People from all walks of whiskey life have likely heard of the brand and distillery Buffalo Trace. Known for now also housing some of the most coveted whiskeys including the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle, Eagle Rare, and Weller - this is a distillery that definitely does not have a demand problem in today's markets. But you, the savvy drinker, might want to know if their flagship release might a suitable cost effective alternative to chasing their rarer releases? How do single barrel picks compare? Well you've come to the right place if you're interested in either of those questions.
I've enjoyed the abundance of availability of these bottles that comes with living in a competitive Massachusetts market. We have a lot of great retailers who do a ton of business across this brand. As such, I've never had to struggle to find these releases - whether it be the flagship release or a retailer store pick (single barrel). I know this isn't true of all states, so apologies if your level of access is different to mine!
Now let's dive in on the whiskey. Are these worth chasing?
Company on Label: Buffalo Trace
Whiskey Type: Bourbon
Mash Bill Percentages: Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1 (Low Rye < 10%)
Age: NAS, but commonly discussed to be around 6-8 years old; though the only legal requirement being over 4 years here
Further identification: Below is a review of the flagship release of Buffalo Trace that was released in 2021 based on the laser code; I discuss single barrel picks further down if you are interested in that!
Nose: Immediately sugary tones begin to bubble out of the glass. Subtle oak soaks into the nostrils as crème fraîche, apricot and toasted almonds billow out in a thick fog. Light green apple dances atop a raw pie crust being smoothed out over a bed of flour. A swirl of the glass reveals black pepper, softened gently by a wave of vanilla. Creamy red wine like cabernet sauvignon can be smelled from a distance. It takes a bit of a keen nose to pull out they layers here. Let's jump over to the tasting notes before returning to the nose.
Coming back from a sip I find the caramel and butterscotch to be more pronounced. Level oak continues to serve as a solid base to the glass. Freshly baked focaccia bread and lovely barrel funk meet to create a calming, warm and inviting medley of aromas. Vanilla softens into a buttery cake frosting texture near the bottom of the glass. The empty glass smells of brown sugar, savory barbecue, and a fig newton bar.
Palate: Woah... where the nose was soft this is quite punchy! Cherry hots, orange peel, grapefruit and bubblegum all dance on the palate in a dazzling and sizzling array. A squeeze of lime juice and can be found in the thin, oily linger. Another sip shows off caramel, biscotti and candied apple. Impressively sweet without venturing into cloying territory, I forgot how good this bottle is. I have definitely had more than a few bottles since I began my journey as a whiskey enthusiast & this sip is a great regrounding to where I started. Cherry seems to be the dominant fruit as the glass settles out some of its excitable start. Yogurt mixes in late to form an interesting strawberry parfait profile that I'm enjoying. As the glass gets lower more tannic styled fruits begin to layer in. Plum, blackberry, raisin and stewed apricot form an old fashioned fruit compote that is both simple and enjoyable. My last sip is fruity, balanced and thoroughly enjoyable. There's heft in the linger that drinks above its proof without becoming too hot. Ultimately the sweetness here makes this a classic bourbon profile that will be remembered for ages.
This is a fine example where blending skill can be better than identifying unique barrels. The flagship release soared with layers upon layers of delicious flavors that most single barrels can't keep up with. While not an overly exceptional whiskey, it's a classic profile that I think even the most seasoned whiskey drinkers can return to and find something they love. The best part of the flagship releases is the consistency. When you go for another bottle of this you can expect to find much the same as the last bottle you enjoyed.
Single Barrel Pick Comparisons and Discussion
Where the flagship release is a blend of barrels working together to make a cohesive and consistent flavor profile, single barrels are just single components of what is normally a blend. At Buffalo Trace today, just 40 barrels make up each small batch blend. The tasters and master distiller stay hard at work making sure they are achieving a consistent and tasty flavor profile. As for the single barrels, sometimes there are ones that just don't fit the traditional profile or maybe they are deemed exceptional by the tasters. Those barrels go to the loyal retailers who have supported the brand for a long time and they get to choose from an array of barrels which one happens to be their favorite. All it takes is a good palate and solid intuition and you'll find the type of barrel that people want to enjoy.
I've been helping retailers pick barrels for some time now and not only is it an incredibly fun experience, I think it offers an opportunity for stores to connect on a deeper level with their customers. This is an opportunity for them to trust you to make the best decision you can make and ultimately bring home what is likely going to be a sizeable number of bottles exclusively for that store location. I've seen retailers jump headfirst into this kind of picking program for it to ultimately fall flat in the marketplace because customers either don't know, don't trust, or don't already have a relationship with the folks involved with the picking. Barrel picking is penultimate; you need an established base of good customers & a trustworthy set of palates (yes plural) in order to make this work. The two groups I help run, Mass Bourbon Alliance and Spirit Animal Society, have mastered this type of collaborative relationship.
Other stores have done it incredibly well, even without that help. Below are a few of my favorite stores I have recently visited that have either well-established or up-and-coming whiskey single barrel programs. I'll also discuss how these single barrel offerings vary from the flagship release we reviewed above. If you want to read the full review of each single barrel, click the link at each title!
Where the flagship was consistent, this one was flashy. Fun, realistic candy flavors jumped out at me at every corner from sweet tarts to skittles and apple pie to mulled wine this was an exceptional barrel that showed off unique characteristics that were more buried on the blend. This is a great example of a single barrel reaching new highs compared to the flagship release. This shared the most similarities with the flagship release and yet it was still distinctly different.
This pick had much more caramel, butterscotch and bready tones. It lost some of the fruit complexity of the blend for a more straightforward set of cherry and strawberry flavors. I'd call this one a touch simpler than the flagship, while still maintaining the same level of incredible approachability that both exemplify. I'd call this one a solid replacement to the flagship.
This is a great example of a single barrel that ended up falling short compared to the flagship release (yes that's possible). For whatever reason this one just didn't land with me. I ended up giving it a lower score than the flagship because it had a bit too much spice and heat for my preference on this style of bourbon (a low proof sipper). I did end up finding some old fashioned cocktail flavors that pushed it to a point where it certainly was not bad, I just thought there were better examples of this distillate out there, and this tasting chronicle highlights that possibility. No offense to Kappy's whatsoever here, I know they can still pick good whiskey.
If I were picking a barrel of Buffalo Trace and you presented me with these three options, I'd definitely personally pick the Dion's barrel #491. It was exactly what I look for when I pick barrels - exceptional flavors, complexity and a level of approachability that I think a majority of whiskey drinkers can enjoy.
That's it! What do you think of these findings? Are you a Buffalo Trace fan? Let me know what's on your mind in the comments. Cheers!