It’s been about three months since the last visit to Single Oak territory, so it’s time to look at the the latest round of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. At this point, 48 barrels have been released, leaving 144 barrels to be opened over the next three years.
Round four focuses on three variables. As usual, wheat and rye recipes are being tested. Also as usual, there are three grain patterns – tight, average and coarse. The new variable this time is wood vs concrete warehouse floors. At first glance, that sounds like a ridiculous variable, but that essentially means modern warehouses versus traditional warehouses, which have different temperature characteristics – which means different interactions with the wood (presumably).
Right off the top, I will say that release four, to my taste, proved to be not only the best overall so far, but the most consistent. There was only one C-grade whisky and it was a C+. Everything else was B-range. That’s quite a respectable showing and it’s come a long way from the first release, which had some harsh and unbalanced whiskeys.
This is the first showing where I had anything resembling a clear preference on grain tightness – the tightest grain patterns scored slightly higher on average than the average and coarse grains. Coarse was second in line. Looking back on previous releases, a slight distaste for average grain tightness is starting to show up. The highest rated bottles to date have also been tight grain bottles.
On the whole, a slight preference for wheaters this round; again, the highest rated bottle was a rye recipe which seems to be the case lately. Finally, as to the main experiment of wood versus concrete, there was a slight preference for wood warehouses – but due to the overall consistency of this round it’s not a major difference.
So let’s get into specifics, as always.
My personal favorite for Round 4 was Barrel 14: a tight-grained rye recipe from a concrete floor (again, the exceptional case). Barrel 14 executes a nice sweet palate with a big, rich mouthfeel – maple syrup, caramel, toffee, oak; cinnamon and powdered sugar on the palate. However, it had a little more to give – the nose had some black cherries and cinnamon and spicy rye in addition to maple, wood, and corn sweetness as well as some caramel. The finish was nice, warm, big and full, sweet but with a faint astringency to balance it. Oranges, caramel and a little maple dominated.
Barrel 14 has the kind of complexity I find lacking in a lot of sweeter bourbons, which made it enjoyable. I generally find syrupy and sweet bourbons a little hard to love because they tend to have a simplified palate and not a lot of nuance. I can enjoy when they’re done well but it’s not a profile that really blows me away. In fact, that profile dominates Round 4, I think owing to the #3 char used throughout. (All bottles in Round 4 also had 12 month stave seasoning, 125 entry proof and were bottom cuts).
The best wheater?
For me this had to be Barrel 174, which edged out 42 by a nose. Barrel 174 has a nice maple syrup nose with some woody balanced astringency. There’s a hint of apple cider, but the whole thing gets a little more creamy with some cherries in the mix after a while. The palate similarly gets a little more dense; it’s got light cinnamon, caramel and toffee, as well as maple syrup, powdered sugar and a bit of a bready quality. However, it picks up on the finish – it starts with cinnamon and drying wood, but it gets a nice tannic kick with some red wine influence, and a bit of dark chocolate. Let 174 breathe for a couple minutes; it helps the nose and the tannins in the finish become a little more developed.
As usual, the other question worth asking: are there any to avoid?
Well, for the first time I don’t think there’s anything that’s really awful. My least favorite was Barrel 74 (Rye recipe, average grain, wood floor) – it had a nice peppery quality to it, with plenty of heat and dark fruit notes. However, it seemed kind of closed off and underdeveloped. It just didn’t come together coherently for me. It wasn’t bad, per se, it just was the one weak link in a remarkably consistent Round 4.
25% Done: What Do The Bourbons Tell Us?
As I noted earlier, some basic trends in my scoring are starting to emerge. I see a clear preference for longer seasoning times; the highest a 6 month seasoning has rated is B-. If this is the case, there will be some unpleasant rounds ahead as there are a lot of 6 month seasonings to get through. I’m seeing that I have a slight distaste for average grain tightness recipes. By strict grades, rye recipes have scored higher but not by much. Bottom cuts still rate higher; entry proof still looks inconclusive. Wood versus concrete on a macro level still seems to be inconclusive as well.
