Media Files
Interview with Harlen Wheatley, October 30, 2008
Bourbon in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
Interviewee Harlen Wheatley
Interviewer Thomas Troland
created 2008-10-30
cms record id 2009oh021_bik003
accession number 2009OH021 BIK 003
is part of Buffalo Trace Oral History Project (BIK003)
summary Harlen Wheatley, from Florence, Kentucky, came to work at Buffalo Trace in 1994 after graduating college with degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. In 2005, Wheatley became master distiller. In this interview, Wheatley explains what master distillers do, including their responsibilities in the distillery and with the public. Wheatley explains the origin of bourbon and defines bourbon. He describes the process of bourbon production, including the selection of ingredients, cooking, fermentation, distillation, aging, and tasting. Wheatley also talks about how variables in the different stages of production can affect bourbon's flavor. He explains that Buffalo Trace produces experimental bourbons to explore the effects of these variables. Wheatley then talks about the renaming of the distillery and the Buffalo Trace brand. He also discusses the future of the distillery and the bourbon industry as a whole.
Alcohol--Law and legislation
Liquors--Gaging and testing
local term Whiskey
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky--History.
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery.
local term Distilleries--Kentucky
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky
local term Bourbon whiskey
local term Distillation.
local term Quality control.
local term Quality of products.
local term Distillers.
Rights Statement:
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Source Metadata URI:
00048047 (2009oh021_bik003_wheatley_ohm.xml)
Harlen Wheatley is introduced. He talks about his background growing up and being educated in Kentucky. He discusses the origins of the name bourbon whiskey as well as the product itself. He talks about how the process of aging whiskey was accidentally discovered.
Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland and we're interviewing today Harlen Wheatley who is the master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Alcohol--Law and legislation
Bourbon County (Ky.)
Bourbon whiskey
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Whiskey industry--Kentucky--History.
Florence (Ky.)
Mississippi River
Mt. Sterling (Ky.)
New Orleans (La.)
University of Kentucky
Wheatley discusses the warehouses at Buffalo Trace Distillery and why each building's architecture is unique. He talks about how these differences affect the aging process.
Partial Transcript: Um, our first large warehouse--big, new warehouse was built in eighteen seventy--around 1875.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Air pockets
Wheatley talks about the different types of recipes that can be used to create bourbon, including rye, wheat, and barley-based whiskeys.
Partial Transcript: You use the term wheated bourbon. Can you explain that?
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Barley whiskey
Malted barley
Mash bills
Rye bourbon
Rye whiskey
Wheated bourbon
Wheatley describes each step of the bourbon-making process from the delivery of the raw ingredients to the bottling of the finished product. He talks about how the distillery maintains a consistent product despite the many variables that can affect the process.
Partial Transcript: Take me through, just briefly if you will, the, the process of producing bourbon.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Beer stills
Mash bills
Sour mash
Wheatley discusses Buffalo Trace's proprietary yeast, its role in the distillation process, and how it affects the flavor of the product.
Partial Transcript: Tell me about the yeast.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Wheatley discusses how the proof of alcohol can be adjusted through the distillation process, and how various proofs can affect the flavor of the final product.
Partial Transcript: You mentioned that several proofs off the still are used at Buffalo Trace.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
W. L. Weller bourbon whiskey
Wheated bourbon
Wheatley discusses why each barrel is unique and how that affects the flavor of the bourbon aged inside them. He talks about where Buffalo Trace gets their barrels and how they are made. He talks about an experiment they are conducting by making a barrel from a single tree, and what they hope to learn from this experiment.
Partial Transcript: What about the barrels?
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon whiskey
Number 4 char
Single barrel bourbons
Single tree bourbons
White oak
Wheatley talks about the micro still that makes it possible for Buffalo Trace to conduct experiments regarding the bourbon-making process. He talks about some of the variables they have been testing and what they hope to learn from their experiments.
Partial Transcript: That brings up the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and all of the experiments that--(Wheatley coughs)--you have done.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Best bourbon
Hybrid stills
Industry standards
Micro distillation process
Micro stills
Small barrels
Surface area
Wheatley describes a typical day as master distiller at Buffalo Trace. He talks about his focus on the quality and consistency of the products. He talks about people at the distillery who have great knowledge and experience.
Partial Transcript: Take me through a typical day on your job--(Wheatley coughs)--as you perform it at present.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Leonard Riddle
Plant managers
Quality checks
Ronnie Eddins
Single barrel bourbons
Typical day
Wheatley talks about how the product, Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey, came to be created. He talks about how barrels are selected, and describes the tasting process. He talks about how the name, bottle, and label were chosen.
Partial Transcript: One of the, uh, signature products of this distillery, of course, is Buffalo Trace bourbon and it has a specific flavor profile that you're looking for.
Alcoholic beverages.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Flavor profiles
George T. Stagg Distillery
Leestown settlement
Rye whiskey
Small batch bourbons
Tasting panels
Wheatley talks about his role as a representative of Buffalo Trace as the master distiller. He talks about the public's lack of awareness of what bourbon is, and his role in educating them. He talks about his personal favorite bourbons.
Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about, about, um, your work, uh, as a representative, uh, of Buffalo Trace.
