The Single Oak Project: Searching for the Ultimate Bourbon

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


[Photos: Buffalo Trace]

Nothing's perfect—not even bourbon. But as Buffalo Trace Distillery revealed last week with the debut of the Single Oak Project—the latest and most ambitious release in the distillery's two-decade-long (so far) "Project Holy Grail" search for the ultimate whiskey—the impossibility of perfection in an imperfect universe doesn't mean you can't try.

The premise behind the Single Oak Project is simple: much (some say most) of a whiskey's character comes from the spirit's interaction with wood during the years it rests in an oak barrel. So what happens to the whiskey if you tinker with the wood and other variables in different, tightly controlled ways? With this release, we're starting to get a better understanding of how these factors function together.

20110511singleoakbottle.jpgAs Jason Wilson wrote last week in the Washington Post, the project started more than a decade ago, when Buffalo Trace selected 96 oak trees from the Missouri Ozarks. Each tree provided wood for two barrels (192 in total), one barrel from the top of the tree and one from the bottom (which had a bearing on the size of the wood's grain); the wood was also seasoned and charred to varying degrees, and the finished barrels were filled with whiskey made from a couple of different recipes and of different strengths. After aging the bourbons for eight years and finishing them at 90 proof, Buffalo Trace released the first batch of a dozen bottlings this month, with the remainder of the project's bourbons to hit the shelves at the rate of 12 releases each quarter for the next four years.

For Buffalo Trace, all of this work isn't just for the sake of tinkering, or of making yet another limited-edition whiskey: it's all being done in an effort to determine the secrets to producing the very best bourbon in the world. As Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley told Wilson, "We're very serious about this...We want to know whether a barrel is made from the top half or the bottom half of the tree. It makes a big difference."

The hearts of bourbon enthusiasts are understandably a-flutter about this project, but if you think such tinkering is just the work of whiskey geeks with too much time on their hands, think again. "Go ahead and roll your eyes if you must," Wilson writes. "But let me say here very clearly: It's totally true. There are a lot of romantic, and exaggerated, tales in the spirits business. This is not one of them."

Bourbon drinkers are also invited to participate in the project, in a way: each bottle from the Single Oak Project will bear the number of the corresponding barrel in which the bourbon was aged. After logging in to, drinkers can rate the whiskey and find out more details about the particular barrel and the whiskey inside it.

I got a taste of some of Buffalo Trace's experiments with oak last summer at Tales of the Cocktail, and from what I'm hearing about the Single Oak Project bourbons, I should start hunting for a few bottles. Bourbon fans: who's with me?