Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Small Barrels Still Produce Lousy Whiskey.

My personal experience with this particular Buffalo Trace experiment is well known.

About this time last year, Buffalo Trace invited me to the distillery in Frankfort to taste the results of a 'failed experiment' involving small barrels. I tasted the whiskey that came from the barrels and talked about it with Sazerac President Mark Brown, Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, and Brand Manager Kris Comstock. I wrote about the experience here and in my newsletter, The Bourbon Country Reader. Lew Bryson, Managing Editor of The Whisky Advocate Magazine, was also in attendance and also wrote about it.

The experiment and our reports created quite a stir, especially within the micro-distiller community, where the use of small barrels abounds. I expanded the Reader article into a small ebook, which has sold well.

Today, Buffalo Trace Distillery sent out a short press release about the experiment and its results. This is not a new small barrels experiment. It's the same experiment, they just waited until now to write about it.

Here's what they have to say:


Not all experiments are successful. Buffalo Trace Distillery learned this the hard way with its small barrel experiments started in 2006.

Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years.

The results were less than stellar. Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.

While Buffalo Trace is NOT releasing these experiments, the Distillery did feel it was important to release their findings. The company hopes others can learn from such an experiment, just as they have.

“As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons. Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.

Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time. Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned.

“These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve. The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn’t what we would deem as meeting our quality standards. But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels. It’s one experiment we are not likely to repeat,” said Wheatley.

These small barrel experiments are part of the more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in the warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Each of these barrels has unique characteristics that differentiate it from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, type of wood and barrel toasts. In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program, an entire micro distillery, named The Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery, complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state-of-the-art micro still has been constructed within Buffalo Trace Distillery.


Gary said...

I've read elsewhere that small barrels aged more quickly in the first 12-18 months, but after that the quality went downhill. I'm curious if Buffalo Trace tried tasting at different ages to see the results?

Not for a minute suggesting they would get the same flavor profile in less time with small barrels, but curious if small barrels might be successful for a micro-distiller who is producing something perhaps a bit different than traditional bourbon.

Chuck Cowdery said...

They tasted them after 12 months and again after 24, etc. I only tasted the 6-year product, but I can't imagine how that whiskey could have tasted better at 12 or 18 months, though this was just one experiment and, yes, distillers make their products as they see fit. The products they release taste the way they want them to taste. Whether or not they taste good is up to the consumer to decide

Michael Shoshani said...

I wonder what affect a heated warehouse vs an unheated one would have on small barrels. I'm inclined to think negative. (20 years ago, Murray and the Regans wrote that Elmer T. Lee heated the warehouses. I have no idea if they still do that today.)

Unknown said...

I remember seeing some kind of presentation (I think it was delivered at ADI's annual event, so there might be a link somewhere on their site) about the actual chemical reactions that take place in smaller barrels compared to larger ones, and how those reactions vary over time. The long and short of it, you can get flavor out of smaller barrels, but the aging process in larger barrels was the only way to produce the kinds of flavor compounds we associate with good bourbon whiskey. So could a distillery utilize the smaller barrels for those first 12-18 months and then transfer them to a larger barrel for continued aging? That seems like a strange and possibly useless experiment (why not just age them in the larger barrels to begin with), but I wonder what the effect would be.

In any case, I don't think this experiment means unequivocally that we won't see small barrels being used. You're right - how they taste is for the consumer to decide.

Toddius said...

New York Times article on artificial whiskey aging.

Paul McIvor said...

Chuck, thanks for the great information. Good to see Buffalo Trace being honest (eventually) about the results of this experiment. I am a fan of Buffalo Trace, and I was curious to get your overall thoughts on the distillery. I found a copy of your book, 'Bourbon, straight', online and it's on it's way to me. Excited to get into it. Cheers!

sam k said...

All of this is quite subjective by any legitimate research standard.

Did Buffalo Trace distill new make specifically suited for small barrel aging, or did they just put their regular new make (formulated to be aged for at least four years) into a smaller barrel? If so, game over.

Did they evaluate the product monthly (or even more frequently) to track the progress, then attenuate that process at its peak? Absolutely not. "Tasted annually..." are you kidding? Most craft distillers using smaller barrels distill the product to be more palatable after short aging regimes, then pull the product from them well before a year of aging. Six years in small barrels is ludicrous.