Alcohol--Law and legislation
Alcoholic beverages.
Bourbon whiskey
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Sales promotion.
American whiskey
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection
Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey
George T. Stagg bourbon whiskey
Hillary Clinton
Master distillers
Public relations
Wheatley talks more about the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, and says that its purpose is not to earn money but to learn more about the bourbon-making process.
Partial Transcript: What's the strategy behind the Experimental Collection?
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Best bourbon
Wheatley talks about his educational background in chemistry and chemical engineering. He talks about how he came to work at Buffalo Trace, and how his background in chemistry made his apprenticeship to become a master distiller easier.
Partial Transcript: Okay. Uh, once again this is Tom Troland.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Chemical engineering.
Economic conditions.
Quality control.
Quality of products.
Bachelor's degrees
College majors
Gary Gayheart
High school
Julian P. Van Winkle
Master distillers
Northern Kentucky University (NKU)
University of Kentucky (UK)
Whiskey industry
Young adulthood
Wheatley discusses what he sees for the future of the bourbon industry, and how the experiments being conducted at Buffalo Trace may lead to new products and innovations. He talks about what he hopes his own legacy at the distillery will be. The interview is concluded.
Partial Transcript: Bourbon is obviously a product of, of great tradition but also, uh, there are innovations as you've discussed that, uh, affect the product and will continue to affect the product in the future.
Bourbon whiskey
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection
Master distillers
New products
TROLAND: My name is Tom Troland, and we're interviewing today Harlen
Wheatley who is the master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery. This
is October 30, 2008. This is part of the Buffalo Trace Oral History
Project, and we are here at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. So thanks
very much, Harlen, for taking time out to, uh, to talk to us. Let me
begin with a very general question. Just tell me a little bit about
WHEATLEY: Well, I was born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, and, uh, I grew
up in Florence, Kentucky, which isn't far from here; about sixty-five
miles north. And, uh, went to high school there and then went to
college at UK which is just about twenty-five miles east of here. And,
uh, so I literally haven't left, strayed far from the nest and, uh,
uh, really didn't leave Kentucky until I started this job to be honest
because, um, you know, we didn't--just didn't do a lot of traveling.
But, uh, so I'm, I'm a Kentucky,
Kentucky born and bred kid working at
a, working in an, uh, industry that's been around for quite a while, so
I'm kind of, kind of happy that worked out that way.
HAY: Okay I'm just going to pause here.
[Pause in recording.]
WHEATLEY: --the, uh, sales fell off and, um, inventories grew because of
that and, um, literally created inventory because of sales dropped off.
TROLAND: Uh-huh.
WHEATLEY: And now, it's kind of like, um, the way bourbon was found in
the first place. It was by accident; same thing. And really the aged
bourbon was kind of found by accident that the inventory grew because
of the market, and next thing you know people love it. So now, now
our task is to create the aged bourbon, so you know we've kind of,
kind of gone in waves as an industry, you know, based on the market and
people's, people's tastes and so on, so--
Are we rolling again now?
HAY: We're rolling, and I'd like to know what that original accident was.
TROLAND: The original accident, okay.
HAY: That he was just talking about.
TROLAND: Shall we talk about that now?
HAY: You don't have to.
TROLAND: No, let's, uh--I have some other questions I'd like to ask
about, uh, growing up and so forth, but um, let's, let's go for that
now. Why not? How did bourbon originate?
WHEATLEY: Bourbon originated as a, it really wasn't even called
bourbon at the time. It was a whiskey, and people in this area known
as Bourbon County--uh, Bourbon County was all of north, you know,
uh, Northeastern Kentucky was all Bourbon County at one time--and,
um, the whiskey was made in that area. And it literally started by
people ordering the whiskey down river, and down river, I mean down
the Mississippi. And they would load it in these barrels that had
been cleaned, sanitized by, by charring them, and then by the time
they got
them--it took about six months, six or seven months to get
all the way down the Mississippi--and in seven months' time it would
turn, uh, a really dark bourbon color, and we have examples of that
here that--and, you know, in seven months' time, that, that product's
a pretty good product. And, um, but the problem was, they ordered
a clear spirit and wondered what's going on. They would call up and
say, Hey, what's going on? Not call, but they would send messages and
say, you know, What's the deal? And next thing you know they liked
it, same way with the aged bourbon now, and they liked it and the,
the market just caught on. And they would specifically order, uh, the
clear spirit from Bourbon County and, uh, you know, that had been aged
in these barrels, and so it would pick up this color and flavor from
the wood. And they shortened it up over time instead of whiskey from
Bourbon County, they would call it bourbon whiskey and then eventually,
uh, you know, legally it's known as bourbon whiskey. In 1964 Congress
passed a, a
law that states that Bourbon has to be made in the United
States, and we have to have all these regulations, uh, based on, um,
based on what bourbon is. We have to have 51 percent corn, it has to
be distilled at less than 160 proof and aged in a brand new white oak
barrel and, um, and made here in the United States. And all those
things are designed to protect the product, so um, so the flavor has,
is basically protected. Now you, each distillery makes its own product
and stays within the, the legal limits, but through processing and, and
production, you can make it taste a little different. So that's--each
distillery makes a little different product, but it's all good and, um,
it's all kind of a protected product in the United States; one of the
few things the United States makes that is protected like that.
