Barrel stave drying time is the latest focus in Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Collection program, as two experiments are released, one with the standard Buffalo Trace stave drying time of six months, and one with a 13 month stave drying time.
Both bourbons were put into new, charred white oak barrels produced by Independent Stave Company 15 years ago. Both groups of barrels were charred with Buffalo Trace’s standard number four char, which is 55 seconds. One group of barrels was crafted from staves that had been air dried for 13 months. Air drying, or seasoning, refers to the process of allowing barrel staves to be left out in the open air to experience all of the natural temperature and weather changes that occur around them. The other group of barrels, the “control” barrels, received Buffalo Trace’s standard six month air drying time on its staves. Then both sets of barrels were filled with Buffalo Trace Rye Mash #1, and left to age.
The taste differences began to show up early in the experimental process, as all experimental barrels at Buffalo Trace are tasted every few months to check in on the progress. The end result for the standard six-month stave seasoned barrels was a well-rounded bourbon that has flavors of caramel, vanilla, and oak.
The 13-month stave seasoned barrels led to a bourbon that tastes of sweet nuts balanced with mild spicy notes, creating a robust flavor.
“What’s normal for us isn’t normal for most,” says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. “We have our cooperage age our wood for six months before it’s even made into a barrel, because we’ve found the six months allows our wood to season and bring enzymes to the surface that allow the wood to produce just the right amount of tannins and wood sugars during the charring process. This allows for the alcohol to extract those flavors efficiently while aging.”
Wheatley continues, “In this experiment, we wanted to explore the changes as the stave drying time was increased from our ‘standard’ six month stave drying to 13 months of stave drying time. The differences were marked, with the longer stave drying time yielding a sweet, but robust flavor.”
These barrels 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.