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Kentucky Bourbon's "New Breed" Master Distillers

Updated on January 31, 2015

Harlen Wheatley - Master Distiller, Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace's Harlen Wheatley

Harlen Wheatley seems to be one of those lucky individuals destined to finding and attaining his true calling early in life. At Buffalo Trace, he's not only filling the big shoes of legendary master distiller Elmer T. Lee, he's using experimentation in his quest to find the ultimate bourbon. It's probably more accurate to say he's searching for the ultimate bourbons because the various combinations of yeast and grains, that get distilled before being aged in oak barrels, can yield a wide variety of distinctive flavor profiles that all fall under the category called bourbon.

The master distiller is such an important link in bourbon making because the production standards are set at a high level. In addition to the requirements of what bourbon is made from, how it gets distilled and how long it ages, there can be nothing other than water added to the final product, that means no artificial colorings or additives can be used to make the process easier from one batch to the next. To meet those strict challenges, the forty something Wheatley relies on his chemical engineering degree and years of working at all levels of the industry to make sure all of Buffalo Trace's bourbons meet the exacting criteria mandated by law.

Warehouse X

Wheatley and Buffalo Trace aren't afraid of using experimentation when it comes to the objective of finding a unique and memorable bourbon within the tightly controlled limits of how bourbon can legally be made. Warehouse X is a prime example of how Wheatley can push the envelope without going outside those requirements. The experimental warehouse came about by what turned out to be a fortuitous tornado that opened a sizable gash in one of the distillery's brick warehouses a few years back. As it turned out, the aging barrels of bourbon that were exposed to the elements for a period of time developed a unique flavor profile resulting from the days and weeks those barrels spent in sunlight, temperature shifts and changing humidity levels. The new warehouse allows Wheatley to control those conditions and closely monitor the condition of the aging whiskey inside the barrels.

The high-tech Warehouse X is a modern twist on the tried and true methods of distilling from quality grains and aging that distillation in high quality oak barrels until it's time to bottle. Skylights in the top of the compact building allow for differing amounts of sunlight to reach the barrels, humidity and temperature are manipulated with a sophisticated climate control system and sensor probes placed in some of the barrels allows Wheatley to monitor an array of conditions inside the barrels just by looking at the computer controlled display panel on the warehouse wall. Even though the modern bells and whistles of the twenty-first century are a far cry from bourbon's humble origins, the goal of making great bourbon, within the mandated guidelines, remains the same.

The Single Oak Project

Another illustration of Wheatley's dedication to exploring the full range of possibilities when it comes to bourbon flavor and complexity is the Single Oak Project. The project was inspired by Buffalo Trace's former warehouse manager Dennie Eddins who hand-picked the pristine white oak trees from the Missouri Ozarks that are the foundation of the bourbon release. From the 96 trees chosen by Eddins, 192 barrels were crafted, each receiving different levels of char on the inside. Each barrel was filled with the distillation derived from multiple grain recipes and at different levels of proof insuring that no two barrels were exactly the same.

To keep things interesting, Wheatley currently has over 2000 experimental bourbons in the pipeline. Some of the experiments will surely never be released commercially, but, as with most things in life, nothing ventured, nothing gained. For anyone interested in bourbon, it's going to be exciting to see what kind of releases come out of Buffalo Trace over the next couple of decades or so.

A Few Words With Harlen Wheatley

I was fortunate to get a few minutes with Buffalo Trace's master distiller Harlen Wheatley recently.

EG - Many distilleries have their favorite "Ultra" warehouses that tend to produce the best bourbons year after year; do you have a favorite?

HW - Of course X is the most fun but L delivers the best overall product for now. D is a wonderful story, rescued from the scrap heap. I and K are the workhorses.

EG - Speaking of Warehouse X, how are things going? Have you sampled any of the product yet?

HW - Everything is going as planned. We started our "Sunlight" experiment about 6 months ago and we are beginning to accumulate the data. Yes, we have taken one set of samples from each chamber. The bourbon is coming along nicely and we are already seeing differences.

EG - Any Surprises?

HW - Some surprises, however it's too early to make conclusions.

EG - Are there any other experimental whiskey versions you care to talk about?

HW - We have focused our efforts on recipe changes and wood variables. We continue to produce some fantastic ideas that are sure to raise some eyebrows in the future.

EG - Why has bourbon become so popular around the world?

HW - People are figuring out that bourbon has quite the story that they can relate to and want to spend their hard earned money on. The quality is unmatched, and people demand quality in their spirits.

EG - Buffalo Trace's Sazerac Ryes have garnered a lot of praise from whiskey aficionados lately; do you think rye will become an even more mainstream spirit in the future?

HW - Somewhat, however, it will always be limited due to the amount of supply for the market. Bartenders and customers like the rye whiskey because it mixes well and has a distinctive flavor.

EG - Is it difficult to keep a particular bourbon's components consistently the same from batch to batch, year after year?

HW - Nothing in life is easy. We do have somewhat of an advantage because we have so much experience with what we do. It allows us to be flexible and make the changes necessary to keep the product consistent.

EG - Is there any such thing as a typical working day for a master distiller?

HW - Well, somewhat, but it does seem every day is a little different. We have developed processes and systems to allow most things to go as planned, but there is always something new every day. I asked my predecessor once he retired after 37 years about this and he said it never stops changing.

EG - I've got to ask, what bourbons - or bourbons - would you want with you if you found yourself marooned on a desert island?

HW - Believe me, if I were marooned on an island, I wouldn't be too picky. I like all spirits but I'm partial to about an 8-10 year rye bourbon like Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare and then a 12-15 year wheated bourbon like Weller of Pappy.

EG - Sounds good to me. Thanks for the time.

HW - You're welcome, thanks.

The Legacy Continues

There is little doubt that we are entering a new golden era of bourbon. Today's master distillers have the advantage of drawing on the knowledge of the best master distillers from the past and combining that knowledge with the technology of the twenty-first century. That's how people like Harlen Wheatley are bridging the past with the future in order to find just how great bourbon can be. It's truly the beginning of a new age for bourbon in Kentucky.


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