“Imagine being the astronaut strapped to a barrel of whiskey as you take off to the moon?” chuckles Harlen Wheatley, master distiller of Buffalo Trace. “But if we’re going to inhabit the moon one day, they’ll need a distiller up there, right? So we have seriously discussed what it would be like to age whiskey in space.”

That literal moonshot of an experiment is but one within a list of “what ifs that could last us four lifetimes,” per Wheatley, who oversees the experimental program at Buffalo Trace. “For us, experimenting has to have a purpose.” And that’s been his approach for the past 20 years. “In the case of aging in space, we’d seek to understand what zero gravity does to the whiskey as it moves in and out of the barrels. That’s valid; however, recreating zero gravity on Earth may not be very feasible,” Wheatley says.

As the bourbon and American whiskey category booms, and distilling titans seek to attract new customers — while offering innovation to existing brand fans — the race for something different is ratcheting up. “I just finished my 42nd year here. My first 30 were spent trying to make two-year whiskey taste like eight-year whiskey,” muses Eddie Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey. “But the consumer has changed, and that changes how we make whiskey.”

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When it comes to whiskey, particularly bourbon, flavor is derived within four basic beats of production: your grain recipe, fermentation process, the distillation method itself, and maturation (in new oak barrels, per law). Tweaking any — or all — of those variables will net you a different product. Which makes experimentation a blank whiteboard of possibilities. So how does a master distiller winnow down a heap of wild ideas into viable experiments to implement?

Some approach it methodically. “The more variables you have, the less control or insights you have,” says Chris Morris, master distiller emeritus at Woodford Reserve. Two decades ago, Morris created a charter for Woodford innovation, focused on altering one element at a time from the options of grain, fermentation, and maturation.

For Woodford’s Distiller’s Select range, for example, only the grain recipe differs, swapping between rye, malt, and wheat dominance. To manipulate maturation, Morris and crew placed existing whiskey into a second new oak cask, leading to the nascent but beloved Double Oaked offering, now a core product.

Others, like Russell, focus solely on aging and finishing variations. Russell’s newly launched Master’s Keep Voyage is the delicious result of placing 10-year Wild Turkey bourbon aged for up to eight weeks within 14-year pot still rum barrels from Appleton Estate (both spirits are owned by Campari).

“I’ve tried wine cask finishes before,” Russell says. “They didn’t give the right flavors. I wanted something funkier.” Enter Dr. Joy Spence, Appleton Estate’s master blender, whom Russell entrusted to hand-select barrels to bring said funk. He was blown away by the final product: “It turned out really great.”

While Russell is currently starting a second distillery to afford more opportunities to experiment with yeasts or different mash bills, nothing terribly radical is on the list. Barrel char times and temperatures are, though. “A hot to slow burn can bring out more vanilla or apple pie flavors,” he says.

After a 2006 tornado ripped through a Buffalo Trace warehouse, the barrels were exposed to the elements for months during repairs. Years later, those exposed barrels were the happiest of accidents, tasting so delicious, they were bottled and released as E. H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C Tornado Surviving. That happenstance led Wheatley’s team to create Warehouse X in 2017, a 4,000-square-foot space purpose-built to manipulate the environment.

“My father [former master distiller Jimmy Russell] tried a sherry cask finish on Wild Turkey in the early 2000s. Just amazing liquid, but bourbon drinkers didn’t want anything other than neat or on the rocks, so it didn’t go over well.”

“We have four chambers, 150 barrels in each,” Wheatley explains, “and barrels in a breezeway in the middle, open to all the elements; that’s our control. We alter each chamber’s environment, like temperature, air flow, and sunlight on the barrels. Currently, we’re one year into testing how humidity affects flavor, so we have souped-up humidifiers and dehumidifiers set to various levels in the chambers.”

The aim of Warehouse X, per Wheatley, is defining the future of aging, wherein the ideal conditions are scientifically understood. Learnings from the mini warehouse can be ported into Buffalo Trace’s traditional warehouses and the 59,000 barrels nestled within each. A 20-year experimental plan has been outlined, with each variable slated for a two-year minimum test, with the option to tack on another two years if initial samplings are positive. To keep everything focused on the environmental factors, all Warehouse X tests use the same Buffalo Trace bourbon mash bill and the same new oak barrels.

