Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Small Barrel Maturation (RE: Buffalo Trace)

Today, after making a cup of coffee, I decided to check my email. And OH WHAT SURPRISES IT HELD. Normally, I get a metric shit-ton of press releases that I generally don't post on here. If it's interesting enough, I'll inquire about it a bit more to get information to keep me up to date with beverage portfolios...but usually you don't see press releases in In With Bacchus. But today...I got a gem of a press release that I can't help but share with you fine folks. Fresh from Buffalo Trace's mouth:


Apparently, Size Does Matter!
FRANKFORT, Franklin County, Ky (Aug. 22, 2012) Sometimes, not all experiments are successful. Buffalo Trace Distillery learned this the hard way with its small barrel experiments started in 2006. 
                Using 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels, the company filled each small barrel with the same mash bill (Buffalo Trace Rye Bourbon Mash #1) around the same time, and aged them side by side in a  warehouse for six years.
                The results were less than stellar.  Even though the barrels did age quickly, and picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor.
                While Buffalo Trace is NOT releasing these experiments, the Distillery did feel it was important to release their findings. The company hopes others can learn from such an experiment, just as they have. 
                “As expected, the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged bourbon faster than the 15 gallon version. However, it’s as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained that depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons.  Even though these small barrels did not meet our expectations, we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes,” said Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.
                Each of the three small barrel bourbons were tasted annually to check on their maturation progress, then left alone to continue aging, hoping the taste would get better with time.  Finally, after six years, the team at Buffalo Trace concluded the barrels were not going to taste any better and decided to chalk up the experiment to a lesson learned. 
                “These barrels were just so smoky and dark, we just confirmed the taste was not going to improve.  The largest of the three barrels, the 15 gallon, tasted the best, but it still wasn’t what we would deem as meeting our quality standards.  But instead of just sweeping this experiment under the rug and not talking about it, we felt it was important to share what we learned, especially in light of the debate about usage of small barrels.  It’s one experiment we are not likely to repeat,” said Wheatley.      
These small barrel experiments are part of the more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey aging in the warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Each of these barrels has unique characteristics that differentiate it from all others. Some examples of these include unique mash bills, type of wood and barrel toasts. In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program, an entire micro distillery, named The Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery, complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state-of-the-art micro still has been constructed within Buffalo Trace Distillery. 

Jesus, where to begin on this one. I think this is the first time I've had to make a list to accurately and orderly summarize my complaints. So here we go.

"aged them side by side in a warehouse for six years" 

It is a relatively easy exercise to calculate the volume of a barrel. In fact, the great Johannes Kepler managed to extract a formula to accurately measure the volume of a barrel. The Kepler Formula for the Volume of a Barrel (in "Nova Stereometria doliorum vinariorum", written in 1615) states that the formula of a barrel is as such:

Courtesy of Wolfram Mathematica
with r2 being the larger, outer radius (the apex of the barrel) and r1 being the minima radius of the barrel. This, in essence, is a summation of thin cylindrical shells bounded by certain restraints (see solid of revolution). Since it would be difficult to measure the radius of a barrel without taking half of it apart (and potentially skewing the results), the easiest way to do this would be to take the circumference at the top of the barrel, as well as the middle, and then divide by 2*pi. Why? Because the circumference of a circle is 2*pi*r. So:

C = 2 * pi * r
C / (2*pi) = r

Why am I going through this lengthy mathematical explanation? To prove a simple point. Anyone that's not an idiot should be able to tell that the surface area to volume ratio of those barrels, barring ANY internal tampering (such as woodpeckering, honeycombing, grooving, what have you) is higher than your standard barrel. such...LEAVING IT FOR SIX YEARS IS A DUMB IDEA. This is the equivalent of cracking eggs into different size glasses and then leaving them on a hot window sill to see if they'll be fine to eat in six weeks. Of course they won't. That's dumb. I find this incredibly ironic that the study of over-oaking whiskies is coming from the company that makes probably the most polarizing, oldest commercially available bourbon in the US, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old.

Ideally, if following the same "egg in glass" parallel, you'd want to see when the egg turns bad during the course of the experiment. Not just reporting what happened at the end. Which brings me to my next point...

"..Announces Small Barrel Experiments Are Failures."