Thoughts On The Project Itself
A year in, Single Oak seems to be a divisive project. Our tasting group lost a participant with Round 4, and it was surprisingly difficult to find a replacement despite knowing a lot of bourbon fans. Some expressed distaste for the idea that they were “paying to do Buffalo Trace’s research”. Others derided the project as a gimmick. It’s possible on both counts.
First, regarding the “gimmick” angle – certainly, 192 bourbons released in flights of 12 every three months for four years with minute variations is a gimmick. It absolutely is. You’d be nuts to claim otherwise. However, I would argue that the majority of bourbon producers have some sort of gimmick to drive sales – be it recipes unchanged for decades; filtration processes for smoothness; new and improved recipes; Stitzel-Weller distillate (how many times is something “…maybe the last chance you’ll ever have to drink anything from Stitzel-Weller”); finished in something exotic; released at a new proof for either uncut glory or smooth, easy drinking; and so on. I think we choose our gimmicks based on our interests and tastes and go with them. I happen to enjoy trying new things on a more or less constant basis, so BTSO scratches an itch.
Regarding “paying to do Buffalo Trace’s research” – I remain unconvinced that the deck might not be slightly stacked and that there’s very little original research being done. I’ve long since abandoned the idea that this project will result in one clear-cut, almighty A-grade whiskey that is universally beloved. It just isn’t realistic. Where I like spicy, dark, fruity whiskies with a floral kick, some will love the caramel, sweet and syrupy flavors you see from releases like Round 4. I think it’s likely a few broad trends will be seen and perhaps the project will result in not one release, but a couple whiskeys that stand as examples of a particular style. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t anticipated. I also am sure my scoring on the Single Oak Project website has become wildly inconsistent.
I think the worst case of this is that a B-to-B-minus grade whiskey that has kind of been focus-grouped will be the result. If this gets a B+ I’ll be happy; an A- or above is always the dream.
But to the “paying to do the research” point… I can’t help but suspect a lot of this stuff has been fairly well understood at Buffalo Trace for a long time. I don’t think I believe that in years of making bourbon, certain trends in entry proof or warehouse location haven’t come up multiple times. Sure, the grain and cut may be new, but otherwise, this stuff had to have been examined.
In a broader sense, we’re paying to do research with every purchase. If a competitor’s rye-based bourbon with some exotic finish takes off, you can bet Buffalo Trace will be trying to one-up that release in a relatively short period of time. I feel like that the paid research happens more with the Experimentals than BTSO, which really just seems like the most audacious single barrel project in ages. Yeah, the price is high. I still don’t think you should be buying bottles solo. This project screams for group purchases.
In fact, if my group falls apart it’s entirely likely that I will discontinue coverage of the project on that basis – it’s too expensive and would be a storage burden if I tried to tackle this alone. I also wonder how casual purchases have worked for Buffalo Trace. I’ve seen many disgusted reactions, largely based on some of the many clunkers from the first release. That alone might be enough to permanently put people off the line. I know that there’s a lot more Single Oak on the shelves, which could be a bad sign for the continuation of things. I hope not, and I hope to be able to see the project through to its completion.
My bottom line: Do you like sweet and syrupy bourbons? It’s hard to go wrong with Round 4 if you do.
As usual, a different take is available at Drinkhacker.
Want to see all the scores so far? Check the Single Oak Scorecard.
Full Tasting Notes for Round Four
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 10, 45% ABV
Nose: Slightly dry with a gentle white pepper lead on the nose. A good amount of corn, light toffee and caramel. Some light oak as well. Slightly maple. There’s a slight sourness on the nose but it’s a sourness that is integrated and works for me.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel, sweet with corn upfront and a nice dose of caramel behind it. Mildly tannic with reasonable wood presence but it enhances the character of the bourbon. Some light maple notes; a very faint hint of cinnamon; a faint hint of orange. Slight wood presence. A faint hint of cherry.
