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How To Find A New Whiskey
I. In The Beginning. My experimental Bourbons for The Party Source had their genesis in a meeting with Buffalo Trace CEO Mark Brown on March 20, 2008. We talked about a wide range of subjects, including the old boom-to-bust cycle of the whiskey industry, production goals (Brown: “We’ve forecasted our sales needs through 2046. So I could tell you how much Van Winkle will be available in 2046.” Erisman: “And I still won’t get any!” laughter), chill-filtration, and the Buffalo Trace Experimental Bourbon program. It emerged from that meeting that I could conduct my own experiments, using Buffalo Trace’s resources as the raw materials. So I went to work, brainstorming not only scores of ideas for experiments, but also laying a philosophical groundwork for the basis of finding new American whiskeys. I consider that new whiskeys may involve a deconstruction of Bourbon, and that Bourbon may change because its audience has changed. Modern Bourbon drinkers live in a post-single barrel, post-unchillfiltered world. We don’t need to be told to drink “sour mash” like our grandparents were. We can make a new whiskey, a dram that explodes old boundaries and expectations. So that’s what I set out to do with Rye’n Barrel and Wheat on Rye. Twenty months later, we have two successful, even wildly successful, experiments on our shelves. Following is a discussion of these experiments and the thought process behind them.
II. TPSX No. 1: “Rye’n Barrel”: Rye whiskey aged in wine barrel
Here is the start of Rye’n Barrel, my initial hypothesis for rye and wine barrels:
Rye with wood finish proceeds on the basis that it's never been done. Moreover, my theory is that if rye tolerates/stands up to oak barrel aging better than Bourbon, it will also better stand up to a wine cask. Finally, though Elmer T. Lee may opine that Bourbon should not taste of fruit (I respectfully disagree, Mr. Lee), rye can and should include fruit tones, with some of the spicy notes in rye (I believe) directly related to certain fruit esters and phenols. Barrel-derived red or white wine notes might go swimmingly with a 6 year rye. Also, perhaps we will use less aging for rye on wine, like six months, than BT did in the various wine BTEX.
I had looked around for some options in used wine barrels, and Dolce winery in Napa Valley seemed ideal. Dolce uses barrels of the finest French oak and the wine is extraordinary, produced in the mold (no pun intended) of Sauternes, the great dessert wine of Bordeaux. Dolce carefully cultivates the so-called noble rot, or botrytis, on their grapes to produce probably the greatest dessert wine in America. Furthermore, the notion of applying some sweeter notes to a rye whiskey from a dessert wine barrel intrigued me.
A friendly, and fascinating, phone call to winemaker Greg Allen at Dolce secured two recently emptied 2006 vintage barrels, which arrived June 18, 2009. Mr. Allen—who proved an invaluable resource in this experiment, helping me work out many technical points of wine barrels and their use—also sent along a little extra Dolce wine to season the barrels, along with instructions for clearing them of preservative sulfur gas. I flushed each barrel twice with water to expel the gas, and, after testing the seasoning wine for quality control, divided it between the two barrels. The barrels then sat in our temperature controlled wine warehouse, where I rotated them frequently to spread the wine around, until Buffalo Trace and I were ready to initiate the experiments. I selected a barrel of five-and-one-half-year-old straight rye whiskey. I chose a slightly younger rye than the commercial Sazerac, thinking that with additional aging in another barrel it might round into perfect form. Under a bright summer sun at the Buffalo Trace regauge room, we dumped the rye into the Dolce barrel on July 9, 2009, and my first experiment was underway. As it turned out, the whiskey did not even need six months of wine barrel aging, so quickly did it develop. The initial samples were overwhelmingly barrel-dominated, as the wine swamped the rye. Here’s my tasting note after 11 days of aging:
Sample 7/21/09 11 days: Whiskey has a marked imprint of wine barrel, very grapey and pomace-like. Note: That an experimental barrel of rye-on-wine could taste and smell so evocatively of top-flight grappa is double-edged, to say the least. Anything specific to rye is very subjugated here, under substantial wine barrel influence. Some late spice is all that remains of this rye barrel, with pronounced grape richness throughout. At the very end, the lifted rye character appears. Needs time to resolve itself.
At this point, I was really hoping to see the grappa character go away! But gradually the whiskey asserted itself—you just can’t keep a good rye down, not even with a wine barrel from one of the best producers in America. By September 10, the rye tasted like this:
Sample 9/22/09 Two months, 14 days: Truly it is in dolce, “made sweet,” given the off-dry entry, replete with juicy wine cask fruits. Rye makes a comeback from the midpalate, where it turns the fruits spicy—the Gewürztraminer of whiskey. I like that the rye has made such advances on the wine cask. And the wine fruits are less buttery, more juicy and vivid. Also—tasted straight it is very impressive, with only some heat and coarser detail separating it from the water-added dram.
Finally, Rye’n Barrel was very nearly ready. It would be removed from the barrels in early October and stored in stainless steel tanks while we waited for time on the bottling line.