Does small barrel aging replicate the accepted practice of aging in 53 gallon barrels (a default measurement in any regard, as barrel sizes were all over the map for years until standardization)? It does not.

The rash assumption that small barrel aging "produces lousy whiskey" without consideration for the potential variables involved is reckless in and of itself.

There are a number of acceptable, even good, short aged whiskeys on the market. Small barrel aging has its merits, though definitely limited, and will produce whiskey that is accepted and even embraced by the market, much as the white whiskeys that preceded them.

As constructed, this is a flawed and failed attempt from the start, and should not be used as any serious exploration into the nuances of the craft whiskey universe. There are excellent examples already on the market.

Anonymous said...

And what distillery does Sam work for?

Anonymous said...

Sazerac and BT have plenty of professionaly trained chemists working for them. I would assume and hope the experimental procedure included more than is posted here and was "legitimate research".

Tim Dellinger said...

Headline: "Scottish climate produces lousy whiskey"

Text: Bourbon distillers have released the results of an experiment in which freshly filled barrels of bourbon were shipped to Scotland for aging for up to six years. Samples were taken at regular intervals, and the results were "terrible" according to industry experts. "The Scottish climate is simply unsuitable for whiskey aging."

(The press release is fictional, but the experiment was real.)

Chuck, you're being overly dramatic here with the headlines of "terrible whiskey", and jumping to conclusions based on a few ill-concieved experiments.

Is it possible to create a guitar that uses steel strings instead of gut? Is it possible to create an internal combustion engine that uses Diesel fuel? For both you can't just change one component (the strings or the fuel) and expect identical performance. You have to optimize the rest of the design, and you end up with something that is, in fact, equally effective, but very different in character.

Until you're ready to release headlines stating that Scotland is unsuitable for aging whiskey, you might want to tone down the rhetoric about small barrels...

Chuck Cowdery said...

I've always said that this is one experiment by one company and I have reported it as such. The conclusory headline is mine, not Buffalo Trace's. Perhaps the broadness of the headline (in the nature of headlines) is inconsistent with the limited nature of the experiment, but it's absurd to say an experiment is illegitimate if it doesn't incorporate every possible situation or circumstance. Dozens of micro-distillers are conducting similar experiments every day, except they call them production, using a variety of variables and everybody can draw their own conclusions about what winds up in the bottle. There does seem to be an emerging consensus that while small barrels and other techniques may produce a palatable or even excellent product, they won't create a product that tastes like we expect bourbon to taste, although many have made exactly that claim. (See Clay Risen's NYT article.) That was the state of the rhetoric when I joined this conversation.

Scott Spolverino said...

Unknown: Yes, there was a presentation at ADI on this topic. It was mine and John David Jeffery's. A link to my portion can be found here:

The long and short of it, here, is that small barrels make a different kind of whiskey. It is not the whiskey that we've known. It is a new kind of whiskey. It's innovation in the spirits industry. It isn't the same as traditional aged whiskey in terms of chemical profile and such...but it's whiskey. And its popular.

As far as this "experiment", calling it an experiment is a stretch by any imagination. With no empirical data released, no attempts at controls, and a clear bias going into the experiment (no scientist would age something for six years and expect positive results; it's representation of bias)...its pretty much just "we did some stuff that we're calling an experiment and now you should treat it as proof." The fact that a large company would take a stab at the craft distilling community under the guise of its "important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes" is just cheap.

John Hansell said...

That was my gut feeling when I blogged about it back in June, 2011.

I didn't have any proof. I knew there was some experimenting going on. Nice to see that there is some confirmation surfacing.

sam k said...

I WISH I worked for a distillery. Been drinking the stuff and thinking analytically about it for 35 years, though.

I am familiar with several craft distillers, however, and appreciate what they bring to the whiskey table (at least for the most part), even if what they bring to the table is not necessarily what we're used to being served at said table.

I want this segment of the industry to innovate, mature, and ultimately succeed. As whiskey aficionados, we should all want that.

John Hansell said...

