Does the ‘perfect’ bourbon exist?

March 15, 2011

Someday soon, Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Ky., will unveil a special batch of bourbon that represents what it calls “the holy grail.”

In fact, for about 20 years, the distillery has undertaken Project Holy Grail: its systematic, clinical quest for a “perfect” whiskey. By its own account, it is close. Will this happen in late April? We can’t know for sure, since it’s all super hush-hush.

Last summer in New Orleans, Mark Brown, the president of the Sazerac Co., which owns Buffalo Trace, gave a presentation on Project Holy Grail to a group of journalists. He told us that project workers had already identified 15 variables in whiskeymaking, which can lead to millions of outcomes. They had isolated 125 of the more than 300 chemicals in bourbon. They had rated all locations in Buffalo Trace’s vast rickhouses, where its barrels age for decades at a time, for quality.

“We know which aisles in which rickhouses make the best whiskey,” Brown told us.

Then he asked rhetorically, “What does the Holy Grail look like?” And answered, “Somewhere between complexity and balance.”

“Yes,” he added, “we are being purposefully vague.” To date, Buffalo Trace has concocted more than 300 experimental whiskeys, many of which have been released as special editions in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection over the past few years. So far, nothing has achieved perfection in the distiller’s eyes. Regardless, most of the ones I’ve tasted, I must say, have been pretty delicious.

We all know that “perfect” is a slippery term. Several of the journalists in New Orleans wondered aloud: On exactly what basis will perfection be determined? Brown told us he had “dissected” the 10 top-rated whiskeys of a handful of influential spirits writers, among them F. Paul Pacult, who publishes the newsletter Spirit Journal; Gary Regan, the cocktail columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle; and John Hansell, editor of Malt Advocate magazine. Based on the ratings of those writers, Buffalo Trace developed the profile for its holy grail.

Brown said, “We’re waiting for that ‘Eureka!’ moment when Malt Advocate says, ‘You did it.’ ”

In the world of wine, there has been a lot of recent soul-searching about the validity, objectivity and overall worth of 100-point rating scales. What, some ask, do the points mean? Many of us feel overwhelmed by the shelf talkers posted in wine shops, trumpeting 90-something points for this, 90-something points for that. There’s evidence that Wine Spectator-style rating scales, which were so effective for baby boomers, are getting less traction with succeeding generations of wine buyers. Translation: More of us are saying “meh” when faced with a score by Robert M. Parker Jr.

Apparently that is not a concern in the world of whiskey. Like the great white whale, a 100-point whiskey remains out of reach, at least for Buffalo Trace. In any case, in the manner of Ishmael I’ll be sojourning to Kentucky soon to observe and taste, and I’ll chronicle my efforts for you.

Of one thing I am certain: This perfect, holy-grail whiskey ain’t gonna be cheap.

Price. Value. Those were not discussed as part of the holy-grail algorithm, just as they are rarely discussed in 100-point rating scales. Which is why I’d like to mention a few of the imperfect bourbons I’ve been enjoying lately.

Bourbon is one of my favorite spirits, and early spring is probably my favorite time of year to drink it. But bourbon is not a spirit I like to spend much money on. Sure, I’ll occasionally pay around $30 for a bottle of something like Evan Williams Single Barrel or Russell’s Reserve or Eagle Rare (a Buffalo Trace product). I might splurge on the new Knob Creek Single Barrel, which will retail for around $40; it is bold and smoky yet surprisingly balanced for 120 proof. But most of the time, I’m looking for bourbon costing under $25.

In fact, as I’ve recommended many times before, Buffalo Trace’s basic bourbon, at $20, is one of the best-value whiskeys in the world. I’ve even written in this space that it’s my desert-island bourbon.

The other night, I compared several under-$20 bourbons in my cabinet, both neat and then mixed in old fashioneds (I make mine, by the way, with: sugar, two dashes of bitters and orange peel twist, muddled; two ounces of bourbon; two ice cubes, gently stirred.) I enjoyed regular old Evan Williams ($12), yellow-label Four Roses ($17) and even a newcomer from Brown-Forman, Early Times 354 ($16), which I think has the ideal kiss of mellow sweetness to entice a newbie to whiskey.

But my favorite of the evening was the wheated bourbon Old Weller Antique 107, which sells for around $20 to $22. Weller is made by the folks at Buffalo Trace, which raises the question: How far away, exactly, is Weller from the holy grail?

I mean, at least on that particular evening, it seemed kinda perfect.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010).jason@jasonwilson.com

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