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Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 4

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.

Barrel 14: The best of Round 4

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?

The Best Wheater: Barrel 174

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
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. 
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. 
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. 
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
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. 
Rich mouthfeel. Moderate sweetness; maple syrup, light oak. Caramel and toffee. A faint sprinkle of cinnamon. A little touch of powdered sugar. 
Nice, warm mouthfeel, very big and present finish. Sweet but ever so slightly astringent. Oranges, a little caramel, some maple. 
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
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.
Rich mouthfeel; sweet with caramel and toffee and tons of maple syrup. Gentle heat leaning towards pepper. Light orange notes.
Warming more; cinnamon. Lasting. A little black tea, a little orange notes, some wood; slightly tannic. A faint musty melon rind note.
This is pretty good. Sweet but with a little oakiness to balance it. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 46, 45% ABV
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. 
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.
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. 
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
Dry and with some pepper and oak. Slightly piney. A little maple develops but it’s somewhat faint. 
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. 
Warm with pepper and cinnamon; drying quickly. Oak shows up towards the end. Moderately astringent. 
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
Sharp with pepper and spice. Lightly orange and caramel. A little black cherry. Slightly harsh. Light black tea. 
Slightly thin, light oranges, a bit of caramel, some oakiness. Slightly warming – light white pepper. Very slight sourness.
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.
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
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.
Sweet; big rich mouthfeel with a slight cinnamon tingle. Maple syrup, some medium wood presence that’s slightly dusty and aged. Slight vegetal character. 
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. 
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
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.
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. 
Warm and a bit more dry. Pepper, drying wood. Slightly sugary in an unrefined but not overbearing way.
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
Moderate corn sweetness. Light orange notes; some light caramel, moderate but not harsh pine and rye notes. Some light overall graininess.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. 
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.
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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating:  B


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
Floral. Slight caramel. A little cinnamon, some orange, vanilla. Rather light on the nose. A bit of corn and general grain.
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. 
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. 
Really enjoyable finish. This one builds and builds. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 24, 45% ABV
Caramel and vanilla; maple syrup; thin and lightly solvent in nature. Medium wood. Slightly piney.
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.
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. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 40, 45% ABV
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. 
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. 
Pepper from the palate and some wood, with a little of the grain from the nose. Some cherry tartness. 
Uncomplicated but pretty enjoyable.

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

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

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 88, 45% ABV
Lightly piney, with moderate wood. Maple syrup, black pepper. Some faint caramel. 
Initially slightly sour; with wood present. Some maple syrup. Sugary notes present as well. Extremely faint vanilla. Light caramel. Some black cherries.
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.
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. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 104, 45% ABV
Caramel and grain, with some wood. A bit of yeasty, fresh-baked bread. A bit sharp on the nose.
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
Black tea tannins initially. Sweet but with some heat. Heavier maple syrup, powdered sugar. Raspberry jam and a bit of wood.
Sweet with some interesting depth. Not bad at all. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 120, 45% ABV
Medium wood, caramel, fairly upfront pepper across the nose. Extremely faint black cherry; some dusty grain. 
Sweet caramel, maple syrup in abundance, vanilla and leaning toward marshmallow. Faintly earthy like clay; gentle warmth. 
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. 
Lightly nuanced; primarily a big, sweet bourbon. The finish is really a nice counterpoint on this one, giving some more dark fruit tartness. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 136, 45% ABV
Sweet on the nose – maple syrup; medium wood presence; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon; a faint touch of peach.
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. 
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.
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. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 152, 45% ABV
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.
Drying off again – rye, pepper, a hint of celery root. A bit of orange and cinnamon as well. Moderately long finish. 
Too dry on the nose and on the finish for me to really like this one much. Not bad; just personal taste. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 167, 45% ABV
Somewhat dry. Cinnamon. some corn providing sweetness, caramel and a little toffee. A hint of vanilla. A bit of soft wheat grain. 
Vanilla; caramel and some toffee. A bit of earthiness. A bit of orange underneath everything. Faint grain. Slight sourness.
Drying slightly, with some light grains evident. Vague sourness and some corn notes. A bit of black tea tannins. 
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. 

