The Holy Grail of bourbon: Tasting my way through the Single Oak Project atReserve 101
My heart skipped a beat when I read about the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Hoping to create the perfect bourbon, my favorite bourbon brand has mixed and matched 192 varieties of single barrel bourbons for fans to taste and vote on the best.
In Houston, Reserve 101 is the first and only bar to get some of these rare bottles in stock, and I wrangled an invite to taste them alongside owner Mike Raymond.
One interesting thing about the Single Oak Project is that the bottles don't give you any information on the process, what's inside or how they differ from each other. To find out more, you have to make your way to the website. The goal is to find the “holy grail” of bourbons, with a blind tasting to prevent bias based on ingredients or age.
Each Single Oak bourbon is created from the combination of a number of variables:
- Trees with either fine, medium, and coarse grain — each grain indicates different growth rate, which affects the flavor profile.
- Each tree is cut into top and bottom pieces, resulting in 192 unique sections, which in turn create 192 barrels.
- Six- or 12-month periods of air-drying
- One of two char levels
- Wheat or rye bourbon
- A proof of 105 or 125
- One of two warehouses for storing, one with wooden ricks and the other with concrete floors.
Eight years after beginning the project, Buffalo Trace has released just over a dozen versions, each from a different barrel. We tasted Reverse 101's complete stash, from barrel numbers three, four, 35, 36, 67, 68, 99, 100, 131, 132, 163 and 164. Buffalo Trace is slowly releasing all 192 tries over the next four years.
I’ve always been proud of being the only one among my friends to drink bourbon neat, but Raymond informed me that in order to fully open up the flavors, you need to add a little water, comparing it to decanting a fine wine. It was the single most useful thing I’ve learned this year! I picked up a couple of other pointers too: Before tasting bourbon, you should smell it with your mouth slightly open. Because your olfactory senses and taste buds are connected, if you only smell with your nose, the alcohol will burn your nostrils. Opening your mouth slightly helps take in the full aroma.
Raymond informed me that in order to fully open up the flavors, you need to add a little water, comparing it to decanting a fine wine. It was the single most useful thing I’ve learned this year!
Tips in hand and mouth slightly ajar, I was ready for my first tasting. We started with the Buffalo Trace White Dog (new make whiskey). Yowza! I might take down Talisker scotch at noon, but this was a strong one for me. Since the White Dog is unaged, it is clear in color and has quite a kickback. That said, the aftertaste has hints of sweet corn and cinnamon. Starting with the strong bourbon made the rest of the tastings smoother in comparison.
Although this was a blind tasting, Raymond’s expertise led discussions — which bottles probably held more rye (the rough, spicy versions), which differences in texture and aftertaste might be due to longer aging rather than different ingredients. It was incredible to taste the differences, sometimes subtle and other times surprisingly obvious, among the barrels. The color went from light to dark caramel, the nose ranged from smoky to floral to fruity. Some had strong notes of honey or vanilla, others were overwhelming with pepper.
Raymond doesn't have any tastings planned for general audiences due to the cost for these rare bottles. But Reserve 101 is introducing half shots of each Single Oak whiskey for $20 so that interested bourbon fans can taste three or four without breaking the bank.
Hey, when it comes to the search for the Holy Grail, why not?