Spirits of Calgary: Buffalo Trace Tasting @ One18 Empire

1 06 2018

By Tyler Derksen

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Drew Mayville of Buffalo Trace.

It’s not every Wednesday that I get to leave work in the middle of the day to try nine whiskeys (if you’re being pedantic, actually eight whiskeys and one whisky, as the spelling of the spirit varies with its location of production), but this past Wednesday was one of those days.  I had the absolute pleasure to attend a tasting of Sazerac offerings chaired by Buffalo Trace’s Master Blender, Drew Mayville.  Buffalo Trace is part of the larger Sazerac company, whose myriad of other brands we also got to enjoy.  While the whiskey was the star of the show, it was Drew’s presentation and engagement with the subject matter and with all of us that really made the tasting special.  Drew is a Canadian who began his career in spirits at the Seagram’s plant in Waterloo, Ont. in 1980, eventually becoming the company’s fourth ever Master Blender.  After Seagram ceased to be, Drew then took his talents to Buffalo Trace, which at the time he joined was a relative unknown in the whiskey world, a fact that is hard to believe now that it has earned over 500 awards nationally and internationally over the last decade.

Drew’s passion for whiskey was readily apparent.  As Buffalo Trace’s current Master Blender, it is his job to take the aged spirits created by the Master Distiller and weave them into both established product lines and new and exciting projects.  Drew’s favourite whiskey is “the one he hasn’t made yet”.  In answer to the follow-up question “how do you make a better whiskey?”, Drew immediately said, “I don’t know”, reflecting his continuous stretch for further improvement.  Perhaps my biggest takeaway was Drew’s love of experimentation, embraced by both Buffalo Trace and Sazerac, which has created at least 50 different bottling “experiments” since 2006.  He freely acknowledges that not all of the experiments are successful and lead to new product lines, but this adventurous spirit is part of the fabric of Sazerac.  This is all the more impressive when one considers the extended aging process in the creation of whiskey.  Sazerac has even built a warehouse, Warehouse X, solely for the purpose of manipulating the many variables that go into the creation of whiskey (including light, temperature, air flow, wood grain, and others) to better understand the impact of those variables on the finished product and to use that knowledge to create that elusive “better whiskey”.

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Drew’s other point of emphasis was the recipe for the whiskey, which he came back to with each successive whiskey we tried.  Buffalo Trace’s bourbons are made of a combination of 6 main ingredients (Drew would never tell us exactly how much of each).  First, any bourbon must legally be made from at least 51% corn, which gives the spirit its sweet and fruity characteristics.  Next is rye, which adds spice, pepper and herbaceous notes.  Third is barley malt, which doesn’t add flavour so much as enzymes vital to the fermentation process.  As an alternative to rye, wheat can also be used, but this is far less common and wheat bourbons make up less than 5% of the overall spirit created.  Add limestone-filtered water and yeast and you’re almost finished.  The one ingredient that is not often talked about with bourbon, but that has a profound impact on its character, is time.  As was made clear when we started sampling, Buffalo Trace ages its whiskey longer than many of its competitors.  Speaking of sampling, now would be a good time to shine a spotlight on the fantastic whiskeys we tried.

Caribou Crossing SB Cdn Whisky

Caribou Crossing Single Barrel 

The afternoon started off not with bourbon, but with a Canadian whisky!  Although he was too modest to highlight it, Drew Mayville is largely responsible for this product.  Sazerac acquired a substantial stock of Canadian-made spirit and Drew specially selected the barrels that would be bottled to make Caribou Crossing.  Each barrel of whisky was aged for 10+ years, holding spirit made from corn, rye and wheat.  On the nose, the rye was immediately evident, with a spiciness that was also realized on the palate.  The mouthfeel was noticeably buttery, and a sip brought pepper and oaky notes that were softened somewhat by sweet vanilla and honey.  The finish was long and had a lingering after-effect that was almost tropical or melon-like in nature (always accompanied by that rye bite).  There was a pleasant harshness to it that seemed to reflect its northern origins.

