Buffalo Trace Completes First Round of Whiskey Experiments

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Earlier this year I wrote about Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace and the distillery’s dedication to experimentation with whiskeymaking technology. The first barrels were laid down here in 2013, and this week, 3.5 million data points later, they were cracked open, ready for analysis.

I’m pasting the full press release below, but here’s the findings in a nutshell.

  • Hotter barrels do indeed produce higher alcohol levels in the finished product. This has long been well-known in the business (and is the reason why barrels on the upper floors of a rickhouse tend to go into the rarer bottlings, like George T. Stagg), but Buffalo Trace has formally validated this with science.
  • Natural light hitting barrels however does not impact color or abv. The “honey barrel” theory has long held that barrels nearest windows, which receive natural light, mature more fully. The experiments show that this really isn’t the case. That said, other factors such as air flow may impact these barrels, so the jury’s not yet out on honey barrels.

More experiments are on the way, so stay tuned come late 2018 for the next batch of results!

FRANKFORT, Franklin County, Ky (Nov. 30, 2016) Buffalo Trace Distillery has completed phase one of its bourbon barrel aging experiment inside Warehouse X, the experimental warehouse built in 2013 that allows for specific atmospheric variables to be tested in four individual chambers, plus one open air breezeway.   The first experiment focused on natural light, keeping barrels in various stages of light for two years.

Chamber One of Warehouse X held barrels at 50% natural light, while matching the temperature of the barrels inside the chamber to the temperature of the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Barrels in Chamber Two experienced 100% darkness, while keeping the barrel temperature at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chamber Three also had 100% darkness, but those barrel temperatures were kept the same temperature as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

Chamber Four barrels saw 100% natural light as the temperature was kept the same as the barrels in the outdoor breezeway.

In the two years this experiment was conducted, the barrels in the open air breezeway (which was not climate controlled) saw a fluctuation of temperatures ranging from -10 F to 105 F, likely some of the greatest temperature variance any bourbon barrels have ever experienced. The pressure inside these barrels varied from -2.5 psi to 2.5 psi.

The team at Buffalo Trace collected and analyzed an astonishing 3.5 million data points. Among those learnings, an interesting correlation between light and psi was realized, and a long held distiller’s theory of more heat equaling higher proof was scientifically proven (at least for now).

However, another popular theory was disproved in part – as it turns out, the amount of light does not really affect the color or the proof of the bourbon inside the barrels. So much for the theory of honey barrels! But Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley has this to add about honey barrels, “Even though we proved light doesn’t affect the color or the proof of the whiskey, that doesn’t mean that honey barrels (those next to windows in standard warehouses that are typically distiller’s favorites) don’t taste a little bit better. Perhaps because of other factors than natural light.  We did prove factors like temperature, pressure, humidity and air flow all play a role in the end result.”

Now that the light experiment is complete, Buffalo Trace is moving on to the next planned experiment, which focuses on temperature. In this experiment, the various chambers will experience different temperature variations, with Chamber One remaining the same temperature as the outdoor breezeway, plus 10 F.  Chamber Two will be 80 F, Chamber Three will be at 55 F and Chamber Four will be kept at the breezeway temperature minus 10 F.  The temperature experiment is expected to last at least two years.

For information about Warehouse X including a blog updated since the inception, visit http://www.experimentalwarehouse.com/

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