As I type this, Buffalo Trace is filling bottles of its latest limited edition Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. which should hit stores this April. The new release is called “Four Grain,” a departure from the previous two releases that featured treated barrel staves, called “Cured Oak” and “Seasoned Wood.” While most barrel staves at Buffalo Trace are placed outside to dry for six months before being used in barrels, these two releases experimented with variations in the stave drying process. By manipulating the oak in the barrels, the whiskey was expected to pull even more flavor out of it during the aging process. This isn’t a new revelation for those of you familiar with Buffalo Trace’s Experimental series. Nonetheless, since last year’s Seasoned Wood release, bourbon enthusiasts have passionately staked their claims as to which of the two stave variation releases was better. Since the Four Grain will be released in both Spring 2017 and 2018, Cured Oak and Seasoned Wood will remain the only E.H. Taylor experimental wood releases for at least two more years. As such, Bourbon & Banter finally put these two heavyweights into the ring to settle it once and for all.
The promoter (Buffalo Trace) says:
This 100 proof, Bottled-In-Bond, small batch bourbon was aged in Taylor’s warehouse “C” at Buffalo Trace Distillery. The barrel staves used for this special release were allowed to dry outside in the open air for 13 months, more than twice as long as standard barrel staves. Most white oak barrel staves used for Buffalo Trace’s bourbons are placed outside for six months before being fashioned into whiskey barrels. Collaborating with barrel manufacturer Independent Stave Company back in 1998, this extra aging curing process allowed the wood to dry even longer, eventually allowing the whiskey to extract more rich and complex flavors deep within the oak. After crafting and filling these unique barrels, they were then aged inside of Taylor’s iconic brick and limestone warehouse “C,” built in 1881 … for seventeen years.
The barrels in this release underwent a variety of special seasoning processes, including barrels made from staves that were immersed in an enzyme rich bath with water heated to 100 degrees. After spending time in this proprietary solution, these staves were then placed into kilns and dried until they reached an ideal humidity level for crafting into barrels. Other staves were seasoned outdoors for six months, and still others were left outdoors for a full 12 months before being made into barrels and sent to Buffalo Trace Distillery to be filled and aged. All barrel staves were seasoned, dried, and crafted at Independent Stave Company, who consulted on this project with the premiere expert on oak maturation, Dr. James Swan.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Secondary Market Pricing
- Age: 17 Years”
- Proof: 100
- Mash Bill: BT #1 (low rye)
- Stave process: 13 months outside
Secondary Market Pricing
- Age: “Well over a deacade”
- Proof: 100
- Mash Bill: BT Wheated
- Stave process: Heated enzyme bath & kiln-dried + others seasoned outside for 6-12 months
As the two punchers make their way into the ring, let’s break down some notes from the weigh-in.
Cured Oak was distilled from the same Buffalo Trace #1 low-rye mash bill as the other EH Taylor bourbons, Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg, while Seasoned Wood was distilled from the same wheated mash bill as the W.L. Weller line and, of course, Pappy Van Winkle.
Cured Oak is a bold 17 years old, while Seasoned Wood is “well over a decade” old. Let’s try and decipher that nonsense by using logic. (For many of you in the bourbon community, the word ‘logic’ means a sound reasoning based on principles of validity. You should try using it more). If Cured Oak was touted as a 17-year old bourbon just a year before, then Seasoned Wood’s age would have been clearly stated if it were even close to that. Therefore, we can assume it is more than a couple years fewer than 17. So what age does the phrase “well over a decade” fit into? I’m going to take a flyer and suggest that 12 -13 years old would probably fit best.
Lastly, it appears the barrel staves for Cured Oak were all seasoned outside for 13 months, while Seasoned Wood staves underwent a blend of different processes including outdoor seasoning, a heated enzyme bath, and kiln-drying.
Hopefully, these critical points of differentiation illustrate that it isn’t just a subtle variation in a name – these are very different whiskeys.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
ROUND 1: COLOR
Color in the glass is virtually identical between the two bourbons. A near-perfect medium-to-dark- amber color.
ROUND 2: NOSE
The nose on the Cured Oak is impressive and balanced. Woody with cherries or other dark fruit and just a bit of caramel sweetness that came out even more after a few drops of water. It grabs your attention, particular if you are partial to older bourbons.
The Seasoned Wood, by comparison, seems brighter. The woodiness is still there, but not as prominent. I still get the cherry, but on the whole, it’s just a bit less complex than the Cured Oak.
WINNER: CURED OAK
ROUND 3: TASTE
The nose on the Cured Oak carries over to the sip. There’s a depth of flavor from the oak, dark fruit and even some more caramel than I expected.
The palate is where you realize the amount of influence the wood can have on a whiskey. Seasoned Wood shares more characteristics with the Cured Oak than other wheated bourbons. The dryness of the oak and even some peppery spice dances over some caramel sweetness.
Cured Oak is complex and Seasoned Wood is vibrant. The 100 proof level is terrific for unlocking the flavors but not overpowering them with heat. I really enjoyed them both and found them different enough to not declare a clear winner.
ROUND 4: FINISH
Where the palates differ, both bourbons deliver a nice, medium-length finish. Fans of aged bourbon will appreciate the dryness as it fades.
BOTTLE, BAR OR BUST
At the end of the bout, both bottles remained standing. Going to the scorecards, it would probably be a hard-fought split decision in favor of Cured Oak. The nose was clearly a step above and you have to appreciate the complexity of flavors. That being said, Seasoned Wood more than held its own and could easily have been declared the victor. I really liked both of these bourbons and find them both excellent values at their retail prices of $70 or so. Therefore, if you were able to find either on the shelf, it was a bottle purchase without hesitation. Comparing secondary market prices, whether or not you feel Seasoned Wood is worth $300, I can say unequivocally that Cured Oak is not $200 better than that.
Definitely try a pour of these at a bar if you can, though, because I think they’re both unique and delicious.