Buffalo Trace Monkeys With the Barrels

In the Magazine
Buffalo Trace’s Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee. Randy Harris/Redux

Freddie Johnson is a traditional guy. His grandfather, James Johnson Sr., served for 52 years as a foreman at the George T. Stagg distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, driving a Ford Model A truck loaded up with bourbon barrels. In 1936, James’s son Jimmy—Freddie’s father—started doing much the same work, and he continued his association with the distillery until the day he died, in 2011, at the age of 94.

Freddie himself tried to get out of the bourbon business; he once worked for AT&T as a design engineer in a distant land called New Jersey. But eventually Kentucky called him home, and for the past dozen years Freddie has been leading tours of his dad and grandad’s old distillery, which now goes by the name Buffalo Trace.

And yet Freddie also knows that tradition isn’t everything. That’s why he has led me here, to Warehouse D.

At first glance, D doesn’t look like much: it’s basically a classroom where tour guides explain which grains go into your glass of Eagle Rare. But as soon as the other visitors drift out of earshot, Freddie beckons me toward a bookcase in the rear of the room.

romano-cu0222-distillery-embed1 Bourbon aged by a window often tastes best. Randy Harris/Redux

“You know how in New York and Chicago, back there during Prohibition, they had speakeasies?” Freddie asks. I nod. With that, he pushes the rim of the bookcase until the entire thing opens like a door, revealing the secret on the other side: rick after rick of bourbon barrels aging in the dappled, dusty sunlight. He points to one in particular. I kneel on the dirt floor to get a closer look. The stamp reads “Peated Malt/Experimental.” Freddie smiles and leans in.

“Who says Scotch has to be made in Scotland?” he whispers.

For the past five years, Buffalo Trace Distillery has been quietly releasing a limited number of bottles of “experimental” bourbon. Some of these whiskeys have matured in barrels made of unorthodox woods; others have derived from odd recipes. But now Buffalo Trace’s dabbling is about to ramp up, and its ambitions for the Experimental Collection are growing. In August the distillery will complete a $1 million high-tech bourbon-aging laboratory named Warehouse X. Meanwhile, more and more experimental bourbons—which have been maturing in obscurity for years—will soon begin to roll off the Buffalo Trace production lines.

American white oak costs $150 a barrel. The Mongolian oak barrels were a thousand bucks each.

The goal is to make the perfect bourbon—a tipple that Buffalo Trace brass refers to (only half humorously) as the holy grail. “Some of our buildings are 100-plus years old,” says brand manager Kris Comstock. “We’ve been making bourbon here for a long time. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation for the next 100 years.”

So what will the next 100 years of bourbon taste like? About halfway through my tour with Freddie, Mark Brown, the distillery’s president, CEO, and enabler of the experimental program, suddenly emerges from a nearby building. He has something he wants to show me. After weaving past 18-wheelers packed with dried grain and vats full of fermenting sour mash, we finally arrive in a tall white room that looks more like a chemistry lab than a hooch factory.

As Brown shows off a custom copper microstill that took master distiller Harlen Wheatley two years to perfect, I ask about the craziest yet-to-be-released bourbons that have been conjured up in here. Brown immediately mentions Mongolian oak. “We went to Mongolia and found white oak trees and had them chopped down to make barrels,” he says. “American white oak costs $150 a barrel. The Mongolian oak barrels were a thousand bucks each.”

So is Mongolian-oak bourbon six times more delicious than regular bourbon?

“It’s aging now,” Brown says coyly. “And it’s very different. Very different.”

The particulars of each experiment aren’t really the point. The groping toward a perfect bourbon is.

Also in the pipeline: a bunch of bourbons that Wheatley and his fellow distillers have crafted from nontraditional ingredients, including oats, rice, apples, and even chickpeas. I ask Brown what he expects the chickpea bourbon to taste like. “It’s a crap shoot,” Brown admits. “A complete and utter crap shoot.”

For many aficionados, monkeying with the time-honored methods of bourbon making is something like sacrilege, and it’s true that not every roll of the dice pans out. So far, Brown & Co. have declined to release four of their experimental bourbons, including a 100 percent malted-barley whiskey that was “just god-awful,” according to Comstock.

But the particulars of each experiment aren’t really the point. The groping toward a perfect bourbon is. When Warehouse X is completed, it will contain four aging chambers that can each be calibrated for different levels of light, temperature, humidity, and air flow. “This warehouse will enable us to study aging in a way that it’s never been studied before,” says Comstock. “Sunlight, for example. A barrel aged by a window often tastes the best. Maybe it’s the light. Maybe it’s the heat. We don’t know. But we’ll find out, and perhaps one day we’ll make a warehouse without a ceiling on it. And that, in turn, would change how bourbon is made.”

As Brown, Johnson, and I exit the experimental microdistillery, I remember those peated malt barrels I’d seen earlier in the day. “So about that Kentucky Scotch,” I venture. “When can I expect to have a dram?”

Brown grins. “If I told you that,” he says, “I’d have to kill you.”

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