HAY: I'm just going to put you on hold for a second.
[Pause in recording.]
You spoke of this, uh, accidental discovery that bourbon
improved with age. When roughly did that happen?
WHEATLEY: That was around the late 1700s, around 1780, 1785, somewhere
around there and, uh, we actually have records of shipping product down
the Mississippi to New Orleans. And the nice thing for us is our parent
company is from New Orleans, so we have a long history of connection
between New Orleans and Kentucky basically as, as our, you know, for
Buffalo Trace. And, um, once it was discovered then the next thing
that you know that's all we, that's all we produced and aged it then we
started building warehouses. Um, our first large warehouse, big--new
warehouse was built in 1870, around 1875, and then, uh, we expanded
to Warehouse B which was around, uh, late 1800s and then C. D was our
third, uh, large warehouse produced in
1907, and then, you know, every
year as our inventory grew we would build more warehouses, and we're up
to twelve warehouses. We, we're using eleven of them, um, and we're up
to twelve and we currently need another one. So, I mean, if you look
back through the history--and it's interesting--as we, as we increased
in size, also the architecture changed. You know, the first warehouses
were brick and built with ornate limestone windows and, and, uh, you
know, and as, as time went on, the architecture changed, you know, and
we started building with, um, blocks. And so we have the full gamut of
architecture here, you know, based on history and, uh, what was popular
at the time. And come to find out, it's nice because for us we have
thirteen different products and it gives us different flavors. Each
warehouse has a little different flavor, and so, um, and that's, that's
nice thing to be able to have those different architectures which
create different flavors, so it works out nicely with our portfolio.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about--
WHEATLEY: Did I mess it up?
[Pause in recording.]
WHEATLEY: We're taking a lot of steps to understand it. We're doing
a lot of experimenting and testing and, uh, because we're very,
uh, interested in knowing how to reproduce these things; all these
different flavors.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about how the different, uh, warehouses
produce a different product.
WHEATLEY: Well, we have, like I say, brick and block and we have metal
clad, and all of those things create different atmospheres around the
barrels. And we're very careful to rick all of our barrels--and when
I say rick, we put them up in a rick and lay them on their side--and
we create an air pocket around every single barrel. And what that
does is it allows you to, uh, manipulate basically the flavor inside
that barrel. So if you have a
barrel on an upper floor versus a
lower floor, for instance, you're gonna experience more heat, a little
different humidity level, and so you're going to get a quicker aging.
For us it's going to be a quicker aging, a little hotter probably,
uh, depending on flavor, uh, recipe, too, so all those things are
factors. Um, so if you took, for instance, a wheated bourbon and put
it up on the top floor and we're going to age it for twenty years,
we know that, that would not be a good thing because it's aging too
quickly for that product. So we would put it down on, like, a second
floor of one of the warehouses, one of probably the brick warehouses
or the block warehouses where it ages pretty constantly, you know,
consistently and, over a twenty-year period, it comes out a really
nice flavor. And we're very careful when we put barrels away to take
all those things in consideration, so somehow or another we have to
factor in the raw ingredients, the biological process that it takes to
create the,
the raw ingredients, we have to take into consideration the
biological process of fermentation, we have to take into consideration
the people that produce everything which is a biological process and
then we also have to, uh, take into consideration the aging concept.
And every barrel is different. The wood comes from different
locations in mountains. You know, different levels of sun hit the tree
creating a, a different thickness in the wood, and all those things
give it different flavors and at the end of the day you have to make
a consistent product. So that's kind of the idea to be able to, to
do that, and for us, like I say, to have thirteen different bourbons,
we're able to, you know, select the barrels and bourbons that match
each taste profile and that's the idea.
TROLAND: You used the term "wheated bourbon". Can you explain that?
WHEATLEY: We, we make five recipes here, and the, the two most common
recipes are corn, rye and malted barley--that's one recipe--and
then there, you substitute and take out the rye, and so you put corn,
wheat and malted barley, and those are the two most common recipes
out there. Um, and so we make both, and we make different levels of
each one based on which product we're producing. So we'll have a high
rye or a low rye bourbon and then we have a wheated bourbon line that
we offer up. We start at seven-year-old and we go all the way up to
twenty-three-year-old for wheat, and the wheat is a, is a traditionally
a mild, sweeter bourbon. It's, uh, less spice; less sharpness. It
just, uh, overall ages better than a rye bourbon, in my opinion. So,
you know, if you asked me my favorite age for a wheated bourbon I'd
say around twelve years old. If you asked me a rye bourbon, I would
say around eight to nine, maybe even ten, uh,
so--but it's all based on
recipe and flavor and depends on where it ages, too, and which product
it is. So--
TROLAND: I read in a book that you also produce a barley, uh, whiskey.
Is that, uh, true and if so, what, uh, do you use that for?