III. TPSX No. 2: “Wheat on Rye”: wheated Bourbon aged in a used rye barrel
Experiment No. 1 is the first time rye has been aged in a wine barrel, but it’s not exactly an original idea. Previous Buffalo Trace experiments have involved various wine finishes (in fact, I saw the Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, and other wine barrels in Warehouse during a visit to the Trace in July, 2004), and the Scots have been doing this for some years now. But to my knowledge, Wheat on Rye is the first American whiskey finished in another whiskey barrel. (The Scottish distillery Balvenie previously finished some of their whisky in a used Islay Scotch barrel, giving a peaty drift to their mellow, honeyish dram. Far as I know, that’s the only previous use of aging a whiskey in a used whiskey barrel for the express purpose of obtaining unique flavors.)
Wheat on Rye began as an express attempt to swap flavors around in a Bourbon, to deconstruct a whiskey and reassemble it at the level of elemental flavors. Here’s my hypothesis:
Would finishing a Bourbon in a used rye barrel add some rye whiskey notes that are different than those derived from rye grain in the Bourbon? Must use a barrel from young and max-spicy Sazerac. Also, use Weller [wheated Bourbon], to allow for most infusion of rye barrel notes as opposed to any rye grain notes. This could yield a totally new flavor in Kentucky whiskey, with the texture/flavor/sweetness of wheated with a different version of rye spice. Try a 6.5 year Weller (with best bbl selection), and add 9-12 months in rye barrel.
As with the rye, I had selected a single barrel of wheated Bourbon. We dumped it on July 9 into the just-emptied rye barrel used in TPSX 1. Buffalo Trace warehouse manager Leonard Riddle advised we age the barrels in warehouse L, a concrete warehouse with solid floors, which he thought would provide a more temperate environment than the warmer wooden rickhouses. We rolled the barrels out of the elevator onto the third floor and crossed our fingers.
Once again, that wheated Bourbon took off like a rocket in the used rye cask. After 11 days, it tasted like this:
Sample 7/22/09 11 days: The rye barrel is present (hallelujah!) but very subtle. In the nose, it is as if you see the shadow of the rye, the outline, not the rye itself; very Zen. The rye vein is even more subtle, even barely there, in the mouth; yet there is a final numbing of clove-spice at the extension of the finish. (Too much water can diminish this effect.) That is not a flavor of wheated Bourbon. Finish is very long with pervasive rye (if not, of course, actual straight rye). The textural softness of wheated is preserved with a fine entry. Compared to the original sample, the rye dominates the finish, very much so, with an extended plume of rye spice. Whether this is due to aggressive rye barrel vs. wheat whiskey, or to the relatively mellow finish of the original whiskey, I do not know. Very water sensitive.
After nearly four weeks in the barrel, the rye kick in the finish was still there, but the rest of the whiskey had filled out nicely:
Sample 8/5/09 27 days: The rye-on-wheat experiment has evolved considerably. By now it retains the potent rye kick into the finish, and the supple-smooth wheated entry. But in between—and this applies to the nose as well—it has gained a seamlessness that, while not as dramatically different as earlier samples, is in the end superior for its unity. With the right [amount of] water, the whiskey just falls into place from nose to finish, a close meld of character.
To this day, the whiskey is still highly reactive to water, which I find great fun. More water emphasizes the soft wheaty entry, while a stronger glass pushes more rye spice. Most of all, I’m pleased with the seamless construction of this one-of-a-kind whiskey. Going into this, I wondered if the rye would seem forced or out of joint with the rest of the palate, but in the end it tastes contiguous, crafted from a solid block of flavor, like it was born that way. I can scarcely imagine a better outcome for Wheat on Rye.
IV. Results. Both of these initial experiments seek to find “impossible” flavors, which could not exist in “nature” or in these whiskeys as they are normally constituted. For example, while Bourbon can often have a certain sweetness and flavors of assorted confections, rye really does not get sweet per se. Hence, the experiment Rye’n Barrel looks to confer sweet flavors on dry rye whiskey. The result is like nothing so much as a holiday iced gingerbread cookie. Likewise, Wheat on Rye places the flavor of spicy rye into Bourbon which never saw a grain of rye in its life, as the rye barrel influence slowly, inexorably takes over from the soft-rich wheated Bourbon palate entry. Or, to look at it another way, this is the softest, mellowest rye you’ve ever tasted—thanks to the wheated Bourbon up front.
As such, I count both of these as successful experiments. They not only prove my original ideas but do it with style and panache and compelling whiskey structure. Lots of future spin-offs can happen from what I learned from these two barrels…but right now, there are more experiments to tend to.
V. Credits. A number of people deserve thanks for helping on this project, including the hard-working folks on the Albert Blanton bottling line; the many Buffalo Trace warehousemen, who dumped the barrels and pulled biweekly barrel samples; Buffalo Trace Warehouse Manager Leonard Riddle; Lead Chemist Truman Cox; Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley; Brand Manager Kris Comstock, and Kentucky rep John Vereeke for his tireless sample and barrel delivery service. At The Party Source, our marketers Alex Gehler and Damian Morano, and General Manager Jon Stiles and owner Ken Lewis for their full support.
Special thanks are due to Drew Mayville, Buffalo Trace Director of Quality, for his Jedi-master-style coaching and intellectual discourse on a wide range of whiskey topics. And most of all, I am indebted to CEO Mark Brown, smartest man in the Bourbon business with or without an English accent, for this unparalleled opportunity to work so closely with one of the best distilleries in the world. Cheers, mate.