Okay...let's chat about science. For a company that used to have one of my idols behind its analytical chemistry labs, Truman Cox...this is kind of a slap in the face. If it's ANYTHING like the "Small Barrels Make Bad Whiskey" piece done in collaboration with Chuck Cowdery...then there's nothing scientific at all. When I worked at Tuthilltown, I did stuff like testing barrels every day. Yet you don't see me sending out PR things about it claiming that it's science. Where's the data? Where's your scientific method? What methods did you use to reduce / eliminate inconsistencies. Seriously, where is your CONCRETE data. If you presented the world with sheet after sheet of GC / MS chemical make-ups of the whiskies as they aged and compared to older products...I'd be curious. If you followed that up with double blind tasting studies with a 10,000+ tasting panel for consistency...I'd be more intrigued. If you could chemically prove WHY its bad using all of this data in a nice, neat, summarized paper...I'd take you seriously. But when you blast out emails saying "Yeah, we tasted it every once and awhile until we hit 6 years and it was so foul we couldn't drink it. So small barrels are bad."...I cannot take you seriously nor respect you. At all. AT. ALL. If I may borrow from Patton Oswalt here...
"You have to acknowledge everyone's beliefs and then you have to reserve the right to go "that's fucking stupid."...I have an uncle that believes he saw Sasquatch. We do not believe him NOR do we respect him."

Look, you can't call something like than an experiment and have it carry weight. When I was young, I thought that I could make something that would protect screws from rusting by mixing talcum powder with soap. I'd experiment by spreading that on the screws of my bathroom door and, son of a bitch, they'd rust every time. So if I state that it was impossible to make screws rust proof using that as my data...I'd be an idiot. Which is kind of what you're doing right now.

"...Distillery did feel it was important to release their findings"


Why did they feel it was important to send this out? What motivated them to send out a press release that contains no scientific back-up to everyone on their PR list? What are they hoping to achieve? Are they seriously thinking that, by sending that out, every small distiller out there will go "WHOOP, BETTER SWITCH TO BIG BARRELS." And "release their findings" is very strong wording, frankly. More like "tell you what we think in a very vague and non-clinical way." If it's because of this:

"...we feel it’s important to explore and understand the differences between the use of various barrel sizes"

I don't believe you. I mean, if they want to take pot-shots at small distillers that are using smaller barrels to make product quicker...fine. Go for it. You've got the right, frankly. You've been doing the distilling thing forever and you make fantastic product. I would climb a mountain of slaughtered foes for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old. I might even throw my own mother in front of a train for a bottle of the 20. I'd literally have to sit down and discuss it with her. But this press release will not just do will make you look bad. I'm already seeing it make its way through the craft distilling community. They're not particularly happy.

Look Buffalo Trace. I love you. Hell, if you offered me a job working on small barrel maturation...I'd totally do it. Maybe inject some REAL science into this. I love your products and I love you. But please...don't do this. It just infuriates me.


  1. Good take on this topic. Glad to see an opposing view as I have rum aging in a 1 liter barrel.

  2. Why not release their findings? This way no one else will make the same mistake. Bourbon has been made the same way for 200 years. In this day of innovation, it's good to know that sometimes the old way of doing things is still the best way.

  3. Thanks for your veiw on this subjuct Scott. I think it's obvious that Buffalo Trace has a vested interest in their aged whiskey. Aging in small barrels, acheiving comparable results in a shorter time period, may be bad for business. It would be harder to justify those premium prices for those old aged whiskeys, when a craft distiller may be able to do it in a relatively short period of time at a much lower price to the consumer.

  4. What a pseudo-sientific explanation to prove your subjective opinion since you used to be selling whiskey aged in small barrels. If you talk science, please use scientific terminology to prove your point not slang.

    I aged whiskey in a small barrel myself. In 1 year it was dark as regular 6 year old bourbon would. It tasted flat and one dimensional. Oak there, tanins there, cereal flavor there and nothing much else. Flavors not integrated.

    Small barrels don’t “mature” whiskey, only time does. Even Tuthilltown, where you worked, agrees with that. Read their presentation
    It has a lot more interesting and scientific information than your blog entry.

