Whiskey Science

Buffalo Trace’s New Experimental Bourbon Brand Was 15 Years in the Making


December 6, 2018 Drinks By

Harlen Wheatley runs one of the most decorated distilleries in America. He’s Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Master Distiller and one of the key players behind the revival and eventual dominance of the Buffalo Trace we know today. He also says people, including himself, really “don’t know shit about whiskey.” But that’s not really true.

Wheatley does know about whiskey. He just thinks little has changed in the last few centuries. Distilleries, demand and production have all scaled upward, but, in his view, the craft itself hasn’t been challenged enough. This thinking was the spark behind Buffalo Trace Distillery’s new bourbon brand, Old Charter Oak, unveiled yesterday to a group of whiskey journalists in New York City.

According to Wheatley, Old Charter Oak was basically a science experiment he started close to 15 years ago.

Of the many variables involved in making good whiskey — time, climate, finishes, water, proofing all among them — Old Charter Oak is honing in on just one: the barrel. Every expression of the new Old Charter Oak (which has releases planned through 2030) will use the same mash bill as Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, but they will be barreled and aged in different types of oak. According to Wheatley, Old Charter Oak was basically a science experiment he started close to 15 years ago.

“We take for granted how much we actually know about how to manipulate the whiskey,” Wheatley said. “How does coarser grain oak play with it versus a finer grain? What about the age of the tree? Does it matter where the tree is from? Frankly, we didn’t really know what would happen [when we started Old Charter Oak].”

Wheatley and the rest of the Buffalo Trace team theorized what experimenting with various woods for barreling would yield, and, according to him, some of those theories are starting to flesh themselves out. “They don’t taste similar at all and that’s the first thing we noticed,” he said. “It gives us a lot more belief going forward.”

The first expression from the brand, Mongolian Oak, was, as the name suggests, aged in oak from Mongolia. Bottled at 90 proof, it’ll start rolling out at the end of December with an SRP of $70 — though you can safely assume it will sell for much more on the second-hand market. According to Buffalo Trace Distillery, Old Charter Oak releases will be limited but are expected to occur a few times a year. “We want to make great whiskey, but we’re also not going to sit on our asses and only make the same stuff,” Wheatly said.

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