WHEATLEY: We've made a barley whiskey. We haven't made it in awhile,
but we made a barley whiskey and we, and to be honest, it was used
for the drink So-So-Sojhu in Japan, and they would take it over and
mix it in for that. We made that for a while. Um, we stopped making
that. We actually have an experiment where we're aging, some barley
whiskey, uh, to see how it comes out, um, but we haven't made any of
that in a while. But barley whiskey is a little different for us just
because we're not really, we're set up to produce bourbon and all of
our equipment is set up to produce bourbon, and barley whiskey is a, a
little bit of a different animal, uh, because of the way you handle the
grains and the cooking process and, and all that.
So that's kind of
the reason we stopped producing it.
TROLAND: Take me through just briefly, if you will, the, the process of
producing bourbon. You've already discussed some matters along those
lines, but from start to finish.
WHEATLEY: We have, uh, we used to get all our grains in by rail, and
in the early nineteen--about 1981 we stopped, uh, the rail, uh, from
coming in. So everything is delivered by truck, by semi. We, we
take all of our grains, bring them in by truck and clean all of our
grains again. We, we order our grains clean, but we also clean them
ourselves and put them into our silos and store--we try to keep four
or five days of inventory on hand--and we go through, on a given run,
we go through about eight thousand acres of corn, two or three thousand
acres of rye, two or three thousand acres of malt. And, uh, when we
go through all this grain, we get it in the silo; we'll pull it out
of the silo and grind it. We grind it through a
screen, and it's a
10/64th of an inch screen or 5/32nd. But we do that because we--we've
experimented trying to go up or down on that screen size--and we do
that for yield reasons and flavor, and, uh, we've found that if you
go to small, it makes a difference or likewise if you go too big. So
for us, it was, that's what we settled on, and once we grind it up, we
put it in our cookers. And we cook our bi--our corn separately from
our small grain. We call small grain, we call small grain, uh, malt
and rye or wheat, and we cook that up under atmospheric conditions.
So we'll cook it up in a small cooker and then we cook our corn in a
pressure cooker and then we blend those two slurries together after we
get done cooking. So we cook everything up and then it takes us about
forty-five minutes to cook one cook and, uh, currently we're running
sixteen of those cooks a
day. And we produce about 170,000 gallons of
mash every day, and we take all that mash and put it in the fermenters
and, at that time we start out yeasting process where, uh, the yeast
will start to grow and do its job and we don't pay it a penny. It
does all the work, and it produces our alcohol for us. And we take
the alcohol once it's completed--we call it a beer. And, you know,
people say, Well, you're making beer. Well, we are making beer, but
the problem--the difference is we have all the solids, all the grains
still in there and we don't separate those things out--so we pump
all that beer through the beer still, and that's where we literally
separate the good clean alcohol from all the solids and everything left
over. And so at that point, we're, we're creating two products. We
create, we call it a setback that comes off the bottom of the still and
we call,
and alcohol coming off the top, and we distill at different
proofs based on our recipe. So for us we have five recipes and we have
three main distillation proofs, and we'll come off somewhere around
135 proof off the still. And we take that good clear, clean liquid
that they used to drink in the mid-1700s, and we put that into the
barrel. And then at that point, the aging process takes over, and the,
the goal is to extract certain flavors from the barrel, uh, based on
our recipe again. So that's an important step, but we also have that
byproduct of setback, so we take that setback off the still and we
put that in, back into the fermenter. And we call that, that's how we
sour our process, and souring is literally just dropping the pH of the
fermenter. So we--the pH of that is about a 3.45, and we take that,
uh, setback and pump it back into the fermenter and sour the mash. So
that's, that's how you start the souring, sour mash process, and all
distilleries do that. All distilleries use sour mash, and what that
does it creates a buffer in the fermenter to stop bacterial growth that
you, undesirables from being produced in the fermenter and then it also
gives you a second shot at a little bit of starch that's left over and
it creates consistency because you're getting like flavors from batch
to batch. So it's a very important step in the fermentation process,
but literally what creates the flavor at the end of the day, you have
raw ingredients, you have the fermentation and you have distillation
and then you have aging. Those four things are the critical key, uh,
ingredients for producing different flavors of bourbon, and you can
vary each, each of those four things within the limits of the
law and
that's how you create those different flavors.
TROLAND: Tell me about the yeasts. Uh, where do you get the yeast? Do
you use more than one type of yeast? How do yeasts vary?
WHEATLEY: The yeast is, uh, one of the, one of the key steps in the
fermentation process, um, because the yeast is what determines how much
of what alcohol is produced at what levels. So every distillery has
their own strain of yeast, and we isolated our yeast in 1932 and we
call it Dr. LeSha Number Two. And the story is Dr. LeSha himself,
who used to work here, um, isolated three different yeasts, and he
liked number two. So, you know, very scientifically we said Dr. LeSha
Number Two, and it's still called that to this day. And, uh, we've
kept that same strain every year because we feel like it produces a
nice balance
of higher alcohols, ethanol and aldehydes and things that
create the bourbon, and also esters is a key ingredient, too. And
we feel like it's the best overall yeast for our process, and we also
only use one yeast for all of our bourbons because we're a little bit
fearful of introducing other yeast for one thing. And we don't want,
we guard it very--we, we have it in five different locations around the
world, so we're, we're very protective of this yeast. It's really our
livelihood and, um, so it's a key step in the process.
