by Liza Weisstuch
On a Tuesday in late February, Frankfort, Kentucky was sunny and spring-like. The air at the BUFFALO TRACE distillery was thick and heady with the smell of grains and barley.
“It’s the drying smell on Tuesday,” said Obie Kemper matter-of-factly. Obie, who several at the distillery refer to as “the warehouse guy”, is about as much of a fixture at Buffalo Trace as the mash tuns. He’s been working there for 4O years, beginning almost straight out of high school. (His grandmother worked in the bottling house for 4O years before him.) He introduced himself to the out-of-towners, asking each to sign their names in his dense, weathered guest book that sits atop an empty upright barrel.
The crew that Tuesday was from Boston and beyond and included Eastern Standard’s bar manager, Jackson Cannon, and the restaurant’s chef, Marco Suarez; BRIX Wine Shop’s co-owners Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski; Mike Morganti, wine buyer for Fifth Avenue Liquors; David Sardella, Massachusetts field sales manager for the Sazerac Company, and yours truly. The formalities were over with pretty quickly – Obie is not one for formalities. Besides, he had barrels to roll out. In the cozy sepia-toned front room of one of Buffalo Trace’s warehouses, you get the sense that not much has changed over the decades. Watching Obie position three barrels side by side, it was clear that this is his turf. Obie has cobalt eyes and what Dave calls “Popeye arms”. Dressed in baggy jeans, a grey tee-shirt and a chestnut colored hoodie, he wields a wooden mallet like a ball player handles a bat. Use it to strike the barrel just right and the bung pops out and the whiskey meets the world.
The group had arrived at the distillery to take their pick. As participants in the barrel selection program, the representatives from each outlet toured the distillery’s grounds and warehouses, met some of the people who work the day-to-day operations, and then choose a barrel of bourbon to call their very own. The bottles would be slapped with a sticker that indicates to consumers the elixir was hand-selected. When you buy a barrel, you try three samples, each from a different barrel of the same whiskey, and pick your favorite. A favorite, you ask? Yes, even though the same bourbon went into the barrel at the same time, nuances in flavor and smell come through after ten years aging in the warehouses. On this day, the bourbon of choice was Eagle Rare Single Barrel 1O Year for all three parties, and it happened to be a landmark day for these particular barrels.
“It’s exactly ten years old today – it’s birthday bourbon. If you can’t tell, we’re tight on supply,” said Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s Master Distiller – the sixth since the Civil War. Indeed, “February 18, 1998” was scrawled with chalk on the barrel. Obie handed Jackson the mallet. “Show me how it’s done,” Jackson urged. Obie counted – one, two, three – and did a slow motion demonstration of how the head must fall close to the side of the cork-like bung to release it. Jackson took a thwack, then another. Out it popped. Three small glasses were filled and he and Marco set in sniffing, swilling and sipping. They solicited Harlen’s expertise. “As far as aroma, number two has to be the best,” he said. “Number three has a good taste.” Jackson took another taste. “It’s grassy, it’s got a good finish.” Harlen took a few more sips. “Two has the best nose. That’s the thing – you’re probably not gonna go wrong. One’s probably a little better,” he said. Jackson held the glass under his nose. “I get a little more corn after number one,” he said pensively. “I like the nose on two, the middle on one and the finish on three.” When Marco was ready to chime in, he decided number three was his first choice. Number one “didn’t quite have that finish,” he said. “Try the mouth feel on that number two. Three’s beautiful, but I’m leaning toward two,” Jackson said. Harlen tossed out a casual reminder that that the product they were tasting still had to be processed and cut to proof before it went into the bottle.
Decisions, decisions. Carri and Klaudia each took a small swig. “Stylistically, I’d go for three,” Carri suggested. “This is not a finished product,” Klaudia pointed out. “It will change with the processes left. My natural inclination is to go with two. It’s more vibrant. I think it has more symphony of flavors. The corn is almost separate in the others, but in this, it’s perfect.”
“I gotta go with two,” Jackson said.