Finish: Warmer than the palate, a bit more dry and dark fruits emerge for a second. A little black cherry. A touch of marshmallow even. Quite dry though – this doesn’t linger in the mouth; it’s more back of the palate.
Comment: This is not bad. It’s sweet and I don’t think the tannins quite sit with this one just right. This is one of those BTSO barrels that I’d be interested to try at a couple different ages.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 14, 45% ABV
Nose: Nice, black cherries initially and a good dose of rye spice alongside some cinnamon. Light maple, plenty of wood, a good dose of corn. Slight caramel. Slight dry woodiness.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel. Moderate sweetness; maple syrup, light oak. Caramel and toffee. A faint sprinkle of cinnamon. A little touch of powdered sugar.
Finish: Nice, warm mouthfeel, very big and present finish. Sweet but ever so slightly astringent. Oranges, a little caramel, some maple.
Comment: This is a nice, sweet, caramel bourbon. This sort of profile is hard for me to love, but it’s equally hard not to really like when it’s very well executed like this one.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 42, 45% ABV
Nose: Dark initially with some black cherry, but lightens with corn apparent. Maple syrup in abundance, toffee, light marshmallowy notes. Nice grains, light sweet hints of caramel. Nice oak after a minute giving it a big, strong balanced nose.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel; sweet with caramel and toffee and tons of maple syrup. Gentle heat leaning towards pepper. Light orange notes.
Finish: Warming more; cinnamon. Lasting. A little black tea, a little orange notes, some wood; slightly tannic. A faint musty melon rind note.
Comment: This is pretty good. Sweet but with a little oakiness to balance it.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 46, 45% ABV
Nose: Light spice on the nose – a mix of cinnamon and pepper with a little undertone of nutmeg. Clay earthiness. Slightly spirity. Light pine, a touch of mint. Faint hint of cherries & oranges.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel but a little dry. A little heat; some light pepper notes as well as a hint of cinnamon. Light cherry. Slight earthiness. Very light sourness in the form of slight corn.
Finish: Somewhat short. Oranges and cherries fade into black tea tannins; there’s a faint celery root quality. Dries slightly but not quite to the point of astringency.
Comment: This has some nice nuance to it. The nose is enjoyable. It’s a little more aggressive but not harsh.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 74, 45% ABV
Nose: Dry and with some pepper and oak. Slightly piney. A little maple develops but it’s somewhat faint.
Palate: Moderately mouth-coating. Heat – white pepper, cinnamon, a very slight dash of cayenne. Some light maple and caramel. A bit of toffee develops. A touch of orange; a little bit of plum for a second. Some cherry.
Finish: Warm with pepper and cinnamon; drying quickly. Oak shows up towards the end. Moderately astringent.
Comment: There’s something about this bourbon that’s a little closed off and it doesn’t quite show its colors. It doesn’t quite hang together for me.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 78, 45% ABV
Nose: Sharp with pepper and spice. Lightly orange and caramel. A little black cherry. Slightly harsh. Light black tea.
Palate: Slightly thin, light oranges, a bit of caramel, some oakiness. Slightly warming – light white pepper. Very slight sourness.
Finish: Big and bold. A nice heat – black tea tannins initially, a little cherry. Some light marshmallow notes for a second. Dries slightly but not much – a little light oak but still retains some orange and caramel. Very faint mint aromas.
Comment: This benefits from a little time in the glass. It’s an interesting focus – orange, caramel and a little black tea. I don’t think it quite works for me but it’s an unusual profile.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 106, 45% ABV
Nose: Light hints of dried apple and some orange; a bit of light toffee; maple syrup, light powdering of sugar; sweet woody notes. Slightly bready; makes me think of French toast. Light cinnamon. Slight clay earthiness.
Palate: Sweet; big rich mouthfeel with a slight cinnamon tingle. Maple syrup, some medium wood presence that’s slightly dusty and aged. Slight vegetal character.
