Why The Experimental 6-Grain Bourbon from Buffalo Trace is Good for American Whiskey

Like modern-day Oreo cookies, Buffalo Trace is constantly coming out with new and different products through a special line of one-off bottlings. There are more than 14,000 experimental barrels of whiskey at Buffalo Trace right now, all destined for the Experimental Collection. Here's the catch: You might never see them again. So if you like them, you’ll want to buy as much as you can. At the least, it's a pretty good business model. 

But here's the thing: It's also a great model to make innovative, even boundary-pushing whiskey. Experimental whiskey isn’t so much about putting a bottle of Van Winkle through the Large Hadron Collider as it is about making a whole bunch of recipes and seeing how subtle tweaks change the outcome. Maybe you have a recipe you like, but you add 1 percent more corn, then two, then three, and see if one of those is better than what you have.

And when there’s a real winner — a legendary bottle that people talk about for years to come — the generated excitement has a secondary effect in inspiring whiskey lovers to try something new under the threat of having missed out.

Time will tell whether the latest bottle will become legendary, but it is definitely different. The Organic 6 Grain, made with, you guessed it, six organic grains is different in that most bourbon is made with three grains. At least 51 percent of the grain recipe, or mash bill, must be corn, with the rest commonly being made up of a dash of malted barley and, depending on the distillery, either rye or wheat. However this recipe is more unusual: corn and wheat, with the addition of buckwheat, brown rice, white rice, and sorghum.

Unusual grains are becoming more common in the bourbon world as distillers look for ways to differentiate themselves from an increasingly saturated market for new products. The best-known distillers of unusual grains are probably Tennessee-based Corsair, which has made some truly delicious spirits from grains that don’t even really make it into the bread aisle anymore. But they still represent a fraction of the total volume of whiskey produced.

It’s not really a “more is better” formula, though; more grains do not necessarily equal more complexity. The danger of overdoing it is that your whiskey can come out more like a mouthful of skittles: too many competing flavors to register anything but a muddy sweetness.

Buffalo Trace, for their part, has managed to keep everything in balance. The proof point is comfortable, and allows the earthier grains and richer flavors to come out. The taste profile is typical of wheated bourbon, but the added grains find a nice way to add the earthy flavors that rye is known for, without that extra level of spice.

The Experimental Collect is packaged in 375 ml bottles, and the Organic 6 Grain release will retail around $47, depending on your location, when it comes out later this month. The price is reasonable for a seven-year-old, limited-release whiskey, especially in 2017 when prices no longer make sense.

We used bourbon and whiskey interchangeably for most of this story, and that’s not an accident. Buffalo Trace has said that Organic 6 Grain meets the requirements to be labeled bourbon, but opted to leave it at whiskey.

In a time when the word bourbon is a sales magnet, that’s a bold choice from a bold distillery, but maybe it will help eliminate the hesitance that newer whiskey lovers have around non-bourbon, non-rye products. If not, more for us.