Article By: Liza Weisstuch
That’s a pretty lofty assertion for the Master Distiller of the generously decorated Buffalo Trace distillery to make. These days, most of the bourbons and ryes they produce are so sought after by so many that they’re on allocation – if there’s even any mature enough for the market. Creating what others deem the world’s finest bourbons has proven not to be a problem in the recent past. The distillery’s George T. Stagg was awarded Best American Whiskey this year by whisky magazine and in March the San Francisco World Spirits Competition named Buffalo Trace “Distillery of the Year”, making it the first American distillery to score the prize. Their bourbons also clinched five double gold medals, four gold medals, plus a silver and bronze. And those are only the most recent accolades. Apparently, however, that’s not good enough for Harlen Wheatley. He is what some might classify as an over-achiever. As if the job of maintaining consistency of Buffalo Trace’s thirteen whiskies isn’t enough to keep a Master Distiller busy, he designed a micro-still that he uses to produce small experimental batches of all sorts of spirits. (More on the still later.)
One was at BRIX Wine Shop’s sleek outpost on Broad Street in the Financial District, and another at 111 Chophouse in Worcester during a dinner arranged by Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, in honor of the recent launch of his store’s whisky club, the Loch and K(e)y Society. Both stores’ owners have visited the Buffalo Trace Distillery and selected barrels that have been bottled, marked as hand selected, and quickly snatched up by customers. Julio’s is a veteran of the program, with five years of barrel-picking to its name, while BRIX marked its entry this year. (See related story, page 1O). Since they’d paid visits to Harlen, it was their turn to play host to the VIP. He’s affable and soft spoken and despite his chemical engineering background, he comes across as genuinely mystified by the many wonders of whiskey-making, as evidenced by his use of the term “before you know it”. He’s a walking encyclopedia of whiskey lore, history and chemistry, but given his easy-going manner and gentle southern drawl, no matter how deep he gets into technical jargon, he comes across as a conversational familiar instead of a didactic sermonizer or a fount of regurgitated PR-speak. He’s passionate even in his explanations of historic details. Chalk that up to his ancestry – his father was a Baptist preacher and his grandfather and great grandfather made moonshine.
I had a chance to chat with him about the dynamic juxtaposition of his responsibilities as Master Distiller: carefully maintaining consistency of the bourbons that have made Buffalo Trace the stuff of whiskey legend, while forging ahead in today’s industry, foraying into distilling other spirits for the family-owned Sazerac Company, which owns and operates Buffalo Trace. He’s perpetually devising new innovations, seemingly in an attempt to catch the proverbial golden ring in the form of a perfectly aged Kentucky bourbon.
I rode with Harlen and David Sardella, Massachusetts field sales manager for the Sazerac Company, to a dinner Ryan Maloney was hosting in Worcester. The traffic was thick and rain thwacked at the windshield – its pummeling made a perfect backdrop for storytelling. First Harlen gave the inside run-down of the business side of how Buffalo Trace is accommodating its rapid growth, but once he started waxing rhapsodic about the distillery’s legend and the people whose names carry iconic distinction, all that was missing was the campfire and someone picking at a banjo. “What we’ve been focusing on recently is expansions because we’re producing more than we ever have since the early 198Os,” said Harlen, who started at the distillery in 1995 as a supervisor and became Buffalo Trace’s sixth Master Distiller since the Civil War in 2OO5. “We’ve increased production over 1OO% in the last 1O years, so we’ve been boosting our production in all our areas. I’m talking about trying to maintain all the equipment, trying to plan ingredients and hiring more people and adding management. Just the whole expansion piece has been challenging because we’re growing so fast as a business and you have to deal with all those growing pains that happen. That’s been the main focus – to make that as smooth as possible.”
For the record, Buffalo trace has about 3OO,OOO barrels of whiskey aging in 11 warehouses. In addition to the growth in demand for their whiskies – especially the antique collection, which includes George T. Stagg, Thomas Handy and William Larue Weller – credit for the production boom at Buffalo Trace is largely owed to Rain Organics Vodka, made with organic white American corn. Launched in 1997, Harlen noted that production has multiplied at least five times since then. Needless to say, that’s shaken up his production calendar quite a bit.