Blantons_Original

Blantons Original Single Barrel

Named after Albert Bacon Blanton, this bourbon comes in a bottle that is both distinctive in its shape and subtle in its secrets.  The next time you see the rounded Blantons bottle in the store, take a look at the cork.  Each one is marked with a letter in the word “Blantons” and each one shows a horse and jockey in various stages of a race.  Collect them all and they show the race from start to finish.  Necessary?  No.  Super cool?  Absolutely.

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The Blantons Original is a rye bourbon made of corn (obviously), rye and barley and aged 6-7 years.  This is a single-barrel offering and each bottle has the exact warehouse location handwritten onto it so that, if you were lucky enough, you could go to the warehouse and pinpoint exactly where the barrel had been located.  As Drew highlighted, each barrel ages differently, even if laid side-by-side.  This means that each barrel results in slight variations in flavour.  While some may be put off by a divergence from what they know and love, I personally consider diversity to be one of the great joys of single-barrel whiskey.  When tasting this bottling, I was immediately struck by bitter citrus/citrus peel on the tongue along with subtle honey, vanilla and baking spices.  It wasn’t overly exciting, but it didn’t have to be.

Blantons_Gold

Blantons Gold

Now this was interesting.  It turns out that the only difference between this and the Blantons Original is the alcohol content.  Whereas the Original is bottled at 46.5% (and thus diluted further with water from the initially matured spirit), the Gold comes in at a bolder and less watered down 51.5%.  It was fascinating to see the difference this made.  On the nose I was surprisingly bombared by cherry wood and black cherry, notes that were completely absent from the Blantons Original.  I found the flavours on the palate to be more layered and integrated, featuring toffee notes that I hadn’t picked up in the previous bottle.  This was also a bit more on the spicy side.  Maybe it’s the cask-strength Scotch lover in me, but I prefer this one.  Interestingly, this whiskey is not available for purchase in the United States, only in export markets.  Drew was unable to say why, so speculate wildly.  This is just one more reason that I’m glad to be Canadian.

Distillery

The Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky.

William Larue Weller

OK, this was a show-stopper for me and I’ll come right out and say now that it was my favourite dram of the afternoon.  The William Larue Weller is part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.  Unlike the previous two bourbons, this one contains no rye at all and instead uses wheat (Weller was a pioneer in using wheat rather than rye in bourbon).  It was aged for approximately 15 years, although there is some 12 year old blended into the finished product.  I have a hard time describing the nose on the Weller as anything other than “beautiful”.  If I had to be more specific, I would lean towards caramel and essence of shortbread cookies:  warm, homey, inviting and delicious.  Even though this comes across a little softer in flavour due to the lack of rye-based spiciness, flavours of caramel, vanilla, Demerara sugar, oak and fig immediately popped, and a couple drops of water really helped open it up (it comes bottled at over 64%, so sometimes hydration is the key to balance).  If you get a chance to try or buy this bourbon, you won’t be disappointed.

BuffaloTrace-750ml

Buffalo Trace

We finally made it to the eponymous Buffalo Trace bourbon.  Made of corn, rye and barley malt, it is aged for approximately 8 years, which is a considerable length of time for what may be seen as a base-level bourbon.  Surprisingly, given its current sterling reputation, this bourbon has only been around since 1999!

I’m going to digress for a moment.  I love to drink my whiskey (of all kinds) neat, but I also love the variety and whimsy of cocktails.  This leaves me torn as to what whiskey to use to just drink and which ones to mix.  While Buffalo Trace can certainly be enjoyed neat with no complaints, it is also ideal for cocktail mixing due to something that I noted immediately at this tasting:  this particular bourbon comes across as less sweet and more prominently spicy than many of its compatriots.  As many ingredients in cocktails are sweet, the spice adds a nice counterpoint to a mixed drink that doesn’t get lost the way that the flavours in sweeter whiskeys might.  Speaking of flavours, in addition to the aforementioned spice I found brown sugar, oak and dark fruits lurking here.  I was also intrigued by a subtle flavour that I couldn’t immediately place but that reminded me most of red apple.  As far as entry-level multi-purpose whiskeys go, this is a rock star.

