Buffalo Trace Experimental Barrels Push Over 5,000 Whiskies

Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace is a big distillery with a long history in bourbon making lore. It warrants, therefore, that the distilling folks there, led by master distiller Harlen Wheatley, have a few barrels sitting around which are experimental in nature. Few is actually an understatement it turns out, as it was revealed recently there are more than 5,000 Buffalo Trace experimental barrels tucked away.

Buffalo Trace experimental barrels

A Buffalo Trace employee studies one of the Warehouse X barrels (image via Buffalo Trace)

Buffalo Trace is known for being pretty public forward facing around their experimental projects. We’ve written a couple of things on their ultra-experimental Warehouse X, for example, and there’s also the infamous story about the 26 year old bourbon they killed because they didn’t feel it was fit for drinking. This 5,0000+ barrel revelation takes things to a much higher level though, so I now turn it over to them to describe in their own words what this looks like:

The folks at Buffalo Trace began … whiskey experiments using unique mash bills, types of wood, barrel toasts, and more. A newly hired Distillery Supervisor named Harlen Wheatley helped with some of the early experiments back in 1995, including bourbon not aged in traditional American White Oak, but French Oak.

Two decades later, Wheatley, now Master Distiller, stands at the helm of more than 5,000 experimental whiskey barrels aging at Buffalo Trace Distillery, the largest number of experimental barrels ever held in inventory at this National Historic Landmark Distillery.

Through the years, the experiments evolved in complexity. There have been experiments using non-traditional grains, (rice and oats), various fill proofs, barrels made from woods around the world, and even from forests in the United States not considered traditional barrel producing states. In some of the experiments Buffalo Trace’s own warehouses were the control factors, playing with barrels put up on the same day on different floors and left alone for years, to see how they might taste different. Or how a concrete floor warehouse and a wooden floor warehouse affect the taste of a barrel of bourbon, which one is better? All of these questions were asked and answered over the last 20 years.

But not all experiments are successes. An early “failed” experiment was with aging bourbon in small barrels, of 5, 10 and 15 gallon barrels vs. the standard 55 gallon. Despite the six years of aging, the bourbon never reached its full potential, and in 2012 the experiment was deemed a failure but bottled up for future research by the distillery team.

There have been other failed experiments along the way, bourbon made with barley, bourbon aged in barrels made with sour wood, and the most recent failure, a 26 year old bourbon barrel that was just past its prime. All of these are bottled up and stored in the archives.

“Today, our experiments are more focused within the confines of bourbon whiskey,” said Wheatley in a statement. “We have hundreds of potential future experiments on our list and discuss regularly with the experimental team to prioritize the most interesting ideas and the experiments that deliver the most useful information.”

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It’s important to learn from your mistakes too. We learn as much from our failures as our successes, sometimes even more so from the failures, so that’s why we want to keep a record of them so we have them for future research.”