“We normally make one or two batches of Rain a year. This year we’re gonna make a total of eight batches, which is a lot for us. The old way of producing it takes about four weeks per batch, so if we theoretically did eight batches, it’d take us eight months, so we’re gonna have to change the way we operate and run 24 hours a day. We also have to make bourbon. We have ten months’ worth of bourbons to produce so we only have about a month to produce all the vodkas. The way we’re set up, you can only make one thing at a time. That’s the other piece of it – some day when it gets to the point that we have to make 15O,OOO barrels a year of bourbon, I think we’ll literally have to run two systems so we can run vodka and bourbon at the same time. This year we’re gonna make about 62,OOO barrels. It takes us about ten months to get that done. The way we plan our production, you have to bust that up.” And dividing up the use of the stills for different spirits is an exercise in strategic planning and, in a way, a race against time. He aims to get all the vodkas complete before August so he can focus on bourbon in the winter months when the water is cooler, which allows everything to run more efficiently. “We can run a ten hour day [in the winter] that might get done in 9.5 hours, but in summertime, might take us 12 hours to do the same thing when it’s hotter.”
Those 62,OOO barrels will ultimately be filled with 13 different whiskies, all of which are produced from five recipes. Distinctions among the whiskies are a result of different aging factors and proofs. And then there are the experimental batches, a concept that started at Buffalo Trace over 18 years ago. In recent years, Harlen has been carrying out trials of a sort to decipher the finer points of how aging imbues whiskey with flavor. He has long been creating experimental batches with the distillery’s signature bourbons and finishing the aging in various casks – zinfandel and cabernet, to name a few. Other concepts they’ve played with have resulted in the “Twice Barreled”, which involved pouring the whiskey into a virgin cask after it aged for eight years and eight months, and the “Fire Pot Barrel”, which involved heating barrels to 1O2 degrees to dry the wood just before filling. Then in 2OO7, Harlen fired up the hybrid still he designed. It’s a 25O-gallon still with a column on top of a pot plus a copper onion. That combination allows him to make different proofs of spirit off the still. Its cooking and fermentation systems are set up right beside the still in a converted yeast room and has the ability to cook. Since then he’s exponentially expanded the possibilities of his experiments. “We have the ability to cook about ten batches at once in our cooker. Out of those ten batches, I can make four or five barrels of something. Or if I wanted to try a dandelion wine, I can do that. The nice thing is that instead of making a 6O-barrel batch, we can make a four or five-barrel batch. It doesn’t cost the company a fortune and we can get a good idea of what things taste like,” he says with a lackadaisical nod.
The ability to control distilling factors at very low cost risk has increased the experimental quotient exponentially. “The last batch we made [on the micro still] was a barrel of bourbon and what we’re doing there is comparing our current operation to the mini operation. So we used the exact same recipe as on our large still and we’ve got ’em in barrels already. We want to see if there’s any taste differences between the two stills,” he explained. “If there are no differences, we’re good. If there is a little difference, then we can understand what those differences are. The shape of the still is a pretty big determining factor, but how much, we don’t know. We’re gonna find out. It’s a big deal. That’s gonna help us understand a little bit more stuff. As a distiller, I should know that kind of thing. Nobody’s ever tried it or done it before.”
As a distiller, he also has to attend to concerns beyond his distillery, issues that are affecting the industry as a whole, namely the rising costs of production, natural resources and ingredients, like corn and wheat, not to mention the fact that corn supplies are being strained by the increasing demands of the ethanol industry. But as far as he sees it, implementing ethanol use on a wider basis not only wouldn’t be the source of the problem, it’s simply not feasible. The problem is less specific than agriculture alone. “There’s not enough land in all the US – if we raise corn on every square inch of the US – to produce enough corn to supply the energy that we need,” he said. “But it’s just wiping out a lot of the industry, as far as rising prices, and that’s domino-ing to the food industry with fuel prices going up. It’s just the perfect storm, the big picture of everything. I don’t like preaching doom and gloom because there’s a lot of good in the world, but it really is a perfect storm. I read the other day people are spending 5O percent of their income on fuel and food now. If you’re doing that, there’s not gonna be a lotta people eating out, spending money on drinks. It’s a domino thing. If demand for drinks starts going down, and prices go up, then you know what’s gonna happen is the questions.”
