Buffalo Trace’s newest whiskey is going to turn a lot of heads when it drops next month, because they’ve taken the beloved recipe for Weller and Van Winkle bourbons and tweaked a major part of the aging process in the name of science.
The 2020 iteration of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, Experiment 23 (the full name is Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection: 12 Year Old Wheated Bourbon, Cut at 4 Years), is the result of 12 years of aging and one unusual change of practice: Buffalo Trace added water a third of the way through the aging process.
Now, let’s get a little nerdy. You might know that, in whiskey production, unaged booze goes into a barrel at “barrel entry proof,” which legally can’t be above 125. Since whiskey comes out of a still at 130-plus proof, they need to add water.
But how much water a distillery adds is a large point of contention in the industry. Less water (and a higher proof whiskey) means a higher proof spirit that’s cheaper to age. More water (and a lower proof whiskey) means more flavor, because water is better at dissolving flavor compounds in the barrel like sugars. (Bourbonr.com has a great resource on this if you want to take a deeper dive.)
Experiment 23 split the difference, and did both—Buffalo Trace aged the whiskey at a higher proof (114) for four years, and then added water and re-barreled it at 100 proof, where it aged for another eight years.
Why does this matter? More water for more time means that the whiskey was able to extract more flavor from the wood than it would have otherwise. And Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley liked how it turned out.
“This experiment helped us to understand how important a role water actually plays in whiskey production,” said Wheatley in a release. “The result of this experiment led us to a bourbon that is actually one of my favorite experiments.” Wheatley describes this bourbon as having a “nose that is sweet and floral, with notes of oak, vanilla, and a bit of leather. There’s a really smooth creamy mouthfeel here. The taste is a pleasing balance of butterscotch, honey, and wood with a crisp finish.”
Is this going to change how Buffalo Trace makes whiskey? Probably not. Experimental Collection projects don’t tend to result in major changes to existing products. Buffalo Trace has been doing experimental single runs of unique whiskeys for over 20 years.
These whiskeys are typically test runs—the collection has showcased a full range of experiments over the years, from different grain bills, like this six-grain bourbon.
Some whiskeys have received better airflow, or direct sunlight, while others have been placed in barrels made by new methods, or with different levels of char.
In total, the brand’s released 23 experiments, including this 2020 offering. Buffalo Trace actually has a complete list of all the released experiments, which you can view here.
Since the Experimental Collection bottles are one-time-only releases, this is a last-chance buying situation. This is a nerd’s bottle—something different, and weird, and worth tasting for fanatics. And it sounds like, according to Wheatley, it’s pretty tasty, too.
Experiment 23 is being released in half-sized, 375 ml bottles at a price of $47 per bottle. Keep an eye out, as they’ll be landing on shelves in May in limited numbers.
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