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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mongolian Oak at Buffalo Trace

I visited Buffalo Trace last year in June, working on a piece that's finally going to see light in the next issue of Malt Advocate (don't worry, it's timeless). While I was there, I talked to Warehouse Supervisor Ronnie Eddins, a true master in bourbon warehousing, the man behind many of the interesting experimental whiskeys that distillery has been working on. In the early stages of the interview, mention was made of barrels, and how they have to be made of oak. Not white oak, as many people think, but...oak. And either Ronnie or Angela Travers -- memory fails me -- mentioned something about barrels made of Mongolian Oak -- and I was immediately asked to keep that under my hat. It was painful -- that stuff's heavy! -- but I did.

And here it is.
The mad scientists at Buffalo Trace Distillery are at it again! This round of unique experimentation involves the type of oak barrel used in the aging process. Any guesses? If you said Mongolian Oak, you are correct!

Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley, has reached deep into his bag of tricks and is ready to see what interesting things will happen by aging his precious spirit in Mongolian Oak barrels.

Why Mongolian Oak you ask? “It’s a really unique proposition and something that hasn’t been tried before,” commented Wheatley. “We love to try new and innovative things and this one was on our list. We can’t wait to see how it turns out eight or ten years down the road.”

Not only are these barrels new and innovative, they are also expensive. Ten barrels have been put away for aging at a cost of $530 each—about four times the cost of an American White Oak barrel. It also took more than a year to coordinate production of these barrels.

The Mongolian Oak barrels are an industry standard 53 gallons. A cooperage in Spain supplied the Mongolian Oak to the Independent Stave Company and they crafted the barrels. The barrels received a #4 char—about 55 seconds—and will be filled with Buffalo Trace mash bill #1. This is the same recipe which is used for Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Look for more of these types of experiments to be conducted. Also on the list for trial are Japanese and Canadian Oak.

You'll notice that the outcoming spirit has not been called "bourbon." But as I read it, the regs only say that the barrels must be new, charred, oak barrels. Nothing about what kind of oak, or where it was grown. We'll see. $10 a gallon just for wood!


Crash said...

Mr. Bryson,

I could have SWORN that the Bourbon regs called for it to be matured in charred, new AMERICAN oak barrels, but I'm darned if I can find anything to back that up.

Perhaps it's just assumed that the oak is American because of tradition and practical costs involved with Bourbon production.

Perhaps a call to Chuck Cowdery is in order?

Lew Bryson said...

Lots of people SWEAR that 'bourbon' has to be made in Kentucky, or that only Jim Beam is sour mash, or that Jack Daniel's is bourbon. But it don't make it so. I used to think the same thing you did, but Mark Brown at the Trace set me straight on that about five years ago (which is kind of telling, looking back on it).

The CFR says only that it must be "stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers." That seems pretty clear. No need to bother Chuck. This is interesting stuff, but not heretical. Far as that goes, the whiskey may well suck; a lot of the experimental stuff apparently isn't worth drinking. But that's how you learn.

Casey said...

I always thought it had to be "virgin american white oak"

Lew Bryson said...

"Oak" is the only thing specified. Not "American."