In the Fall of 2006, the wine store I used to work for sent myself and a few other bourbon drinkers down to Kentucky to tour a couple of distilleries. However, the main point of the trip was to select barrels of bourbon to be bottled and sold exclusively at the store. The bourbons we had to choose were Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. So at 9:00 A.M., after a night of wining and dining, I drank bourbon straight out of the barrel at the Buffalo Trace distillery...
I had only been working at the store for about a year-and-a-half so I was surprised when I was invited to come along. I had learned a lot about whisk(e)y in my short time there, so it wasn't like they were sending a "babe in the woods," but it was my first "business trip" - and it was to a distillery! Plus, my objective was "drink bourbon"!
Bourbon is an official alcoholic beverage of the United States (along with Tennessee Whiskey). It is defined by the Title 27, Section 5.22 of U.S. Code of Federal Regulations as:
- Made from a fermented mash with a minimum of 51% and a maximum of 79% corn
- Distilled at less than 80% alcohol/volume (160 proof)
- Stored in a new, charred, white oak barrel at a maximum of 62.5% alcohol/volume (125 proof) for at least 2 years
- The original color and flavor of the whiskey can not be filtered or altered in any way
- Must be produced and stored (for at least one year of the aging) in Kentucky to be called Kentucky Bourbon
It can only be made in the U.S. and this designation is recognized worldwide (similar to the fact that the brandy called Cognac can only come from the Cognac region of France). Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. but it can't be called Kentucky Bourbon unless it meets the final criteria. Bourbon has been going through a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. We can probably credit the popularity of single malt scotch as the motivation for bourbon distillers to offer a higher-end product. One would think that the above restrictions would limit the creativity of the distillers to offer a wide variety of products, but this is not the case. They can play with the other ingredients in the mash bill (between the 51% and 79% corn restriction), the length of time the whiskey rests in the barrel, the location of the barrel in the warehouse, the char level (1-4) of the barrel etc. Some even do what scotch makers do and finish the bourbon in barrels previously used to age other spirits/wine. Buffalo Trace happens to be one of these more creative distilleries.
However, their flagship product is a fantastic bourbon. It does not have an age statement on the bottle but it is, from what I remember them saying at the distillery, at least 8 years old. Like all good bourbons, there is a buttered-popcorn taste and aroma. This is the influence of the barrel on the bourbon as it ages. As whisk(e)y ages, it "breathes" in the barrel. In the warmer months, the barrel inhales and expands into the staves of the barrel. When it exhales in the cooler months, it contracts and draws in the caramelized saps (from the charred oak inside the barrel) to mellow in the alcohol. This barrel influence is what makes bourbon so unique. The comparatively warmer weather in the Southeastern U.S. causes the whiskey to expand and contract more intensely in the barrel than it would in the British Isles. Unfortunately, this increases the loses associated with aging whiskey (e.g. absorption, evaporation) but the barrel itself becomes much more integral to influencing the final product in bourbon than in other whiskies.
Consequently, you will get a lot of vanillin and other oak influences in the flavor and aroma of bourbon (as compared to other whiskies - except Tennessee whiskey). However, the thing I like about Buffalo Trace is there is a lot of rye in the mash bill. This makes the whiskey very "spicy" in addition to the "sweetness" from the corn and oak. It is well-rounded bourbon - and it makes a great Manhattan too.
There is plenty more to say about bourbon but I'll leave that for another time. Until then, buy a bottle of this for yourself. Make sure to keep in mind that hard-working people, like myself, had to get up really early in the morning, hungover, and drink a lot of "fresh" bourbon in order to bring you the best.