And with that, Barrel #26 became Eastern Standard’s personal stock. Angela Traver, public relations manager, inquired about a few of the logistics that go along with the personal bottling program: Do they want the barrel? Do they want a DVD? Have they already talked about the label? Soon after, Carri and Klaudia tasted three separate samples. After waffling a bit, they agreed that Barrel #29 stood out among their three. Only by tasting these samples side by side do seemingly infinitesimal differences become readily apparent, making it thoroughly clear that aging whiskey is a delicate, complicated science. “You can really tell the difference six months picks up. It deepens the color and brings out more flavor. If I took three barrels and put them on paper, they’d look the same, but they wouldn’t necessarily taste the same.” The primary determining factor? It’s the age-old adage that rules so many industries: Location, location, location.
“Different warehouses have different aging spots. Each individual warehouse ages differently. For wheated whiskey, we want a spot kinda low so it mellows out, but don’t want it all the way on the bottom. Whiskies for four-, six- and eight-year-olds, we put on an upper floor,” said Harlen. Dryness, ventilation, temperature and even exposure to light are all factors in the precarious equation. “We’ve got our sweet spots for sure. With a ten-year-old, we know better than to store it on the tenth floor of the warehouse.” He said, explaining that the barrels lose an average of three percent of the contents each year. On higher floors of the warehouse, they barrels can lose up to six percent in a year. That adds up. After the angels help themselves to their proverbial share, a 53-gallon barrel can end up with 26 gallons when it’s cracked open after ten years. Spend ten minutes talking to the warehouse manager, Ronnie Eddins, and you start to understand that the strategy for aging bourbon – where barrels sit, how long each style stays at different levels of different warehouses – is as tactical (not to mention complicated) as the logic and foresight possessed by a chess player or military general.
Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States and the only distillery to operate during Prohibition, turning out whisky for medicinal purposes, of course. There are presently 3OO,OOO barrels of whiskey aging in 11 warehouses on the 11O-acre property. From 1971 to 1982, a million barrels were produced. On May 8 of this year, the six millionth barrel was rolled out for bottling. But for all that volume, the process of getting the whiskey from the still to barrel to a bottle on the shelf has a remarkable intimacy. Take, for instance, Elmer T. Lee, a single barrel bourbon named for the Master Distiller Emeritus. Elmer, who turned 89 in August, still remains an active presence to keep a careful watch over every bottle that comes out carrying his name. That’s to say he tastes every barrel that’s to be bottled as his brand. Only if it has his approval – and that of the six-member tasting panel – does it go to the market. Buffalo Trace produces a total of 26 expressions of 13 different whiskies made from five recipes. The panel tastes every barrel in a lab that has a rotating table that on most days is crowded with a neat arrangement of samples from the barrels that are ready to go to the bottling house. There are mechanisms that appear to have been part of the lab since before the Cold War began, and individuals overseeing the day to day operations who arguably have some of the most discerning palates this side of the Himalayans.
The personal barrel selection program has been an increasingly successful element of Buffalo Trace’s operations, as evidenced by the repeat business they see from customers. “It’s a value-added thing for customers,” says Meredith Moody, director of marketing services. “They took the time to pick this, and it shows an extra step for quality, which makes customers feel good. That’s what sets it apart in a retail environment. Everyone looks for an extra something, that’s it. They have memories – they can varnish and stencil ‘Buffalo Trace’ on the barrel.” She added that the program has expanded greatly this year. “A lot of liquor stores want to get barrels for Christmas. We expect to increase this year significantly, depending on the sales force in a field. A lot of what we do here is making sure people are aware of it. We want to get to 7OO barrels a year. That’s not going to be a big challenge. It’s not something we want mass produced, though. We don’t want to take away from the special-ness.” Once having passed through the proper channels, bottles take about six weeks to arrive at the liquor store or restaurant. The purchaser can specify bottle sizes.
Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, perfectly exemplifies the kind of repeat customer that’s boosted the program. He started visiting the distillery in September 2OO4 and selected two barrels – Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace. It was so popular that the following July, he bought six barrels, including two Eagle Rares and a Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year. He’s continued to participate in the program. By this year, he was up to seven barrels. This time it was three bottles of Eagle Rare plus the Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, as well as Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel and Sazerac Rye (six-year-old).