Eagle Rare 10 Year Dec 2014 Bottle shot no Single Barrel Reference

Eagle Rare

Once again, I am obliged to acknowledge the wonderful opportunity that this tasting provided.  Above I went over how increased alcohol content changed the characteristics of the Blantons Gold versus the Original.  Well, the Eagle Rare is the same recipe as the Buffalo Trace above, but is aged for at least two years more; I must say, those two years were put to good use. The nose had a greater development of fruity notes, including a more fleshed-out version of the apple that lingered just on the periphery of the Buffalo Trace.  The Eagle Rare is also much smoother and more mellow than its younger brother and had more pronounced fruit flavours to go along with the obvious vanilla, toffee and citrus peel.  There was also a bit of leather that Drew said comes with age.  Interestingly, while I preferred this one to the Buffalo Trace, the majority of the group present went the opposite way.  Yet one of the other reasons why drinking whiskey, especially in a group, is an incredible experience.

1792 Full Proof

1792 Full Proof

This bourbon is not made at Buffalo Trace and is fermented with a different yeast, which can affect the flavour.  Bottled at full proof (125 proof, or 62.5% abv), the flavours were bold!  Drew asked us to guess whether the rye content here was lower or higher than previous bottles, getting us to focus on the recipe to see if we could identify the defining characteristics of the components in the finished product.  The pepper notes were an immediate giveaway as to the higher rye content, but the other flavours were perhaps the most diverse of all of the whiskeys we tried.  In addition to sweeter vanilla and toffee there were notes of citrus, banana, tropical fruit and an earthy flavour that tasted, to me, the way that leaves smell when they are being raked early in the autumn – yellow but not totally dried out.  Very cool.  If I was ranking, which I wasn’t really, I would probably pick this as my third favourite.

Sazerac Straight Rye 6 Yr Old

Sazerac Rye

Not a bourbon, the Sazerac Rye is made with a majority of rye, then corn and barley malt.  There is still clearly a significant corn component here, as this Rye was not as peppery even as some of the bourbons.  That is not to say that the peppery notes were not there — they were, as well as anise and a general overarching herbaceousness that I hadn’t experienced in the whiskeys above.  Also of note was the lack of oak flavours which might be a result of this spirit’s young age (aged approximately 6 years).  This rye is very popular in the cocktail scene, so as discussed above, if you’re like me and struggle with finding a whiskey that you can use in cocktails without feeling guilty, this is it.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year

This was the last whiskey that we tried and was a wonderful end to a truly educational and delicious afternoon.  This legendary wheated bourbon is, as its name would suggest, aged for 10 years and the end product is totally worth it.  The nose is all honey and caramel with a bit of oak to keep things interesting.  The palate was fruitier than most of the other whiskeys tried and the finish went on for so long that I think I can still taste it a day later.  If you’ve been paying attention above you will have noticed that I have picked a favourite and third favourite, which kind of gives away where I would put this bourbon.

A single blog post really doesn’t do justice to the wealth of information and enthusiasm that Drew Mayville brought to the afternoon and the nine whiskeys that we had the opportunity to enjoy.  For all of my long history with scotch, I would still consider myself a relative newcomer to the world of bourbon, but after this tasting there are a few bottles that are going to have to find there way onto my shelf at home (I hope my wife isn’t reading this).  I would like to extend a big thank you to Drew Mayville, Buffalo Trace and Charton Hobbs for the great afternoon.  Next Wednesday is going to seem painfully ordinary.

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