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 184, 45% ABV
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. 
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. 
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.
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. 


A Group Buy In Action (or: Behind The Scenes of a BTSO Blog Post)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak 3 landed a week ago, and in my original plan, I would have had a blog post up tonight discussing the ins and outs of release 3. Unfortunately, things transpired differently and I spent the better part of the last week with a cold that required acetaminophen (a terrible mixer with alcohol) and also killed my palate.

However, in my downtime I prepared the Buffalo Trace Single Oaks to split among our group buy. I thought since I’ve written about group buys before, I’d take the opportunity to show you what goes into one like this. I should also say this is, in my opinion, the very best way to do the Single Oak Project, given that there are 192 375mL bottles being released over a four year span.

Last fall I got a lead on a full case of the first release of the Single Oak Project. I contacted some of my friends – former coworkers who had some cash to burn and an adventurous spirit, as well as a couple guys in LAWS including (as always) Sku, who has been writing about this project as well over at Recent Eats. We did the math and figured that splitting a case 6 ways gave everybody just over 2 ounces per bottle, just enough to fit in the usual 2oz bottle you can get from Specialty.

From that point on it’s become a quarterly routine which should continue through until summer 2015 if my math is right. Twelve bottles become 72 sample bottles which are boxed up and handed out.

One of these boxes arrives every quarter and it’s hard to keep it closed for long. There’s something about the process of preparation that, while time-consuming, is an enjoyable ritual.

The bottles are numbered on the exterior and accompanied by a release number sticker. It seems that they planned to release them quicker initially than they have been doing. All of these have had release dates that are much earlier than they’ve actually been coming out.

Twelve bottles just waiting to be opened... the anticipation is overwhelming.

The bottles, unsurprisingly, come in standard Buffalo Trace fancy-bourbon-bottle tissue paper, which seems to only serve the purpose of obscuring barrel number (on BTSOs) or hiding valuable proof/release info (on BTACs).

Each bottle, as you’ve likely seen by now, is screened with the Single Oak Project logo and has a sticker with the barrel number.

The back label is the same for all bottles and has some information about the project. It’s worth noting that none of the Single Oak Project bottles contain any reference to the variables present on any given bottle. The intent is for you to taste them blind and learn about them on the Single Oak Project website.

Once they’re all removed from the package and paper, I then move onto the next step – photographing the bottles. I like doing this so I can have my own photographs of the bottles. Product photography is something I’ve never worked with (I studied photojournalism) so it’s an interesting challenge. Every time I set up, I tweak something different.

By real standards my approach is hopelessly low-fi. A few 200w balanced fluorescent lights, an off-camera flash, and some posterboard to provide a backdrop. I’m tolerant of some flaws in the photograph given that I also worked as a production artist for a while, so I have plenty of tricks to get the photos where I want in a matter of minutes.

A small piece of paper acts as a reflector to help pick up color.

It’s not much but there’s satisfaction in having the ability to shoot without taking up much space storing the gear in our apartment, and without having spent much money. (I think the bulbs were the single most expensive cost in the shooting setup).

I usually take the opportunity to shoot a couple other bottles that I may have soon so I can include them in posts. All in all it’s a fun diversion but it moves quickly. For the technically minded, I’ve been shooting on a Nikon D40 (due to the fact that it’s small and light) with an older 85mm f/1.4 lens which has been one of my favorites for a long time.

After the fun of photography comes the part that is both exciting and nerve-wracking: filling 72 small bottles. Making sure there are enough bottles, caps and labels on hand is important. I usually do a quick inventory beforehand. One thing that some guys are doing in our group buy is recycling their bottles. It helps, especially if they return them as I sent them, as there’s less prep work. Plus, less bottles equal less wasted cash and space – at least to my mind. I’m also not one to keep these lingering around for a long time.

The filling station, where the next two hours will be spent.

Filling is an interesting balancing act. You need to quiet the part of your mind that says “what if I spill this?” – a voice that is very loud when you know every drop is accounted for and finding these bottles is not exactly easy. If you don’t spill something with a missed pour, maybe you’ll knock over a sample bottle – or worse yet – THE bottle. I’ve found the best thing for me is to just breathe slowly and evenly, move very deliberately and not let go until I know things are stable and flat on a surface. Moving without hesitation on a pour also helps.