Sorry, hit the send button too soon. I guess my sentiments echo Chuck's at this point, based on my experiences: "There does seem to be an emerging consensus that while small barrels and other techniques may produce a palatable or even excellent product, they won't create a product that tastes like we expect bourbon to taste, although many have made exactly that claim."

theBitterFig said...

Call me a crazy, scotch-centric dude, but tell me they at least tried blending the "just so smoky and dark" with their basic bourbon... I know blending it a four-letter word in the world of American whisky, but it works so very well in Scotland. Small-barrel whisky not good enough on its own, but maybe 10% of the small barrel in with ordinary or slightly-older BT? Or wheated bourbon? Tell me they at least tried it in house and rejected it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Experiment: a methodical trial and error procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis.

Vinny Lynch said...

That is the definition of an experiment, but you must also define your hypothesis at the outset and, if it is to see how small barrels age whiskey and compare to the micros, mimic the methods you are trying to test. I.e. a sampling schedule similar to the micros and bit your own. It was an experiment just a biased and poorly planned one. That is not to say the bias was intentional however.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You're assuming, Vinny, that BT did this experiment with an eye to what the micros were doing, and there is no reason to assume that. The micros didn't invent small barrel aging. When this experiment was conceived, the micros were just getting going. BT had trouble finding the small barrels. Again, it is what it is. I think most of the criticism about what it isn't is misplaced.

Jeff Harner said...

That is the definition of experiment, but I think Mr. Spolverino takes issue with the 'methodical' part of it. A serious experiment would apply a more rigorous approach, and BT certainly didn't employ the scientific method to prove this hypothesis. However, taste is a subjective thing, and it's hard to prove scientifically that one bourbon tastes better than the other. Where you spend your dollars might an indicator though!

And sorry, Scott, for not giving credit where credit was due for your report I mentioned (I am 'Unknown' - I incorrectly thought it would link my email).

Chuck Cowdery said...

I think you're assuming more than you know about what BT intended. Taste may be subjective, but when you're comparing to a standard, it's much less subjective. The standard, in this case, being the same whiskey aged for the same amount of time in 53 gallon barrels.

Jeff Harner said...

Then wouldn't a more appropriate headline have been, "Two Whiskeys Produced Using Two Different Methods Taste Differently"? The small barrels didn't make that whiskey that tasted terrible, the distiller(s) did. I'm certainly not a cheerleader for the craft distilling community, but I think that's an area where their proclivity for innovation and experimentation can give us something new and unique and maybe even better, if not exactly comparable to the bourbon that BT and others like it make.

In any case, this is a great topic, and one that clearly hasn't been resolved by BT. Really appreciate your insight!

Anonymous said...

Everyone keeps criticizing BT's experimental method and their mediocre use of the scientific method. However, BT stated in their announcement that they are "NOT releasing these experiments...". All they have released are their findings.

I'm not really pro or con BT or this experiment, I just have a really hard time assuming that the scientists at Sazerac/BT who I'm sure worked on this project decided to forgo their scientific training and employ "bad science."

Ben said...

Every micro-distilled American bourbon I've ever had has not only been awful, but has been expensive and awful. At this point I've tried like three, which obviously isn't a huge sample size, but when those bottles all cost Woodford Reserve prices and tasted substantially worse than Ten High, it's hard to want to throw good money after bad.

Drink Spirits said...

Barrels are all tools. Both large and small barrels have their place. I'm glad that Buffalo Trace announced that their small barrel experiment was a failure, it opened the dialogue around the topic.

There is so much short cutting that goes on in the beverage alcohol space that doesn't really get discussed. It's been well documented in wine, but we all know it happens in spirits. I guess the big question isn't if the tools are bad or good, but how the products that are produced using these tools are.

I've had my fair share of whiskey that has been pushed through maturation through a multitude of tactics (including small barrels) and my experience has always been that no matter what you do there's no substitute for TIME. Having said that I've had some really nice spirits that have spent time in a combination of barrels including some of the stuff from Balcones Including their Texas Single Malt:

I don't think it's fair to compare the work being done by small distillers to the big boys. Craft distilling is still in its infacy and so the products coming out of that space reflects that, but give it time, there are some exciting things on the horizon.

Anonymous said...

Same issue, much broader perspective.