August 27, 2013

Review: Buffalo Trace Experimental 23 Year Giant French Oak - The Frankenstein Beast

Geeking Out on the Road

Heading west from Boston you'll find Waltham Massachusetts and Gordon's Fine Wines & Liquors.  We stopped in on the way to the mountains looking for our splurge bottle for the weekend.  After almost an hour talking with the fine proprietor, Joe, about whiskey - topics ranging from the merits of craft distilling to up-or-down votes on many bourbons and malts (he loves Laphroaig Quarter Cask - go figure!), it was down to two contenders: Jefferson 21-Year and Buffalo Trace Experimental 23 Year.  Well, since you read the title of this post, you already know who won.  You can get the Jefferson pretty easily but we'd never seen the Buffalo Trace on the shelf before.  And since the BT was a half-bottle and we didn't really plan to drink an entire bottle of whiskey over the weekend, we took a roll of the dice and went for it.


So Buffalo Trace has went and gone a little mad scientist on us.  With the Experimental Collection, they're releasing all kinds of different combinations of recipes, barrels, and ages.  It's kind of like mixing and matching the different body parts of all their whiskeys, trying to come up with the ultimate beast of a bourbon.  (Ok maybe it's more like Serpentor, for those of a certain age).

We don't know how to feel about this.  On the one hand, it's cool to operate at the scale where you can try out this many different styles and bottle all of them.  On the other hand, why do we want to be the guinea pig?  Don't the good folks at Buffalo Trace know the best combination of corn, water, and wood?  Isn't that sort of what they do for a living??

Well at the end of the day there are so many different combinations of possibilities that we're willing to suspend disbelief.  For the computer geeks out there, it's like open-source whiskey making.  Put out all the variations and let folks like us choose the most perfect iteration.  Maybe in a small way this post could even help to shape the future of Buffalo Trace.  Who knows?  Anyway, chop it up Dr Frank!  Let's see what you got.

Yes Master, I Shall Bring The Body To Warehouse K!

The cool thing about Dr Frankenstein is that, like any good scientist, he takes copious notes.  In this case we get to learn every little detail about the bourbon.

Lab report: Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection 23 Year Giant French Oak Barrel

  • Total Production: 1 Barrel.   They only made one (albeit giant) barrel of it.  Herein lies the beauty and the folly of the Experimental line.  They only have one barrel's worth of each variation!  
  • Created on May 16th, 1989
  • Put in a barrel the next day, May 17th.  (ok...  not sure why that detail is included)
  • Uses a "Rye Mash Bourbon #2" recipe.  So it's a bourbon, aka 51% corn, and has a high rye content
  • Left the still at 135 proof, entered the barrel at 130 proof
  • Sat in warehouse K/1, Rick 0, Row 0, Slot 0.  Does this mean it was the first barrel in that warehouse, and sat in the #1 spot for 23 years?  (We think so.)
  • And there's more...

  • It was aged in a very large barrel.  Bourbon typically ages in 53 gallon barrels.  The giant french oak barrel is 135 gallons.  What does this mean?  Well some theories would say that in a giant barrel the whiskey would be at less risk to become over-wooded.  The larger the barrel, the less wood touches whiskey...
  • The barrel used was medium to heavy char - referring to the amount of flame used to treat the inside of the barrel.  (For awesome char geekery look here)
  • It was bottled on June 27th 2012 (damn that's hubby's birthday!!!)
  • 46.8% of the barrel evaporated by the time they emptied the barrel and bottled the whiskey (that's the "angel's share")
  • It's chill-filtered and bottled at 90 proof

Ok enough detail for ya?  Let's see how it tastes...

Tasting Notes

Appearance:  Coke, with one melted ice cube.  Pretty.

Nose:  Vanilla, nougat, white chocolate, cherry, light woodiness, a little citrus or maybe crisp apple.  Very enticing, pretty awesome nose.

Body:  First of all, wickedly smooth.  Also very rich and sweet.  There's a slight tartness to the wood taste - this is being really picky - but maybe the slightest bit over-oaked.  All-in-all though this is a great tasting bourbon.

Finish: Nice round finish. No burn, but a nice spirit warmth.  Pretty much just what you look for in a prime-time bourbon.  Medium length with some nice rye spiciness coming through, little bursts of red pepper and mint, and a little pleasing saddle leather.


First of all, it's next to impossible to get a bottle of 23 year buffalo trace off the shelf.  Pappy 23 Year is pretty much your only shot.  But Pappy 23 is a very different beast.  It's still got Stitzel-Weller juice mixed in, it's a wheated rather than hi-rye recipe, it's $250 retail (but good luck finding any on the shelves!), and it's sort of the unicorn of bourbon.  Don't get us wrong, this is no Pappy 23 Year.  But it's not completely out of the ballpark.  And this half-bottle was $59.

The similarities are that it's smooth as hell.  It's obviously well-aged, immensely drinkable, and outclasses 90% of what you can find on the shelf today.  With the rye vs wheat issue, we still prefer the wheat, however they've done a very nice job with the rye recipe.  More similarities to Pappy 23: it's dry and punchy, has a tight nutty woody kick to it, and it's crisp and compact.  It doesn't have the big plummy sweet brown molasses of an E.H. Taylor or a Michter's 10, it's much more on the side of Elijah Craig with a woody spicy crack.  And there's the rub.  While it compares nicely to Pappy 23 for less than half the price, does it compare that nicely to a lot of the bourbon you can buy for around $50-$80 a bottle?

Ok enough with the parallels and comparisons.  Does it taste good?  Yes!  We're very happy with this bottle.  It's a treat to be able to try 23 year bourbon, it's cool that they put out half-bottles for tasting, and - let's be honest - we love all the geekery around it.  And damn it does taste good.  Maybe a little more balls on the proofing would put it totally over the top, but for the money and all things considered, it's a solid SmokyBeast "B+".  For a splurge half-bottle to split for a special night, this is a great fit.

So our feedback to the experimental committee:  Put out more 23-year bourbon!  Also how about a wheated giant oak barrel?  Finally, we understand that with almost 50% evaporation it might be hard to release at barrel strength, but 95 proof should be the floor.  We'll check back in 2036 to see how that turned out.


On Second Pour:   We always like to go back for a second pour, and when it makes a big difference, we update our posts.  In this case, a few days later after this bottle has had time to open up, this is a really great whiskey.  The woodiness has mellowed out a bit, the rich caramel molasses has come up to the front, and the overall smoothness is still pretty awesome.  Bumping this one up to a SB "A-".  It's great.  We only wish we'd had the will-power to save a sample to bring home so that we could blind against some Pappy!


  1. Thanks for the tasting notes. Just purchased a bottle today. Can't wait to try it! Joe mentioned you had been in a few days ago. I'm going to open for a few day before tasting. With the Pappy 13 year rye I find after a month it is a totally different whisky than when it is 1st opened.

  2. Ha, Joe had another bottle stashed away? We thought we got the last one! Anyway you're in for a treat. Totally agree on the changing character of some whiskies after being open in the bottle. If only we'd had the will-power to save some of that BT Experimental, but it only made it through the long weekend... Enjoy & thanks for reading!