11/18/2010 01:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Building the Perfect Bourbon at Buffalo Trace

Last summer in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail (the annual festival of cocktails, cuisine, and culture), Mark Brown, the CEO of Buffalo Trace Distillery, gave a talk on what the company calls the Experimental Collection. Buffalo Trace produces their eponymous whiskey, as well as many excellent labels, including the 107° Weller Reserve that is my most common pour, Pappy Van Winkle, Blantons, and Eagle Rare. They began experimenting in 1987, and they've made something like 1500 barrels in this line. The whole thing is a whiskey geek's dream. I was excited to attend, and disappointed to find that I was double booked and had to miss it. (Such is the way it goes at Tales of Cocktail, one is always missing something good. It's impossible to plan for such a generous offering of seminars and events, and impossible to predict where the tides will take you. They are tides of booze, after all.) My disappointment only grew as I learned what had been discussed. Mr. Brown had laid out the goals of the Experimental program.

Through the grapevine I heard that they are taking apart bourbon, singling out the elements that make it good, and trying to perfect it. Spirit production is steeped in lore and folk wisdom, consider the lingo: Angel's Share, Honey Barrel, White Dog -- this is voodoo. Buffalo Trace is mapping the craft, attempting to replace leaps of faith with fact, luck with design.

This was a perfect topic for Tales of the Cocktail, as that's what the world's best bartenders do, too: they take apart what's in the glass, consider the elements carefully, and make better drinks. Aside from all the social hubbub, the events, the awards and the parties, that's what Tales of the Cocktail is about -- paying granular attention to libations, improving and understanding every part.

I couldn't shake the idea that I'd missed something good, and I called Mr. Brown to talk about the Experimental Collection.

Simply put, the experiments are test batches -- answers to "what would happen if we . . . " Some percentage of what's made, the good ones, are released to the public, but many more are simply chalked up as lessons learned and abandoned. Their experimental barley whiskey, for instance, was a flop.

"Six years in the barrel," said Mr. Brown, "it tasted terrible. Four more, it tasted awful. We took it all the way to nineteen years before we decided not to inflict it on the public."

My central question was a simple one: Why? Why would they bother with this at all? In October 2010, Wine and Spirits magazine named Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey "Spirit of the Year." It was the only bourbon among the eight spirits chosen for the honor. Also in October, Buffalo Trace released their limited edition, phenomenal, Antique Collection. The Antique Collection includes a 17-year-old expression of Eagle Rare, the uncut, unfiltered 18-year-old Thomas H. Handy, an 18-year-old Sazerac Rye, William Larue Weller bourbon, and George T. Stagg. George T. Stagg was Jim Murray's "Bourbon of the Year" in 2009, and has been Murray's overall best in show "World Whiskey of the Year" more than once. In 2009, Paul Pacault named William Larue Weller the best bourbon in the world.

These are superlative whiskies. I hunt for them the way an antiquarian book collector hunts for certain volumes. I've been known to buy bottles of George T. Stagg (the bourbon I'd most like to be stuck with on a desert island) as far away as the West Coast. If it came to it, I'd throw out clothes to fit it in my suitcase and get it home. I can't resist the purchase. It's too good and there's too little of it. (Just the other day, in my local shop, a bottle of Stagg and a bottle of Sazerac appeared. They leapt off the shelf and into my basket: I felt lucky, as if I'd woken up to find a huge patch of chanterelles in my own yard.)

These are the best bourbons in the world. Why bother experimenting?

"It's Project Holy Grail," explained Mr. Brown. Buffalo Trace is trying to make the perfect bourbon. Mr. Brown would like to see the company push through to perfection, to turn a score of 99 into a straight 100. They want the last point. "The problem with the holy grail is that no one has ever found it. What would it look like?"

Starting in the 1940s and continuing in to the 1970s, most of the work done with bourbon was focused on accelerating the aging. The entire industry was searching for what could they add to the whiskey, what they could manipulate that would get it to where they wanted it faster. The thinking, according to Mr. Brown, was more about mass pruduction, more industry than craft, and it focused on finishing. For the most part, that's changed.

"Instead of flavoring or finishing, what can we do on the front end?" said Mr. Brown. "We want to do it naturally, not in a lab."

Barrels, obviously, are important. So they've started looking at every aspect of the barrel. Where the trees come from ("high up on a South facing slope" seems to make for good barrels), what is the difference between 15 growth rings per inch and 4, coarse grain versus fine grained wood, the age of the wood, stave thickness, head style. They've brought in different oaks -- "Mongolian oak, we got ten barrels, it made a dramatically different whiskey." So far, they've had a lot of success with French oak. (I'd always thought the Bourbon regulations called for American oak, naturally Mr. Brown had the specs on his desk, and they don't, just new oak.)

They've looked at warehouse styles -- does whiskey age better in a warehouse with concrete floors? Dirt floors? They've changed the mash bills, using different grains and different yeasts. They've tried different proofs, putting whiskey into barrels at different strengths and taking note of how differently it interacts with the wood.

"We estimate that there are about 300 chemicals in bourbon. We've found 136 of them." He named a few, the words a blur of methyls and oxys and phenols -- there is a chemical for every taste: burnt, woody, medicinal.

"How much geraniol would you like in your bourbon?"

I laughed, and then I realized he wasn't being rhetorical, this was actually a question. Of course I didn't know.

"Exactly. It's like Formula One racing. We're a privately held company, we have the freedom to do things like this. There are no pencil pushers in charge. And when you are distilling Pappy Van Winkle for 2033, it puts you in a different frame of mind."

If they found the grail, I asked, what then? Why would you make anything else?

"Well, by it's very nature it would have to be limited and expensive. A few thousand cases. The real trouble is, once we find it, it'll be at least ten years until we can recreate it and release it."

I laughed and suggested that perhaps they'd already found the grail.

He paused.

I think I stood up at my desk, I felt for a moment like I was watching my horse come under the wire in front.

But Mr. Brown knows how to keep the mystery alive, he dismissed the idea, partially, slaked my thirst with a little bit of "well, you never know."