Empire of the sun: a trip into bourbon country

Drew Mayville has been blending whiskey since 1980, first at Seagram and then at Diageo, before arriving at the Sazerac Company in 2004 where he is master blender for the likes of Buffalo Trace. He shared his passion for the spirit at a fantastic new pop-up bar in London’s Covent Garden last month, the Buffalo Bourbon Empire.

Launched to tie in with London Cocktail Week, the Buffalo Bourbon Empire remained open for three weeks till the end of October, serving more than 7,000 drinks to over 3,500 people. While the Prohibition-inspired bar focused on Buffalo Trace bourbon, Drew’s talks highlighted the incredible breadth of American whiskeys produced by the Kentucky distillery. These included the Eagle Rare 10 Year Old which has the same corn, rye and barley recipe as Buffalo Trace but, rather than being a blend of eight- to 12-year-old whiskeys, is aged in a single barrel for 10 years, making it drier, richer and more spicy.

The Elmer T Lee is also aged in a single barrel, for between nine and 11 years, with a corn and rye recipe that makes it softer but more spicy than Buffalo Trace. In contrast, the William Larue Weller wheated bourbon contains wheat instead of rye, making it a dry, smooth sipping spirit with a long sweet and oaky finish.

Sazerac Rye, made with corn and rye, contains whiskeys aged for six to seven years, and some older, with the sweetness of the corn balancing the spiciness from the rye. “A lot of bartenders like to mix this in cocktails because it’s got a lot of flavour that comes out in the drink,” Drew adds. A more intense spice characterises the George T Stagg, made from a corn and rye mash with whiskeys aged for 15 years and some older. Part of Buffalo Trace’s top-end Antique Collection, it is released in small batches only once a year.

There are about 335,000 barrels stored across the 12 warehouses at the distillery, which dates back to the 18th century and covers 149 acres. “We have the broadest amounts of different ages of anybody, from three years old up to 23 years and anything in between,” Drew says. “That depth will give you lots of variety of different tastes and flavours.

“I make the sum better than the individual parts, making sure there is consistency in the taste profile. But at Buffalo Trace, it’s also about new product development, making new whiskeys, which is the exciting part. One of the reasons I love working there is that it’s not just about maintaining, it’s about inventing.”

Drew describes his job and that of master distiller Harlen Wheatley as a “quest for the perfect bourbon”. He explains: “We believe we haven’t got the best whiskey yet. We are moving along the path of making better whiskey. We are always thinking of ways of doing it differently, to innovate, to experiment. We have a list of over 100 things that we want to try coming up with. If we sit on our hands and say that we’re perfect now, we will fail. We think about what is going to be perfect tomorrow. But it’s not going to happen overnight – it’s going to take years.”

Experiments include the Single Oak Project, in which 192 barrels have been created from 96 separate trees. Filled with either a wheat or rye mash bourbon, the barrels allow them to experiment with drying the staves for different periods as well as factors such as levels of charring and whether the liquid varies if stored on wooden or concrete floors.

Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection has seen the creation of over 1,500 different whiskeys which are now ageing in its warehouses. Bottlings are released occasionally such as this year’s 19-year-old whiskey aged in 135-gallon French oak barrels and last year’s bourbon, made from rice, corn and malt and aged for nine years and five months. “It is fantastic to be working with some of the greatest whiskeys at Buffalo Trace,” Drew says. “When you have a job like this, why would anyone want to quit it.”

As master blender and director of quality for the Sazerac Company, Drew doesn’t just look after whiskeys but a colourful range of products made across its eight sites in the US and Canada. As well as Fireball cinnamon whiskey, the portfolio includes vodkas such as Naked Jay Big Dill pickle-flavour, over 20 Canadian whisky brands and even more gins.

At the Buffalo Bourbon Empire pop-up in London, the back bar also featured Benchmark Bourbon and the unaged Buffalo Trace White Dog. Buffalo Trace’s UK distributor Hi-Spirits, which created the venue with bar consultants The Cocktail Service, is now planning to revive the pop-up in other locations in the future. “It’s a real chance to take all those who visit on a journey deep into bourbon country,” says The Cocktail Service’s director, Nick Ford.

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About barmagazine

Editor of Bar magazine
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