Buffalo Trace: Small Barrel Whiskey Experiments Are Failures

Buffalo Trace: Small Barrel Whiskey Experiments Are Failures

Buffalo Trace is the leader in Bourbon country at tinkering with tradition and releasing “experimental” whiskeys, which the company pumps out at an almost breakneck pace. (We’ve got reviews of many of these recent experiments coming up soon.)

But today Buffalo Trace announced that not every experiment works, and its work with very small barrels will not be seeing the light of day. Press release follows.

FRANKFORT, Franklin County, Ky (Aug. 22, 2012) Sometimes, 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.

Christopher Null is the founder and editor in chief of Drinkhacker. A veteran writer and journalist, he also operates Null Media, a bespoke content creation company.


  1. Lloyd on August 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    From a chemistry perspective, how does one explain the apparent lack of wood sugar extraction, whereas the tanins, etc. extract more quickly?

  2. Jack on August 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Laphroaig Quarter Cask seems to work just fine??? Raises a lot of questions doesn’t it?

  3. Christopher Null on August 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    There are many factors to consider, and some distilleries use small barrels quite effectively (including Laphroaig and Tuthilltown). Perhaps the Kentucky heat was a culprit? It’s so hard to say…

  4. Eric on August 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    The quarter casks used by Laphroaig and Ardmore are actually bigger than the small barrels being used by Buffalo Trace and the quarter casks are being used to finish the whisky after they have spent a period in standard sized barrels.

  5. TROY on August 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I am sure the guys at Tuthilltown Distillery laughed all the to the bank after seeing that article.

  6. Scott Spolverino on August 23, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    As far as the “chemistry” behind this, I find it extremely dubious. Wood sugars such as glucose, fructose, xylose, and arabinose should have been taken up within the time-frame given. In truth, Buffalo Trace is misleading people since they’re comparing it to a 53 gallon barrel. Of course it won’t have as much wood sugar as a 53 gallon barrel; there isn’t as much wood in a 5 gallon barrel as there is a 53 gallon barrel. So of course there won’t be as much wood sugars. If you got as much wood sugars as a 53 gallon barrel, the spirit would have to disintegrate the barrel itself (and that’s pretty much impossible as cask exhaustion happens within 12-18 months in small barrels). If you want more behind the chemistry of it, check this out: http://www.inwithbacchus.com/2011/12/science-of-wood-maturation.html.

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