This is probably the most nerve wracking process and the best thing to do, at least for me, is to try and remain present and focused strictly on the mechanics of what’s going on. Tracking your progress on the bottle or the set of bottles can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. It’s this exercise in grounding yourself and being present that is the most difficult part but simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

This would be a hell of a time to get the yips.

After two ounces have been poured in, the remainder of the bottle is poured in in small measures using a plastic 5mL pipette that came with some whisky glass order. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for the intended purpose of painstakingly measuring artisan waters flown in from the north of Scotland, but it’s useful here to get everybody full and even.

After filling, bottles are capped and labeled.

After about six bottles I need to stop and clear my head and get a breath. I take the opportunity to clean up the counter where I’m working and wash out the bottles so the bourbon smell isn’t too overpowering in the kitchen. Sometimes I get clear notes off of the bourbons (release 2), sometimes I don’t get much unique from bourbon to bourbon (release 3 didn’t have an overwhelming character aside from one bottle that smelled great). I usually will take a break at this point because it’s been about an hour – each bottle takes roughly 10 minutes to fill, counting cleanup time after each bottle.

Using the whole buffalo: Box parts are used as dividers.

After pouring and cleaning up, the next step is to parcel each set of 12 bottles into a box that will be given to each of the six guys. To protect the bottles, I cut up pieces of the box that the bottles shipped in to act as dividers among the smaller bottles.

Heat shrink wraps are used to further protect the contents as well. After all of that, it’s basically done aside from the delivery of bottles to their recipients.

I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to see a bit of an unboxing and some of what goes into these BTSO releases. It’s a few hours of work but it’s a really enjoyable process and heightens my anticipation as I go through it. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be singing a different tune, but for now it’s a very exciting point on my calendar.

I’ll be back soon with reviews of Round 3 as well as other whiskies. Until then, after all this work (and now getting over the cold) – it’s time for a drink.

Don't forget to recycle!

Single Oak Project – Quick Notes

As some people have found, I’ve added a condensed scorecard page with the ratings of all Single Oak bottlings I’ve had to date. If you are trying to figure out if the bottle on the shelf is any good (at least, according to me), I hope it’s useful.

Also a note for my LA based friends – The Wine House has a large selection of the Single Oaks on their shelves right now. I’ve seen a mix of release one and release two. If you’ve wanted to try one – or better still to split one among friends (they can be odd) – this is an easy time to pick one up. If you’re not in LA, unfortunately Wine House doesn’t ship spirits.

Single Oak Project release 3 will be reviewed shortly after I receive it. Stay tuned, as always.

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 2

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.

Barrel 191

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:

Barrel 61
The best of the bunch. Looks great too!

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.

Barrel 29

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″
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.
Rating: C+

Barrels 29+157+189, 45% ABV “Tim’s Blend #2″
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.
Rating: C+

Barrels 31+95+159, 45% ABV “Random Chance”
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.
Rating: C+   

Barrels 63+93+125, 45% ABV “The Leftovers”
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.
Rating: C

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!
Rating: B

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.
Rating: B

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.
Rating: B+  

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.
Rating: C+   

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.
Rating: B-  

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.
Rating: C+

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.
Rating: C+

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.
Rating: C+  

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating: B-  

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.
Rating: C+   

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 1

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.

Buffalo Trace Barrel 68

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:

  • Recipe – rye or wheat
  • Barrel Char – #3 or #4 (longer or shorter char times)
  • Stave Seasoning – 6 or 12 months for the barrel staves to dry in the air
  • Tree Cut – Location on the tree of where the staves were cut from (top or bottom)
  • Entry proof – 100 or 125
  • Warehouse floor (really) – wood floor or concrete floor
  • Grain tightness – coarse, medium, or fine.

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:

Buffalo Trace Barrel 131
If you can buy only one...


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.

Buffalo Trace Barrel 36

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.
Rating: C

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.
Rating: C-

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.
Rating: C+

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating:  B-

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating: C

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.
Rating: C

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.
Rating: B

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating: C+

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.
Rating: C+