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Issue 129 - The Single Oak Project

Whisky Magazine Issue 129
July 2015


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The Single Oak Project

Separating the wood from the trees

I'm going to show you data in a minute that's slightly terrifying,” warned Mark Brown, the audacious president and CEO of the Sazerac Company, in a cozy conference room at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. He had summoned a few of us whiskey writers for the grand reveal of five consumer-selected finalists in the Single Oak Project, an ambitious four year program designed to help determine the best bourbon in the world. No biggie. The next day we would sample and rate those five favourites to establish the one that would ultimately be bottled as Single Oak Project, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, but this first day was devoted to that terrifying data.

Four years earlier, I had been a part of a group of mostly the same writers when we gathered at the distillery for the launch of the SOP, an epic undertaking best explained as the Human Genome Project of whiskey. Its aim is to identify, map and isolate various factors in the bourbon making/aging process to determine what variables have which effect on the final product, all in the name of finding the “Holy Grail,” as Brown puts it.

The SOP started in 1999 when Brown, distiller Harlen Wheatley and the late Ronnie Eddins, Buffalo Trace's longtime, influential warehouse manager, hand-selected 96 trees from Missouri's Ozarks. They had each tree split into top and bottom segments. Each half was used only to make one barrel, yielding 192 unique casks. That top/bottom factor then went into the mix with six ...

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