Today, my shipment of the second 12 bottles from Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project arrived. While I’m unpacking them and portioning them out into samples for the friends who will be tasting these with me, I thought it was a good opportunity to post my thoughts on the first round.
For those who don’t follow these things closely, your restraint and sanity is to be commended. The Single Oak Project (henceforth BTSO) is a series of 192 different experiments that Buffalo Trace is conducting in their stated quest to formulate the “perfect bourbon”. I’m not sure I believe there’s such a thing, given how wildly my tastes can vary from day to day, but I welcome the effort. Doubtless some interesting results will come out of it, and even if it brings one more good bourbon to the shelves, it’s a worthwhile undertaking.
Without recapping the press release in its entirety, the variables in the experiment are:
It’s a heck of a lot to take in, and there’s a natural tendency to be somewhat skeptical that it really matters – or that you’ll ever taste any of this (stave location? a tree’s a tree! warehouse floor? seriously?)
With a healthy dose of skepticism, I tasted the first twelve bottles late last month. I was totally surprised: I definitely could taste differences in some of the samples… and it wasn’t necessarily the obvious differences (rye vs wheat) that made the biggest difference to me.
Surprisingly, I found a huge difference in the top cut vs bottom cut. I think going into this I expected it to hardly matter at all. With one exception (barrel 131) my favorites generally skewed towards the bottom cuts. I didn’t know which I was tasting at the time, but I noticed a consistent preference for ones that had a particular earthy note. To me this was a somewhat sweet, somewhat earthy flavor, reminiscent of clay, play-doh or marshmallows.
While I love wheaters, the rye recipes for me were hands down preferable as well. The wheaters tasted harsh to me and were not very enjoyable on the whole – with one exception.
Wood didn’t have a strong influence for me, or at least not in a recognizable pattern. Grades did go up gradually as the grain got more coarse.
Here’s my at-a-glance summary with tasting notes below:
If you can only buy one: Barrel 131. In my opinion, this had the most complex palate, with plenty of fruits on the nose and palate; light spice, and good wood involvement. I found the tannins on 131 to be really enjoyable; there was a distinct black tea note at one point that was really pleasing.
The best wheater: Barrel 36. This had the textbook bottom cut notes to it – earthy, clay, play-doh, marshmallow; creaminess and gentle spice. There was some white pepper and grains, but the wood could be a bit bitter.
Barrels to avoid: I found 3 & 4 to be not worth the time. They were spirity, very dry and woody, thin, and not very open. 4 was slightly better, but not by much. While 99 & 100 were crowd favorites, I found them to be sharp, with kind of pine forest and solvent notes. Not my cup of tea.
You don’t have to take my word for it on these though. Why not check out the notes from a few of the other people who have tried round one?
Want to see all the scores so far? Check the Single Oak Scorecard.
Full Tasting Notes for Round One:
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 3, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 16 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Initially spirity, with a hint of black cherry. Somewhat dry, a bit woody in a dry way, with some peppery, cinnamon spice.
Palate: Somewhat thin, slowly warming, with rye evident on the palate with some spice and the light black cherry note. A bit dry, lacking any real complexity. Some hints of wood influence but nothing strong.
Finish: Moderate length with some light spice evident, more light black cherry.
Comment: Not very complex or interesting. Slightly woody with hints of the good stuff but nothing that you’d actually want to hunt down. It doesn’t really have that depth of flavor you’d hope for.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 4, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 16 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Closed off initially and woody. Spirity with a little bit of rye scent. Very subtle hint of toffee and the slightest hint of butterscotch. Opens after a few minutes in the glass.
Palate: Warming on the palate, dry and woody, slightly bitter. Not much flavor beyond that – subtle hint of orange and subtle toffee. Slightest bit of vanilla. Slowly sweetens in the mouth.
Finish: Warm, revealing some cinnamon and allspice for a fleeting moment. Becomes somewhat bitter and sour.
Comment: Lacking in even the complexity of barrel #3. Very closed off and dry. The things you can taste almost have to be read in; it’s very closed off.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 35, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Moderately spirity, some grain and sweetness – light toffee. Some dry wood. Hints of furniture polish. Light creamy vanilla note.
Palate: Warming and somewhat sweet, moderately coating. Good wood influence and some hints of black cherry. White pepper. Toffee, a hint of maple syrup.
Finish: Warming, leaving hints of black cherry, some slightly dry wood. Short finish.
Comment: Much more developed on the palate. The nose is the weak link but it’s a pretty decent otherwise. It’s a C+ just because this isn’t worth seeking out as is. Get the nose dialed in and it’s a different story.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 36, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Earthy, with kind of a clay/play-doh note to it; hint of marshmallow; some vanilla; lightly grainy.
