Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley on Bourbon’s ‘Holy Grail’

The Northern Kentucky native and four-time James Beard Award nominee wants you to get ready for some really good bourbon.

Illustration by Chris Danger

The Northern Kentucky native and four-time James Beard Award nominee provides the bourbon low-down.

Let’s take it back to basics: What is bourbon?
Bourbon is a serious, regulated product. You have to have at least 51 percent corn, can’t add anything to it, and it has to be aged in new, charred oak. You can’t distill it higher than 160 [proof] or barrel it higher than 125. If it says “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey,” it was distilled in Kentucky, aged in Kentucky for at least a year, and is at least two years old.

What’s up with all the distillery’s empty shelves?
Eight years ago, were you drinking Buffalo Trace? Fewer people were, and we based all of our production on what people were drinking then. But all of our products are ramping up. Eventually we’re going to have so much bourbon that everybody in the country will have a barrel.

You talk about pursuing the “Holy Grail,” the perfect bourbon. Are you close?
We kind of believe we may never find it—one person may think it’s the greatest and the next may not. But we have over 30,000 barrels of experiments in the warehouse. So odds are we’ve got some pretty good stuff in there.

What can whiskey lovers expect from Buffalo Trace this year?
There’s some really interesting stuff coming. We’re getting ready to put out some whiskey that I think is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot of whiskey.

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