Finish: Light vegetal notes; slight vibe of boozy fruits (plum, apple, a bit of peach?), a little cinnamon. Some wood but not much. Somewhat drying on the finish. Fruity and sweet still though.
Comment: This is kind of an unusual one for the Single Oaks. I kind of like it because it’s a bit unusual. It’s got aspects that make me think of and older whiskey, which is always great – it’s got that apple skin and wood profile that can be a real treat. Interestingly, despite this and the classic bourbon notes as seen, this also has a certain “scotchiness” to it. I’m not sure it’s a winner but it strikes me different than any Single Oak I can remember. Worth a try.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 110, 45% ABV
Nose: Dark fruits – plums, blackberries, a bit of black cherry. Some light earthiness, a touch of vanilla. Oak, a little pepper. Slight corn sweetness; light grains. Light cinnamon.
Palate: Slightly thin mouthfeel; light cinnamon. Faint sourness. Dark fruits again – plums and a bit of cherry. Some maple syrup. Sweetens gradually. A momentary tang of Juicy Fruit gum.
Finish: Warm and a bit more dry. Pepper, drying wood. Slightly sugary in an unrefined but not overbearing way.
Comment: This one has a nice nose and is fine enough to drink but doesn’t have much in the way of complexity (beyond the nose) or interest.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 138, 45% ABV
Nose: Moderate corn sweetness. Light orange notes; some light caramel, moderate but not harsh pine and rye notes. Some light overall graininess.
Palate: Rich mouthfeel. Corn sweetness leads; a little caramel and some maple syrup behind it. A bit of orange brightness at the top of the palate. Some light oak. Generally sweet.
Finish: Light finish – some apple cider, a little light maple and some light oranges. Some cinnamon warmth to it as well as a dash of white pepper. Focused heavily on the fruit.
Comment: A nice, sweet and fruity whisky. It’s not particularly remarkable due to the closed off nose but the finish is actually different and pretty nice.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 142, 45% ABV
Nose: A little bit of pepper, some oak; slight earthiness. Some rye spice on the nose; somewhat dry. Light apples and cinnamon. Some light peaches and a hint of apricot.
Palate: Rich in the mouth. Fruitiness continues; some apples and light apricots. Very juicy. A bit of vanilla providing some depth but it’s not strong. Very gentle heat. Generally sweet and agreeable.
Finish: Warming substantially from the palate. More light vanilla and lighter fruits – more peach and apricot type notes. Light cinnamon, a distinct black cherry kick initially.
Comment: The nose and the finish are nice enough but the palate is somewhat muted and keeps this from a higher score. It’s quite nice though.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 170, 45% ABV
Nose: Sweet corn prominent initially. Some light grain; maple syrup up front; light hint of black cherries. Gentle wood influence.
Palate: Sweet – dominated again by corn and maple syrup. Full mouthfeel. Light hint of oranges; a touch of cinnamon. Slight pepper, slight dry wood and a faint celery root note.
Finish: Vanilla, black cherry, slight earthiness. Warms up nicely. A little oak and root vegetable note on the tail end.
Comment: Not bad. The finish is a touch harsh and it’s a little simplistic on the palate.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 174, 45% ABV
Nose: Sweet with maple syrup, but with a slightly astringent, woody kind of balance to it. Slight apple cider note. Lightly hit with a dash of black pepper. Evolves to be more creamy with a vanilla note. Gentle cherry.
Palate: Slightly thin initially; becomes creamier with a bit of time in the glass. Light cinnamon, some caramel and toffee. Maple syrup, a touch of powdered sugar, and slight breadiness.
Finish: Cinnamon, slightly drying wood; a dusty tone to it. Some light red wine, a touch of dark chocolate.
Comment: This benefits from a bit in the glass to develop the nose (and the finish seems to be aided by it too). A little more interesting with the sweet nose and slightly tannic finish.