Today I want to talk about four very different top shelf bourbons (three of which sit on the top shelf of my garage bar) which all are born from the curiosity of Buffalo Trace Distillery. The name Buffalo Trace is a mainstay in most circles, and you'd probably have to be living under a rock in the world of bourbon to not know that brand. As Buffalo Trace began experimenting with the nuances of making whiskey, they launched Old Charter Oak. This line of bourbons homes in on the influence of different species of oak trees used for the barrels on the taste of bourbon. You'll recall from a previous post discussing barrel character that there are nearly five hundred species of oak worldwide. To-date, Buffalo Trace has produced four runs (Canadian, Chinkapin, French and Mongolian) - with a potential four hundred ninety-six left to go, that's a pretty long runway for trying new things!
Although I could probably drone on about all these top shelf bourbon bottles, I really want to focus on my favorite of the lot, Buffalo Trace's Chinkapin Oak. To me a bottle of bourbon is always a lot more than "just a bottle" - it's an experience that's been countless years in the making. Growing up in Central Illinois I would occasionally see a Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) typically along a river somewhere on what seemed like an area that had no soil along some limestone outcrop with leaves so coarsely toothed that they resembled a saw. Because they tend to grow in places that are a bit inhospitable, they have a slow growth rate. This is most evident when you cut down a tree as you can then age that tree by counting the growth rings which form yearly layers on the inside of the tree. For Chinkapins, being slow growing, those growth rings are narrower meaning tighter thus creating higher density wood.
For Old Charter's Chinkapin Oak bottling, Buffalo Trace let the barrel staves air dry for two years prior to making the barrels. That extra time sitting around drying out (possibly due to the density of the wood) allows the wood to break down further so you get better flavor out of the barrel – as an added bonus, it also reduces some of the tannins that would otherwise possibly overpower your dram. Buffalo Trace also tweaked their charring process for these barrels, going from the traditional 55 seconds to 35 seconds. Bourbon barrels are typically charred within the 35-55 second range, but some distilleries may even go up to three minutes.
If you think about it holistically, sixty to one hundred years ago most likely, an acorn fell from a tree and started growing. Over the course of a hundred years, we’ve seen Prohibition, The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the First Super Bowl, Y2K and so much more. After enduring many trips around the sun, that tree eventually gets cut down to make the barrel staves which then set outside for two years preparing for the grand finale. Once the juice found its way into the barrel it then spent another nine years aging before getting bottled and finding its way to my top shelf. There’s a reason you shoot vodka and sip bourbon. You take the time to appreciate what that drink represents – which is in itself, time and, for me, a connection back to my youth, running amuck in simpler times down by the Embarras River. Cheers my friends!
These top shelf bourbon bottles have earned their spot. And it's only fitting to enjoy them with friends, reminiscing on the good times, getting through the bad, and embracing this crazy thing called life. Join us on Instagram @thebourboneur for bourbon recommendations, cocktail recipes, events, giveaways, and more.