’re doing, they’ll probably get it right better than we would :-)  Just an opinion.

    1. Ryan, 

      It’s a point I gave some thought to this time around. Given that this stuff all had to be bottled in advance, seemingly (to keep everything at 8 years and having had consistent weather patterns, etc), it stands to reason that Buffalo Trace went through these and have their shortlist of likely candidates. 

      The bottle with the most reviews at SOP is Barrel 3 and it’s only got 46 reviews. It’s possible that more reviews will show up in the next few years for early bottles, but if the review count for a bottle is going to be less than, say, 75 – is that really something that Buffalo Trace wants to spend thousands and thousands of dollars launching a new bourbon on? It seems hard to believe that consumer participation will truly be the sole driver of the end product. For all I know though, they’re scouring blogs as well. (In that case, hi, guys). Even then, a handful of us idiots reviewing is even less of a reason to base a new bourbon on. I don’t know – very interesting. 

      However, the journey’s just begun. Who knows what’s in the remaining 150+ bottles. Maybe there is one that is really hands down a winner. 

      1. Tim, I don’t mean to be cynical about it – and I don’t think this should lessen your enjoyment of the experience in any way.  I would love to be able to get in there and try these out and experience all the differences for myself, it’s simply not practical unless you have a group of friends to split the cost, as you do (and I don’t).  

        My theory is that the distillers do this kind of research anyway, but BT simply came up with a way to subsidize the cost of doing extra research.  So, kudos to them I guess.  I imagine they will look at the results input by people, and maybe ask some questions if anything stands out different from their own opinions, but otherwise I guess they’re running their own show.  The cardinal rule of sampling to do research is randomization.  And the SOP is not at all a randomized test!

        1. Well, you know, I heard they’d planned to do clinical double-blind cohort studies to see how much people really enjoyed their bourbon over the course of a decade, but ruled it out because there wasn’t enough tornado-hittin’-warehouse marketability. ;) 

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