Whiskey making is an art steeped in tradition. Many bow to time-honored techniques; in other cases, regulations govern exactly how a certain style of whiskey can be produced. But the growing demand for whiskey of all kinds — from bourbons to Japanese scotch to the Canadian rye revival — has given some distillers the license to try something completely different with their products.
For some distilleries, experimentation allows them to try out different methods that may have a broader effect down the line, like the boom in rye as an ingredient. For others, experimentation for its own sake is the goal. “Many of our whiskeys began as experiments that we thought tasted good and had no idea how much we could sell,” said David Perkins, proprietor of Utah’s High West.
“Each experiment is designed to be a learning experience,” Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley said when asked about the role of experimentation. “Either it will help us understand how to make our current products more consistent or might teach us something new to try.” Buffalo Trace’s recently concluded Single Oak Project, for example, began with barrels made from 96 oak trees, in which various bourbons were aged under various conditions. The result both helped Buffalo Trace, in Wheatley’s words, learn that “each tree imparts its flavor based on its environment and method of harvesting.”
What follows is a look at some of the most innovative and experimental whiskeys out there — all made in fascinating ways, and all deeply rewarding to those who spend time with them.