Palate: Creamy, mouth-coating, the clay/play-doh note continues through; white pepper, light black cherry note; toffee, vanilla, sweet.
Finish: Grains, somewhat dry and with kind of a slightly bitter wood finish, Moderately long, with some peppery spice and nice heat.
Comment: Amazing that the only difference between this and Barrel 35 is the location on the tree. This has a lot more going on of interest to me.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 67, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 12 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Spicy – slight rye, definite pepper. A strong dry woody note, a slight trace of cardamom. There’s something slightly metallic in the background.
Palate: Thin and light on the palate but gathering some weight. Slight pepper, toffee, light hint of orange and some cinnamon, a bit of a cherry note, some wood.
Finish: Warming initially. Reveals some plum, some cherry, a bit of vanilla. Drying slightly. Not particularly long.
Comment: It’s a fine enough bourbon. I could use something slightly more to grab my interest – it’s a bit underdeveloped.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 68, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 12 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Spice with cinnamon and pepper, an earthy note (clay/play-doh), marshmallow, a bit of rye. A little oak, a little orange.
Palate: Moderate mouthfeel, somewhat coating, slightly warming, slightly buttery, a little dry spice and slight astringency, a little bit of cherry and jam-like sweetness. A bit of toffee. Oak. A bit of orange and clove.
Finish: Moderate length with the cherry and jam; earthy sweetness; a bit of drying pepper and dry wood, slight orange notes.
Comment: Once again, a bottom cut grabs me with its clay and earth and oak. More enjoyable flavor and nuance; a nose and body that you can actually penetrate. Lacks some complexity but it’s getting in the ballpark.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 99, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 12 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Spirity at first. Dry wood. Lightly sour and vegetal.
Palate: Mouth-coating, somewhat sweet, black cherry, white pepper, wood, a little cinnamon, very light toffee
Finish: Warm, drying and becoming bitter. Some of the fruit notes. More oak. Short end of moderate finish.
Comment: Too closed off to be good. Not much to enjoy.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 100, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 12 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Spirity, dry and spicy. Dry wood. Lightly sour, pine notes.
Palate: Coating on the palate, creamy, slightly vanilla, with the dry pine notes present, woody. A strange mix of bitter and sweet.
Finish: Vanilla, cherry, slightly buttery, dry wood. Moderate length with the pine note persisting.
Comment:The sharp spirit and pine notes make this a non-starter for me. Dry wood; generally unpleasant.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 131, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Deep wood, round, mildly spicy, lush, fruity with cherries, hint of peach. a touch of vanilla evident as well. A little bit of clove and a far off bit of cinnamon.
Palate: Good wood – solid oak; light rye flavor; cherries again, a bit of plum, mouth-coating, rich and almost but not quite oily. Very fruity but not over the top. Very slight bitterness.
Finish: Full, with the fruit notes taking the lead, followed by vanilla in tow with a little orange tagging along. A little bit of black tea early on as well. Nice tannins.
Comment: This is a nice, round, balanced whiskey. Nothing sticks out but it’s not dull and lifeless. Quite enjoyable actually.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 132, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Sweet and spicy, with pepper evident, a bit of pine present and some slightly bitter wood. Orange with a bit of molasses and maple syrup. A rye dryness as well.
Palate: Round, slightly thin, somewhat astringent. The pine note makes itself known again, with some dry wood, some cinnamon, a hint of bubblegum.
Finish: The bubblegum note continues, some vanilla and cherry; there’s kind of a meaty note in there as well.
Comment: The flashes of the meaty note were interesting and the first I’d tasted in a bourbon. It’s decent enough but lacks some complexity. It’s a little closed off.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 163, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 9 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Dry, astringent and spicy with some considerable wood. Sharp and dry, with pepper, cinnamon and dry spices. A bit of toffee below the spice.
Palate: Somewhat creamy but kind of thin. Grains and cereal, light fruits – cherry and plum – with some orange. Cinnamon. Some dry oak. A hint of maple syrup.
Finish: Grainy and cereal-y, pepper, orange, distant molasses, medium length. Pepper, spice, lightly dry.
Comment: It’s fairly good. The nose is dry, spirity, and could use something additional but OK. The grain notes are nice. It’s just not something to pull off the shelf.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 164, 45% ABV
8 Years Old, Entry Proof 125; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 6 Month Seasoning; Bottom Cut; 9 Rings/Inch; Wood Floor
Nose: Dry, spicy. Some wood on the nose. Grain, dry straw.
Palate: Mouth-coating, dry, with cinnamon and pepper. Bitter, woody, light grain. Orange evident as well.
