Taste Test: Buffalo Trace’s New Experimental Peated Bourbon Is a Pleasant Surprise

Buffalo Trace is known for its highly allocated “unicorn” whiskeys—Pappy Van Winkle is the most famous of these, followed by the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. But the distillery produces some small-scale experimental whiskeys, the latest of which is a peated bourbon that brings together the disparate worlds of Kentucky whiskey and smoky Islay scotch. That might sounds odd, but it actually works.

The Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection launched in 2006, and the new Peated Bourbon is the 26th release in the series. The point of this whiskey collection is to mess around with the fundamentals—mash bill, maturation location, type of wood, cask finishing, barrel entry proof—as well as some less fundamental things like exposing barrels to infrared light waves. Some of this might seem kind of gimmicky, and maybe that’s an accurate assessment. But these variables are part of the fun of whiskey making, so why not play around with them a bit? “The Experimental Collection is not about breaking the rules of bourbon,” said master distiller Harlen Wheatley in a statement. “In fact, 95 percent of our experiments stay within the confines of traditional methods of making whiskey. We conduct this research to better understand the variables that affect our final flavor profiles.”

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Peated Bourbon seems almost simple in comparison to some of the previous Experimental Collection releases. According to Wheatley, the point was to add a bit of smoke to one of the distillery’s bourbon mash bills (the low rye one, according to a rep for BT) by substituting peated barley imported from the UK for the regular malted barley that is usually used. The bottle’s label reveals a plethora of details for those who are thirsty for such things–six barrels were produced, the whiskey was distilled and barreled in November of 2012, aged for nine years and five months in charred white oak barrels, chill filtered (not sure why this step for an experimental release), the evaporation rate was 65 percent (that’s pretty high), and it was bottled at 90 proof.

So how does all this translate to the flavor? On the nose, there’s just a whiff of smoke, but it’s definitely an indicator that something different is going on here. Still, the whiskey reads less Laphroaig than it does Texas mesquite, with some savory barbecue notes taking center stage. The smoke element becomes more pronounced on the palate, which has a nice balance between classic bourbon flavors like vanilla, caramel, and some oak, along with syrupy cherry, fruit, and, of course, peat. That peat note is more recognizable on the palate as classic Islay style, a trio of iodine, rubber, and saline notes. Yes, those are all enjoyable flavors for those who love peated whiskey, and surprisingly they complement the core identity of the bourbon here.

It should be noted that this is not the first peated bourbon to be released. Kings County in Brooklyn has been making this style of whiskey for nearly a decade, and craft distilleries like Detroit’s Two James Spirits and Grand Traverse in Michigan have their own versions. There are also some bourbons available that spend time maturing in Islay scotch casks, but no major distillery has really gone the peated bourbon route yet. And, really, neither has Buffalo Trace—this is a very limited release that comes in small 375 ml bottles. The price tag for the whiskey is $47, but go ahead and ignore that because it will sell for hundreds of dollars or more on the secondary market. Still, this is an oddity of a bourbon that is unique and delicious, and one that anyone who is interested in whiskey in general should give a try.

Score: 93

  • 100: Worth trading your first born for

  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet

  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram

  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market

  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable

  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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