    1. I am EXTREMELY familiar with that presentation. Mainly because I wrote it and presented it at the ADI conference in Kentucky. It's actually an illustrated version of this post: It was written for an audience wanting scientific information in a clear, concise manner. I could write my blog like that but then I'd lose readers. Some people contacted me saying "there's math at the beginning, can you just give me a 'too long; didn't read' summary?" Not everyone wants to read through scientific jargon just to get to a point.

      It is true that only time "matures" whiskey and I still feel that way. However, to say that small barrels are completely are, in essence, completely useless is folly. William Grant and Sons buying Tuthilltown clearly means that SOMEONE likes their whiskey.

      As for your case, yes, you aged your whiskey in 1 year, you tasted it, and you didn't like it. That's your opinion. And that's fine! But did you call it an "experiment" and release it to the world as if it was an experiment? No, no you didn't. A little scientific rigor would be nice.

  5. So you aged one whiskey for a year and didn't like it? Of course it was the barrel! Certainly it wasn't your technical prowess, the mashbill, fermentation conditions and flavors,the conditions under which the barrel was aged, etc. that could have affected the taste. ONLY SMALL BARRELS MADE MY WHISKEY UNPALATABLE! Subjective at all? Have much experience in the black art of barreling? Leaving a whiskey in a small barrel for a year? Generally not a good idea, but (and I'm not a particularly sciency person) barrel-aging should be dependent on several factors besides setting an arbitrary time and declaring anything younger bad because it bucks tradition, and anything older undrinkable:

    1)The whiskey's mashbill and intended profile. Do you want a delicate oaking for an unusual grain or flavor to be evident? Or maybe a deep overly oaked whiskey to contend with a chocolate malt or smoky flavor that you used in the mashbill? Also corn-based whiskies pair with oak in a different way than malt-based whiskies.

    2)The barrel's position within the rack and the time of year. This one is pretty obvious. There is a clear temperature strata in my racks, and in an unairconditioned building the summer/winter differential is stark.

    3)Demand. We can talk barrel-theory all day, but in order to sustain ourselves as small distilleries sometimes aging in small barrels is optimal. Our customers know what our whiskey tastes like, and as long as we conform to the flavor profile they have come to expect through selecting and blending barrels there's no reason not to age in small barrels.

    And then there are the oddities, a leaky barrel here. A three-quarter fill there. The honey barrel that upon tasting the clouds part and angels sing.

    We can all agree that the science of wood maturation is important when so many distilleries are trying different things, but so are the organoleptic properties sought after by distillers aiming for a particular product profile. Yay science, yay subjectivity. Boo for thinly veiled slurs against small distilleries in the form of nonsensical PR releases without substance.

  6. Scott, would you agree with the following statement? There is more to aging whiskey than wood extraction and barrel size affects wood extraction only. While the greater surface area ratio speeds up wood extraction, it has no effect on evaporation and chemical changes, the other main factors in aging.

    1. No. A small barrel WILL have a difference on wood aging above and beyond wood extraction. The increase of wood extractives coming out (aldehydes) will turn into acids at an increased rate. This increase in acids will influence the evaporation of other volatiles within the barrel at a faster rate, resulting in a different chemical profile. It still takes time for some of the reactions of things to happen...but it is fundamentally different from larger barrels on a chemical level. At least theoretically. I haven't had a chance to test it out empirically.

      Also, I feel that "aged" and "mature" are two different words. I'm 24 years old. I've aged...but I'm not really mature. Aged whiskies are a function of wood compound (both primary and derivative) levels. Mature whiskies are the function of wood level compounds, ethanol/water restructuring, evaporation, and chemical reaction. A whisk(e)y can be aged but it might not be mature.

  7. Cowdery is an industry shill representing big bourbon. Why are we paying attention to him or a press release from big bourbon saying small barrels don't work. Can anyone say conflict of interest???

    I think they released this as part of a orchestrated case to TTb to change the laws in the USA so they can make craft distillers products illegal to call whiskey.

    The NY Times piece was even written in advance meaning they pitched the story to the NY Times writer in advance!!

  8. This article brings in the perspective of scotch-making, as well as other things. It's the best I've seen yet on the subject.

  9. Great Article Scott! Science without data is not science. It does not get any easier than that. I notice that they published the "results" in the NY Times which any one knows is nothing more than a hack rag whose editorial board these days can not tell the difference between a real story and a fairy tale.