Sometimes experimental results taste good but are released too early, ahead of the market’s aggregate palate or an industry trend. “My father [former master distiller Jimmy Russell] tried a sherry cask finish on Wild Turkey in the early 2000s,” Russell recalls. “Just amazing liquid, but bourbon drinkers didn’t want anything other than neat or on the rocks, so it didn’t go over well,” he adds. “We sent most of it overseas.” In 2018, Russell brought back his dad’s vision via Master’s Keep Revival, a 12- to 15-year bourbon finished in 20-year-old oloroso sherry casks. It sold like wildfire.

Similarly, Morris’s favorite finish experiment was a Chardonnay finish, which Woodford offered in 2006. “A varietal wine barrel was an insult to drinkers, we were told at the time,” Morris laughs. “Fast forward to our 2015 Pinot Noir finish and we’ve got people going, ‘Can you do this again? It’s great.’”

While the expectation is always to produce a good whiskey, some fall short. “Thirty years ago, we bought sherry casks, sight unseen, put in 10-year bourbon and didn’t taste it for a year,” Russell says. “It was pure sulfur; undrinkable.” (A learning from this was to taste experiments weekly, Russell notes.)

“We’re driven by the experimental feasibility, and less so by market demand. Wheated bourbons aren’t the most popular, but as people learn about them, it could be exciting for new customers.”

Woodford wondered if a new spirit could be made that tastes like a really nice cigar, with rich pure tobacco, chocolate, and fruit notes. “We tried eight different mash bills and none worked,” Morris says, adding many of the results were merely acrid and bitter. Another surprise was barrels made from woods like sassafras and beech. “I thought the sassafras would give us a root beer taste,” Morris recalls, “but it wasn’t good at all. And beechwood had no flavor impact.”

Woodford discards or destroys unsatisfying experiments, while Russell says the flavors of Wild Turkey American Honey are forgiving enough to blend in experiments that didn’t land. Of misfires at Buffalo Trace, Wheatley admits that they “bottle those up and slap on a big label that says ‘Failed Experiment,’ and save it for demonstration purposes. But my opinion is that it’s not failure; there’s a learning and that’s always positive,” he surmises.

When your distillery has been around for 153 years, as Woodford’s Brown-Forman has, institutional knowledge about historical experiments comes in the form of “big old ledger books from 100 years ago, sometimes with handwritten pencil notes,” Morris says.

Determining future innovation bearings becomes easier, thusly. “Our archives date back to the 1870s, and we know, for example, that making whiskey with rice — which we tried in the 1980s — wasn’t super successful. Neither was our attempt to compete with vodka in 1968 by filtering the heck out of eight-year bourbon until it was clear.” That major release — Frost 8/80 — was a colossal bomb that was largely bought back and destroyed.

Largely, though, experiments work. They’re matriculated into core products or limited-release distillery offerings, like Woodford’s Double Double Oaked or Wheat Whiskey Bottled in Bond, that sell in a blink of an eye, per Morris. Wheatley’s four-grain experiment graduated to a full-time line offering in the form of E.H. Taylor Jr.’s Four Grain, with some 26,000 bottles released.

These successes fuel the need to push boundaries further. On the horizon for Buffalo Trace, look for more wheated experiments, akin to the debut of Daniel Weller, which employs ancient Emmer wheat in the mash bill. “We’re driven by the experimental feasibility, and less so by market demand,” Wheatley explains. “Wheated bourbons aren’t the most popular, but as people learn about them, it could be exciting for new customers.” (Don’t expect any variations on Pappy Van Winkle, the distiller’s marquee wheated product. “No one is looking for us to experiment there,” Wheatley quips.)

Ask if there’s anything truly crazy that he’d like to try and Wheatley laughs. “You may have heard about some guys making bourbon on boats. I volunteered to be a boat captain and take some bourbon out to sea, but they didn’t take me up on that.”

At Wild Turkey, the future roadmap of experimentation is largely driven by one simple principle. “I get sh*t from people all the time, about the proof being too low or how I messed up a great bourbon,” Russell smiles. “But if I like it and think it’s good, we’ll release it.”

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