TROLAND: What is an ester?
WHEATLEY: An ester is a, um, product that's produced during fermentation
that gives it a fruity, uh, character. Um, it gives you some of
the, uh, not--spicy notes, but, uh, ester's a key step in the process
because without it it'd be kind of a
bland, a kind of a bland drink.
And some people, you know, even can say they taste, uh, dark candied
fruit and all these things, but I promise we don't put dark candied
fruit in. But those are all things created by esters, and it's, it's
created during fermentation and then it's carried through the barrel.
It doesn't change in the barrel, so those esters are enhanced by aging
in the barrel.
TROLAND: You mentioned that several proofs off the still are used
at Buffalo Trace. What are the considerations, uh, that come into
choosing the proof?
WHEATLEY: The--the important part about proof is when you're distilling
something, uh, you have to reflux. Um, what I mean by reflux, as you
distill some of it has to go back into the pot in order to get your
proof right and that determines flavor. So if you distill at a really
high proof, for instance like vodka at 190 proof, you have to do a lot
refluxing to get that proof up high and then when you get the proof
up high you're also reducing the amount of different flavors that are
in the product because your proof is so high. There's only a few things
in there, and ethanol has a very distinct flavor. Uh, it's supposed
to be flavorless, but for me it has a flavor. I mean, the flavor is
flavorless--(laughs)--and, uh, it's kind of sweet and, um, it's what
gives it that, that character. So depending on where you select your
proof is what type of alcohol's going to come over. At a lower proof,
you're going to get a lot heavier alcohols than you do on a higher
proof, and so there's a balancing act of which one you like the best.
The higher alcohols, we call them congeners in the business, and the
congeners is literally what flavors the product before it goes into
the barrel, and then all those things react with the extracts from the
wood and create those different flavors. So, um, you know, we try to
balance not too high, not too low, and we want it to be, you know, just
right. And again, the yeast determines a lot of that, too, so you have
to have a balancing between the yeast and the, and the distillation.
TROLAND: What would be an example of, uh, of, uh, a whiskey you were
trying to produce at low distillation proof?
WHEATLEY: Uh, an example of that for us would be the W. L. Weller. We
have a wheated bourbon and, uh, the design for that bourbon is to be a
nice, uh, smooth, sweet and mild bourbon. And in order to, to preserve
that, we, we give it lots of flavor by--with a low proof and then we
put wheat in it instead of the rye, and we age it for at least seven
years--and we have a Weller Twelve, too. It goes up to twelve--so,
you know, from the very first day of raw ingredients, distillation,
fermentation, the whole thing, uh, it's designed to produce that
flavor. So that would be
an example.
TROLAND: What about the barrels? Are all barrels more or less the same?
Are they different? Can you control that?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. The barrels actually are all exactly different. Uh,
there's not one barrel that's the same, and, um, we produce all our
barrels to one spec. We want fifty-three gallon barrels. We want
number four char which is a fifty-five second burn on the inside,
and we feel like that's the best overall balance of flavor for our
products. But all the wood is different, and, as I mentioned before,
the, the tree is a ve-, very big determining factor of the flavor.
The bottom of the tree might have more coconut in it than the top of
the tree. The top of the tree might have more vanilla in it than the
bottom of the tree, and, and so depending on where they slice that
tree and make a stave, all those things are selected
randomly and then
put into producing a barrel. So we can age, we can pick up a barrel
and age it with the very same day's production, put it in the same
rick in the same warehouse on the same floor and those two products
will come out slightly different in, you know, within the first seven
months. You're going to start picking up a little bit of different
flavor, and that's really the whole genesis of single-barrel bourbon.
And in 1984 we launched it, uh, based on people, uh, selecting certain
bourbon barrels because they liked it, and we didn't want to mix it
with other barrels. And, uh, the Blanton's was our first single-
barrel, and that's the first one to ever hit the market. And since
then everybody's copied that, but that's the idea. You bring that one
barrel that tastes that certain way and you put it in that bottle, and,
and you don't mix it with anything else and you offer it up as a single
barrel. So it's a very super, high quality
bourbon that's been tasted,
and we know it's good when it goes into the bottle. And that's the
genesis of the whole thing because every barrel's a little different.
TROLAND: So all the barrels that you receive here initially, uh, as
far as you know, are the same. There's no attempt to make different
barrels different.
WHEATLEY: Oh, no. No.
TROLAND: It's just they turn out differently in the end.
WHEATLEY: Right. It's a complete random process and, uh, you know,
again, it's white oak . It's all from a general location; mostly from
Missouri, some Kentucky and Ohio and Indiana but mostly, uh, Missouri,
the Ozark Mountain region. And, um, so it's a very, um, isolated--from
a world perspective--it's kind of an isolated area, but all the wood
is a little different. So it depends on soil and sun and the amount
of trees that are around it, and all those things are factors. And
what side of the mountain it was on is a determining factor so, uh, no,
there's no real,
um, there's no intent to have different barrels. It's
just a random process. Now one thing we did because we like to do a lot
of experiments and we're known to, to do those--we have an Experimental
Collection, that's behind me--but, uh, one of the experiments we did
was we did that. We went out and selected certain trees, and we call
it a single tree bourbon. And we went out and GPS coordinated one tree
at a time. We selected them. We documented how many rings that were
in that tree, how, you know, what age it was, where it was on the tree.
