The elements that compose single barrel bourbon are infinite. To understand the complexities, we spoke to Beau Beckman, who runs the barrel selection program at Buffalo Trace, and chose our three candidates.
“It is so much in the eye of the beholder,” he told us, about making a choice. In his years of leading the tastings, most groups seem to have two distinct preferences. Some look for dry oaky bourbon with a lot of character and kick in the mouth while others seek a sweet, caramel, easy to drink and approachable one.
“When you get a group of people who are on the same wavelength talking about a barrel, it turns into their ‘honey’ barrel.”
Personal preferences aside, Beckman said, there are at least three critical elements to understand before we undergo our selection. Here they are.
It’s important to pay special attention to the floor material. When the warehouse has a concrete bottom, there’s no airflow passing between floors, making each floor its own microclimate. Harlen Wheatley, the current master distiller at Buffalo Trace, favors these warehouses because they create the highest degree of annual consistency in temperature and air pressure year. Wood floors, on the other hand, yield more wild cards and diversity in flavor. For reference, The Colonel Mary and Barrel L are above concrete floors, while Barrel K is housed above a wooden surface.
Exposure to sunlight affects the bourbon inside the material in various ways, creating a higher temperature and a change in chemical reaction. We’ll have some access to sunlight for Barrel K, which is surrounded by windows, but no direct rays, Beckman said. The Colonel Mary is in the middle of the warehouse, so will only receive some light, but again little directly. That brings us to Barrel L, which will get little to zero exposure to light. While some believe that increased light leads to more honey barrels, others think that moist and damp environments yield deeper flavors.
Ricks are the shelving system for the barrels, and the height of where the barrel rests in the warehouse also plays a role in its maturity. At the bottom, barrels are in a cooler zone so they can take on water, making them slower to age, and a lower proof. At the hotter top end of the warehouse, more water molecules will escape, raising the proof and causing the barrel to age faster. Ones in the center will show more consistency, while high and low barrels usually have increased variance. For reference, The Colonel Mary and Barrel L are on floor 3 out of 5 and at a rick height of 6 out of 15. Barrel K is on floor 3 out of 9 and at a rick height of 3 out of 27.