Finish: Short, light. Cinnamon and pepper on the palate after the first wave; vanilla, light fruits. Orange and a hint of cherry.
Comment: The dryness could use something to balance it out. It’s decent enough but lacking something.
For a long time, I’ve been a fan of Macallan, for better or worse. It’s been my “calibration malt” – the one that helps me know where my palate sits on a given day – for some time. Macallan 12 is the whiskey I know better than any other I’ve had.
Like many novices, Macallan 18 was the pinnacle of the form for me – the highest attainable “old” whiskey you could reasonably afford – a great showcase of some reasonable time in the barrel but with some youth and vitality still in the mix. When I was willing to splurge, I’d drop some change on the older Macallan.
The almost-unattainable whiskey that was the source of curiosity and wonder was, of course, the 30 year old Sherry Oak, which sits at the top of Macallan’s standard range. (Certainly there are rarer and more exclusive Macallans to be had; however, I am not inclined to share my tasting notes of the 60 year old Macallan Lalique. Suffice it to say that it is the finest scotch I’ve ever had while behind the wheel of my Bugatti on the way back from shopping at Bijan’s boutique in Beverly Hills.) I’d promised myself a bottle of this for various occasions: My 30th birthday (too busy); the startup I was working for at the time achieving profitability (still TBD); and a host of others. Finally, when we moved to our new place and my wife was pregnant with our first child, I knew that his birth would be the right occasion for this one.
Fast forward to mid-August of this year and he was born. The Macallan 30 finally was opened and tasted after years of waiting.
I could hardly believe I had the bottle in front of me (and that bottle above is the exact bottle I had – yes, it really is that dark!). Macallan cultivates an image of exclusivity for the higher end of their range, but here it was in my hands – in my glass!
Unfortunately, exclusivity doesn’t really have a taste. So what was the experience of this whiskey?
The nose was gentle, rich, and buttery, like you’d expect from an older whiskey. There was none of the prickle or punch of a younger whiskey, the age was evident. The sherry influence was profound, but it was not overbearing – it had the raisin notes you’d expect with a heavily sherried whiskey, but it had more dimension than that. A lot of sherried whiskey tends to have a one-dimensional raisin note and it smells like liquid Sun-Maid, which is really a turnoff. Additionally, there’s a strong toffee note. After it sat in the glass, it started to reveal some gentle spice notes that made it smell like those Thanksgiving to Christmas meals. There was chocolate and soft grain, as well as old, worn wood.
On the palate, it was thick and started warming to a degree that surprised me given its age. Many of the older whiskeys I’ve had lose a lot of their heat with age; this still had she vitality. There was cinnamon and pepper as well as the toffee from the nose. Nutmeg and harvest spices were evident; there was some maple syrup in there as well. A little wood paneling could be perceived as well. A sign of good cask selection: the wood contributed to the flavor but didn’t give it a dry and bitter or over-oaked flavor that can ruin many older whiskeys.
The finish? Slow and lasting, as you’d expect from a Macallan. The sweetness continued, as did the toffee and sherry. The wood made itself known but was never overbearing.
All in all, it was really enjoyable and easy drinking. That said, it’s not amazing. It’s lost some of the vitality of a younger Macallan and it’s not the best 30+ year old whiskey I’ve had (In recent memory, that would be a 1977/2007 30 year old Brora (Diageo’s official bottling)). I could see this being a great “mood whiskey” – it would be a perfect one during the holidays, enjoying a long quiet evening with it.
Curiously though, that’s not the final word on this one. I just finished this bottle this week – and noticed substantial development in the bottle. Over time, there were more wax and apple notes on the nose and palate. There were also some caramel notes that weren’t as evident initially. Unfortunately though, the wood notes become more dry and bitter over time.
At a glance:
Macallan 30 year old Sherry. 43% ABV.
Nose: Gentle, rich and buttery. The sherry influence is profound but not overbearing. A gentle hint of raisins, a ton of toffee. Slow to open up, but revealing gentle spice. Smells like thanksgiving to Christmas; chocolate and soft grain. Old, worn wood.
Palate: Thick, warming to a degree that belies its age, with cinnamon and pepper; toffee; hints of maple syrup, nutmeg and harvest spices. Wood paneling in the distance.
Finish: Slow, easing off the warth of the palate, retains its sweetness, lasting and rich. Toffee continues; sherry influence. Wood is present but not overbearing.
A note on ratings:
I rate whiskeys on the LAWS scale - it seeks to remove price as a component (as well as exclusivity) and grade strictly on taste. If I were to consider price on this one, I’d be inclined to downgrade it as there are better values for your money. However, strictly on a taste basis, this one rates firmly as a B: Good, and might want to own.