Buffalo Trace Small Barrel Experiment A Failure


(Buffalo Trace Press Release) 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.

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  1. Tried working as night watchman in a distillery but nobody noticed.

  2. Jeffery Summerfield

    To call this experiment a failure is to not do it justice. Any experiment you learn something from is a success. In this case, BT learned that smaller is not often better. Clearly a few distillers make the small barrel approach work well somehow, so a blanket statement that it doesn’t ever work is unwarranted, but what BT has shown everyone here is that just because a bottle says “small barrel” on it doesn’t mean that it is good, and may in fact indicate the opposite. So do your homework, don’t overpay for trendy swill, and don’t assume you dislike bourbon until you have actually had some that tastes like what it is supposed to taste like.

    I’d call that valuable information. And if that is the sort of public service that BT is providing under the auspices of experimentation, I don’t see how the word failure can be assigned to it with any degree of accuracy whatsoever.

  3. As an editorial note, I must point out that it was Buffalo Trace themselves that labeled the experiment a “failure,” and not us.

  4. Anyone think to wonder why Buffalo Trace went public? I’m sure there is absolutely no monetary motivation at all.

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