A Surprisingly Versatile Distillery

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Photo by cwwycoff1/Flickr CC


I'm not sure Isaiah Berlin ever drank American whiskey, but if he knew anything about the industry, he'd probably agree that just like writers, some distilleries are foxes, who know a lot of things, and others are hedgehogs, who know one big thing. Four Roses and Jim Beam are foxes; Maker's Mark and Jack Daniel's are hedgehogs. Woodford Reserve, with its great flagship bourbon and its awful line of experimental expressions, is a hedgehog that thinks it's a fox.

And then there's Buffalo Trace, which everyone thinks is a hedgehog but is, in fact, a fox. The distillery is best known for its eponymous Buffalo Trace brand, a 90-proof straight bourbon; it's crisp and ice-sheet smooth, making it a fantastic beginner's quaff. It's the one that first hooked my wife and most of my friends.

From a quick trip to the Web site, you'd have no idea they made anything else--you'd think they were, in fact, a hedgehog. But click on the awards page. There 25 different whiskies are listed, everything from the down-market Virginia Gentleman to the very much upmarket Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old. And a lot of critical favorites in between. There's the Antique Collection, an annual release of five elite barrel-strength whiskies, including (in my order of preference) George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Sazerac Rye, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, and Thomas H. Handy. Depending on the year, Stagg is often considered the best bourbon in America, a real palate pleaser with strong caramel notes and an almost meaty mouthfeel.

This is the true test of a great bourbon: When you add water, does it just taste like watered-down bourbon? Not Blanton's Straight from the Barrel.

But wait: There's so, so much more. Aside from a few early, painful assignations with Wild Turkey and Jim Beam, my introductory bourbon experience was with Blanton's, the country's first single-barrel expression and still one of the best. It was my grandfather's bourbon of choice, and it was a fine fall day indeed when he offered me my first glass. It's thinner than Stagg, and at 93 proof not as potent. It's what you'd call a "session bourbon," for those who can spend an entire session drinking bourbon.

I always thought there was just one Blanton's; even on the Buffalo Trace tour, they talk exclusively about the original Single Barrel (there's a rare Special Reserve, but it's just a lower proof). But then one day I was touring the liquor department at Kaufhaus des Westens, that Mt. Everest of luxury shopping in west Berlin, and I came across three other expressions: Silver, Gold, and Straight from the Barrel. These are export only, and super-premium. I bought two bottles of the Straight from the Barrel--one for me, one for my brother--and we both agree it's about the best thing we've ever tried. Usual taste notes don't apply; "golden" is the word that came to mind. It's 140 proof, so cutting was essential, and different flavors emerge with different levels of water. This is the true test of a great bourbon: When you add water, does it just taste like watered-down bourbon? Not Blanton's Straight from the Barrel.

If you take the tour, pay attention in the warehouse. Tucked alongside the full-size barrels will be the occasional, small cask. These are the experimentals. Like Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace releases an annual experimental series; unlike Woodford, most of the Trace's experiments are actually decent quaffs. There are two each year. For 2009 the experiment involved aging bourbon in new oak barrels for eight years, then putting it in fresh barrels and aging it again, one for another eight years, the other for just four. Last year's had one batch aged in rough-grain oak barrels, the other in fine-grain barrels. Wine barrels, rum barrels--they've tried a lot of things. They're not always a success; last year's fine-grain bourbon was pretty bland, though the rough-grained expression was amazing. Mistakes will happen; that's the point. These are experiments, and unlike Woodford's line, the Trace's has a purpose--you can imagine each experiment leading to better, regular-production bourbon in the future.

That's a lot of booze. And I haven't even mentioned Pappy Van Winkle, or Elmer T. Lee, or W.L. Weller--a wheated bourbon, like Maker's Mark but so much better--or McAfee's, or Rock Hill Farms, or Old Charter, or Hancock's...

Buffalo Trace takes its name from a pre-settler path used by wild buffalo on the site of the present-day distillery. I'll bet a bottle of Blanton's that there were some foxes around, too.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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