We did soil samples. We did the whole thing, and so then we took
that one tree and produced a barrel from that tree and then we're aging
bourbon with it. So right now they're about six years old, and we're
getting some very good flavors, differences between the trees. But
we did fifteen hundred trees that way, and so we're able to, a nice
experiment to be able to get,
uh, you know, differences in flavors.
And then hopefully our idea--and I told you that earlier--we like to
be able to understand all these things that we do to be able to create,
create these different flavors, so we might be able to connect the
tree to the different flavors in those bourbons. And then we can maybe
isolate some of the, some of the flavors, you know, based on that.
Then all the bourbon manufacturers will love us because we'll order
certain trees, you know, but, uh, that's the idea.
TROLAND: That brings up the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and
all of the experiments that you have done. Can you tell us, uh, a
little bit more about, uh, these various experiments with bourbon
production that have gone on here?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. We started a pretty heavy experimental program about
1996 and, uh, we, we put away a, uh, a bunch of experiments based on
different ideas that we had at the time. And we, we've launched a
few of them
to the public to try to get feedback across the, across
the United States, and we're trying to get feedback on some of these
experiments; some of them good, some of them bad. And we kind of
feel like the best bourbon has never been made, and we're still
working to make the very best bourbon ever. And, uh, so we've got
about, about thirty-five large experiments in the warehouse right now
aging. We have about 1500 separate, uh, barrels on those thirty-five,
uh, experiments, and so we're able to isolate thing like proof and
different woods and different grains and different distillation
techniques and all these different things that we've always wondered
about. But the idea is for us to hone in on different flavors and, and
be able to hopefully produce someday the best bourbon ever. But, uh,
we've tried some, you know, anything
you can think of pretty much, and
we literally have a list of a hundred different ideas and it's just a
matter of going down and doing the list. And the problem was always
that in order for us to do an experiment, our minimum batch was sixty-
five barrels, and for us that's a pretty large capital investment. And
we're family owned and sometimes we, you have to come off the hip to do
it, so one of the things we did was we invested in a micro-distillation
process where now we can produce all the way down to one barrel at a
time. So now literally it's a little quicker for us to do experiments,
and we can produce, you know, do many more experiments. So we, we
have this big long list of experiments to do, and now we have the
mechanism to get them done. And so it's, uh, kind of exciting, and
it's something that we can do because we're privately held and we can,
you know, try to produce all these different flavors.
TROLAND: As you've said, Buffalo Trace has a, a smaller experimental
still. How does that still, apart from size, differ from the still
you normally use and is it a still producing different flavor profiles
because of the way it's designed?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. The still, um, was designed to produce whatever we
want. It's an extremely versatile hybrid still, and, um, every single
detail about that still was thought out about, um, you know, what type
of materials to use, what size and so on. And it's a little different
from our large still, but we can scale that up. A lot of the things
that we put on that still was based on our large still, and we're able
to produce anything from any proof from 190 plus down to a hundred
and, you know, 120 proof or whatever. So we're able to put multiple
products in it. We're able to pull off different trays. Um, we can
pump it and reflux it as much as we wanted to, so it's a really
truly a
versatile still. And it's nice as a distiller to be able to literally
make whatever you want. Uh, and we can, you know--also have a small
cooker with it--so we can, we can cook up small, very small batches
and, like I say, get all the way down to one barrel at a time. And,
um, we also have a small fermenter there, and, um, we can ferment at
different lengths and different styles and so on. So it's a true, uh,
nice micro-distillation system that allows Buffalo Trace to, to do all
these experiments without, without interfering with the money-maker,
the main production, you know. And, uh, that's nice, too. Somebody's
gotta pay the bills.
TROLAND: You used the term "reflux". What, what does that mean?
WHEATLEY: Reflux is, uh--you learn about that during, um, what was the
name of that movie? The reflux capacitor for, uh, time travel? What was
the name of that movie?--anyway, the
reflux is--
HAY: Back to the Future.
WHEATLEY: Yeah. Back to the Future. There you go. It's back to
the, everybody knows that. But anyway the, uh, reflux is, uh, if
you distill something out of, off of a still, you could just run it,
vaporize it, condense it and pull it off one pass, but if you did that
what would happen is if you started off--let's say you had a concoction
of 8 percent alcohol, namely beer which is like a moonshiner would do,
not that I know anything about moonshining--but anyway, they, uh, you
run the 8 percent and you--
[Pause in recording.]
WHEATLEY: Are we okay? So the, uh, reflux is, uh, so if you took an 8
percent batch out of a, out of a, uh, still of beer and distilled it
one time, you know, you could get it up at first to maybe 150 proof
depending on the size of your batch,
but as soon as you start pulling
stuff off, the instant you start pulling stuff off, the proof starts to
drop because the alcohol concentration drops. So over time, it might
start at 150, but you'll end up to zero, of course. So that's one pass,
so in order to maintain a consistent proof, you have to pull some of
that product off and put it back into the pot and so then you can maybe
hold about 135 proof for a while with some reflux. And that's, and
the ratio of reflux to product is the key step in distillation. So you
have to determine how much reflux to put back to get to what you're,
you know, your desired output. Reflux ratio is, is something that's
common throughout all distillation no matter what you're producing;
gasoline, you know, uh, diesel fuel, any of those things also use
reflux ratio to produce a consistent product
at the end of the day.