Several pre-hybrid experimental bourbon batches, which were produced in very limited quantities and are virtually unavailable for purchase, were sampled on that rainy night at 111 Chophouse courtesy of Ryan Maloney. Even Harlen dropped his squared jaw when he saw the extent of Ryan’s collection – nine rare bottles. The Fire Pot Barrel, the Twice Barreled and the French Oak made up just the first of three round that the guests – mostly Loch and K(e)y members – had the privilege of tasting that night while they listed to Harlen wax rational about each experiment and rattle off some fanciful if somewhat outlandish sounding potential tests. For instance, what if they made various barrels, each from a single tree, and compared flavors after aging?
The following night, he was back in front of a different audience. This time guests sat at long tables covered with white and red checkered tablecloths. The tables were a temporary set up in the new BRIX in the Financial District. As part of their ‘BRIX by Night’ series, co-owners Klaudia Mally and Carri Wroblewski hosted a bourbon and barbeque pairing, offering guests a chance to sample a wide range of the Buffalo Trace family of bourbons paired with morsels prepared by Brian Treitman, the chef and owner of B.T.’s Smokehouse in Brimfield. “So often you only see food and wine dinners,” said Carri. “There’s a whole other world of food and spirit pairings that’s untouched and unexplored.”
The night started with Eastern Standard bar manager and assistant bar manager Jackson Cannon and Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, respectively, mixing Rain Vodka drinks. When everyone took their seat, it was fast apparent that this was a curious crowd. Their inquiries gave Harlen the opportunity to explain the production process and to hold forth on the epic history of the distillery, which is only one of four to have remained operational through Prohibition. “We renamed the distillery when we decided to start the bourbon in 1999,” he said of Buffalo Trace. “The plant used to be called the Stagg Distillery and it was never renamed, but the problem was nobody ever really knew the name of the distillery. They just showed up and there really wasn’t an identity.” In effect, Buffalo Trace started from scratch, asking themselves why a distillery was set up in that location, originally the site of a settlement called Lee’s Town. “We basically went to the beginning and said let’s try to create a connection between the history of this place and what we stand for in all our stuff. We started with a wide spot in the trees there, and across the river the buffalo left their mark. Next thing you know, “Buffalo Trace” fits pretty well. The buffalo would trample down the grass and trees. It was literally a buffalo highway there. That was a great place to settle because it was right on the river, right on the bend in the valley, so they just settled and started expanding and making bourbon.” The “they” in reference was brothers Hancock and Willis Lee, who teamed up with another gent to start the distillery in 1773. “They surveyed that site and made it a settlement. So they built a building on site, which we still have, and started production of spirits and started shipping it down the Kentucky River in the late 17OOs. We have records of that. And then once shipped it to New Orleans, that’s basically the beginning of bourbon as we know it because they were shipping it in these burnt charred barrels and the new Orleans people liked it, and next thing you know, we’re exporting bourbon.”
Flash forward to the present. Modern legend, Elmer T. Lee, who turned 89 in August, became Master Distiller Emeritus when he retired in 1985, not least because he’s the key player in releasing the world’s first commercially available single barrel bourbon, Blanton’s, the year before his retirement. Harlen spoke of how he continues to be actively involved at the distillery, especially when it comes to the bourbon created and named in his honor.
“He picks out barrels he likes,” explained Harlen. “We still taste it on the taste panel. Let’s say five of us on the panel, Elmer will come in and taste it and he’ll taste out of 5O barrels. Let’s say he likes 45 and then the rest of us will taste those 45 and as long as we all 1OO% agree, then we’ll bottle that barrel, but if one of the six people turn one of those barrels and say it doesn’t match, then we don’t use it. We have to have 1OO% agreement. That’s the way we do all our single barrel tasting. We age Lee for nine years. The mash bill is high rye mash bill made of corn, rye and malted barley. I’d say it’s pretty damn good bourbon.”
Everyone raised a glass.