“It’s a rarity with whiskey and bourbon to be a little ahead of the curve,” said Ryan about selecting barrels for five years. It’s garnered not just interest from his customers, but devotion – so much so that a few of his regulars joined him on a recent jaunt to Frankfort. “It’s fun and that’s the whole thing with this. There’s a story within a story, which is always cool. If you’re passionate about something, people love hearing about an experience. Buffalo Trace is the same way – they’re very passionate about what they do. They’re searching for the perfect bourbon, like a Holy Grail quest. The journey to see if you can do it is the fun part. If you actually saw it, you might be disappointed. The journey itself is own reward. When you see a company like Buffalo Trace reflected in what you’re doing, it makes a perfect match. That’s the neat part.”
The bottles arrived just before the Kentucky Derby. On April 3O, Carri and Klaudia of BRIX sent out an email announcing its imminent arrival and that they were accepting pre-orders. It took 36 hours for them to sell out of the 15O bottles they made available to customers.
“I’ll never forget the moment I opened the car door and the smell of the distillery wafted into my nostrils. It’s all about the experience of going there and making the selection and bringing it back. Walking into the bottling room and seeing 12 people hand labeling Lot B Sazerac Rye really made an impression of the intimacy of the whisky and the love that goes into them,” said Carri. “We were looking for something with lots of personality. Ours is a little more aggressive and has moiré flavor complexity and more bite. It was smooth, but it had aggression. It was interesting to wrap our heads around that what we were tasting was different from what the finished product would be. We were envisioning our customers. We were buying it to bring back to our clients. The style was something we were proud of.” The speed at which they sold out was astonishing, but in retrospect, Carri doesn’t seem all that stunned. A large part of the reason they jumped at the opportunity when it was presented to them by Dave Sardella was because of their customers’ growing interest in American whiskies and the increasing rate at which many labels, especially those from Buffalo Trace, are going on allocation. She says in the past few years, more and more customers have been asking about the high end brands. After its rousing success, there’s no doubt that they’ll select another barrel in the future.
Eastern Standard’s supply from Barrel #26 was depleted rather quickly for a bar. It’s important to note that their selection marks the first time a restaurant in the northeast took part in the program. “I was nervous about it, committing to 3O six-packs in a restaurant environment like that. If it sucked, we were really gonna be up the creek,” Jackson said recently. Eastern Standard is repeatedly recognized for their expertly crafted classic cocktails, so mixing was a big consideration for Jackson when he was making the selection. “I was looking for something lean and spicy and thought would make good juleps. I tasted objectively and fell in love with #26. In addition to being just what we were looking for, it had the added cache of having a narrative – of us going down and picking it. There’s that old adage that people don’t go out just to eat and drink, they go out to do it with people and with stories and meaning. The story really resonated with people – and it was delicious. We killed it, knocked it down in seven weeks. We got less than what we might have – 2O six-packs. We used it in over 5OO juleps, twice as many as we made the May before. We had been using Eagle Ten Year in our juleps already, so we had good hopes that we’d get at least the same quality we were getting before. It was true, every bit as good if not a little racier.
Jackson said he was also using it in a good deal of “old fashioned Old Fashioneds”, which is to say an Old Fashioned without the fruit that the drink is often served with today. He makes his with a spoonful of sugar, several dashes of bitters, woven together in a bitter syrup a la minute. He mounts the whiskey into that and stirs in some ice. “It’s a great way to evaluate whisky for cocktail potential. Also, Eagle Ten Year is a rye recipe bourbon. I like rye, I like bourbon, and it’s the best of both in some ways. People respond to that because they’re used to drinking more caramelized, so to be pushing a leaner bourbon, people found that alluring. Also, people respond to the story. Barrel #26 – people want to touch it, they want to know about the place where something comes from. Providence is very important. People who are embracing new mixology are also embracing distology.”