TROLAND: You don't distill gasoline here?
WHEATLEY: We don't distill gasoline, no. It'd be, it'd probably pay
good money right now, but we, we stick to the drinkable stuff.
TROLAND: I noticed when recently visiting the distillery that you have
some small barrels aging in the warehouse. What is the, uh, thought
behind those?
WHEATLEY: The small barrels is one of our experiments, and, um, the
thought process is to produce the same juice, the same liquid, and put
them in different sized barrels to determine what the size of barrel
does to the flavor. So we put them in our standard fifty-three gallon
barrels, and then we have some in fifteen gallon barrels, ten gallon
and fi-, five gallon barrels and we did multiples of each. And so at
the end of the day when we're done with the aging, we'll be able to
compare those to a standard barrel and say, Well, this was the same
juice when it went in. This is, um, some of the differences that,
depending on size
because you have different surface area, you know,
um, in, in touch with the, uh, liquid. And so that should create
different flavors. Now that won't account for the differences in
barrels, but you should see a trend, of, based on size of barrel. So
at the end of the day we'll be able to determine if we should make a
smaller or bigger barrel maybe. The accountants will like that because
if you go down in size then it will cost a lot more money. (laughs)
But, uh, it does determine flavor, so we want to know that. And at
one time, we actually produced forty-eight gallon barrels, and around
1965 we changed from forty-eight gallon barrels to fifty-three gallon
barrels, so at that time, you know, there was probably not a lot of
difference in flavor and all that bourbon's long gone. But--
TROLAND: Is the fifty-three gallon size the industry standard?
WHEATLEY: That's an industry standard. Yeah.
And, uh, all the ricks,
all the racks that are used to store the barrels are based on fifty-
three gallon barrels, so you have to be, you know, if they're too big
they won't fit into the ricks.
TROLAND: Take me through a typical day on your job as you perform it
at present.
WHEATLEY: A typical day is--we run five days a week currently, uh,
Monday through Friday and, uh, some areas run twenty-four hours a day.
So a typical day is I come in as early as I can, 6:30 or something,
and I'll come in and make sure everything is up and running the way
it should be. And so the first thing I do is I check, um, do some
quality checks on each of the steps and, uh, make sure everything is
to spec. And, uh, at the end of the day the name of the game for us
is to be consistent and to be,
you know, we're making products that
were produced fifty years ago and the idea is to not change any step
of the process. Along the way, you can make improvements, but at the
end of the day, you can't change the flavor. So you have to take all
those things into consideration, so there's always room for improvement
and different ways of doing it but you have to make sure you don't
change the flavor. So the first thing I do is make sure everything
is up to, uh, spec, make sure everything's up and running, make sure
there's no problems, and then, uh, I'll go around and make sure all
the guys are doing what they should be doing. And, uh, then, then the
next thing is to evaluate what needs to be done next, uh, you know,
what projects do we have in line? We have a lot of, a lot of projects
that we have, so we're always working on different projects and that's,
we try to organize them in a, in a fashion to where we prioritize our
very important projects and work on those most of
the time. So I'll
spend, you know, half the day working on projects and, um, maybe the
last half of the day, uh, we'll work on tasting products to make sure,
uh, get them ready for single-barrel bourbons or, uh, uh, you know,
check on the barrels to make sure our inventory's right; uh, make sure
all the paperwork's filled out properly. So literally every step of
the way, um, uh, some people call it the, uh--you know, you have to be
in control of what's going on, and you have to set boundaries based on
each operation and make sure everything's happening the way it should
so, and at the end of the day be a consistent product. And you do
try to attempt to control those biological processes I was telling you
about, so you have to, you know, at the end of the day, take all of
those consider--into consideration and, and produce those consistent
TROLAND: Is the master distiller responsible for all phases of
of the product or primarily responsible for the distillation phase?
WHEATLEY: At Buffalo Trace, the master distiller is responsible for
everything along the way from start all the way to the point of
dumping it into the bottling tank. So you're responsible for all
those production, all those production steps and processes. Um,
other distilleries the master distiller might be primarily responsible
for education for, for instance, but here, you know, I'm, I'm in the
trenches. I'm responsible for all the work and then I also try to
do educational, uh, work, too. So I try to balance those things, but
yeah. We're, um, we're, uh, we're into a lot of different things,
so you're responsible for production basically of all the spirits;
not only bourbon but vodka, whiskeys and anything else we produce.
So my whole team of people--we have about forty-eight people in the
and, uh, which to me is not a, not a lot--and, uh, we, we
together as a team, uh, produce all these different products.
TROLAND: So the master distiller is perhaps also in some sense the plant
manager, being responsible for the whole, uh, sequence of steps from
distillation through aging and dumping into the bottles.
WHEATLEY: Yeah. If you refer to the plant as the distillery, yeah.
We have, you know, we have a plant manager here and, um, he's also
responsible--not only do I report to him--but he's also responsible
for distribution, shipping and bottling. So there's more to it, you
know, at this site. We have, and everything on this site is done
here. All the shipping and bottling is all done here, so everything
we produce comes from here. We have over five and a half million cases
that come out of here and, uh, all different products. And there's
lots of processes and lots of steps, and, I think, we're up to about
two hundred and fifty total
employees. So out of the two hundred and
fifty, forty-eight of them is on the distilling side where we do the,
you know, production of the spirit, but then there's also the, all the
processing and bottling and shipping and all those other steps that are
involved so it just depends on what you call plant, I guess.
TROLAND: So the aging process is also within your purview?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. Yeah. We have, uh, like I say, I have, uh, luckily for
me, I have, uh, two guys that have been at--in the distillery and in
the distilling business together for ninety-four years, and the aging
warehouse manager has been here since 1964 and the aging warehouse
supervisor has been here since 1966, I think, or '65. So those two
guys I rely on heavily for their experience. Uh, you know, I bounce
ideas off of them, and, uh, they're just great and they take care of
the, uh, a lot of the day-to-day aging things. But, um, it's nice
be able to draw on that experience, too. And we also recently hired
a, um, a, uh, aging warehouse supervisor to learn under those guys and
pick up some of that institutional knowledge, and, and so we're kind of
watching for the future, too, you know; banking on the future so that
guy can kind of take over that day-to-day operation.
TROLAND: (clears throat) Excuse me. The two gentlemen you referred to
just a few moments ago are Ronnie Eddins and Leonard Riddle. Is that
WHEATLEY: Yeah. That's right. That's exactly right. Yup. Ronnie
is a, is, uh, cream of the crop, and I'll tell you, he's been doing
the same, uh, same job now since 1964 so he's very familiar with the
operation, uh, and where each and every single barrel is. And, uh, I'm
able to, uh, use that. Uh, it's a tremendous asset for us and, uh, and
for me. So that's a very important part of the process
TROLAND: One of the, uh, signature products of this distillery, of
course, is Buffalo Trace, uh, bourbon, and it has a specific flavor
profile that you're looking for. Explain to me, uh, how it is that,
that flavor profile is achieved; that is to say from the selection
of barrels, uh, to the tasting. Who does the tasting, who does the
selecting, uh, to create that flavor profile you want from Buffalo
WHEATLEY: You know Buffalo Trace is a relatively new bourbon for us.
We started it in 1999. That was the first year it hit the shelves.
In 1998, we basically had a meeting, and I was luckily lucky enough
to be in, kind of on the ground floor of this project. And we had
a meeting and decided, um, We're going to change the name of this
distillery because nobody knew it was the Stagg Distillery; George T.
Stagg Distillery. Legally, that's what it has been for a long time,
and it really was a lost name.
And we wanted to come up with a name
that was respectful for the heritage of the distillery. I mean, this
site was literally where the buffalo crossed the Kentucky River, and
the settlement known as the Leestown Settlement was settled here in
1773. And we started the distilling process with that settlement, and
we've expanded this place ever since then. And we're walking on the
site of the original settlers of this area, and so we really had no
connection so we said, "What better name than Buffalo Trace?" And so
we've got this great name and this great facility. What are we, what
kind of bourbon are we going to put in it? And so we invited fifteen,
uh, retired individuals, fifteen people from the plant, and we sat down
and did some tasting. And we voted basically on what bourbon we want
to represent Buffalo Trace. And so we all voted, and we came up with
this eight-year-old, small
batch bourbon; not much of it out. There's
not much small batches out there, but for us small batches is forty
barrels or less, and for that we're able to, to really have tight range
on the flavor. And we felt like eight-years-old was the best overall
flavor for a rye bourbon. We chose rye because of the spiciness, the
flavor profile, you know, it just had a nice smooth, nice kick. Um,
ninety proof because we feel like that's Kentucky proof. It's strong.
Um, all those things are selected for a reason and, uh, it's the best
overall bourbon, everyday bourbon. So we selected the bourbon and then
the next thing was package. What kind of package do we put this in?
We wanted it to be in a nice, uh, represent--new bottle, new style but
still kind of, uh, respectful of the, of the other bottles out there.
So we came up with the bottle that we have and then the label itself
we voted on by the
employees here. So we'd isolate it down to five
labels, and then we had all the employees come in at lunchtime. And
I remember we wrote the, we wrote, we voted for which of those five
labels we liked the best, and at the end of the day, this is the, the
label that we came up with. And that bottle represents this distillery
and, uh, that's the way we came up with the product in the first place.
Now the next thing is, how do you make it consistent? So we make this
first batch, and we love it. We think it's great. So the next batch
we produce, we go out and select forty barrels and we taste them, and
then we compare those forty barrels to that very first batch. And
we've been doing that ever since 1999. We took that first batch, and
we saved a bunch of samples, and then we use that as our standard,
and then we compare every single batch to that very first batch taste
profile. And we still do that, and so we're able to be very consistent
and offer up, you know, if you taste the bottle now, it should taste
very, very close to the very first batch we ever produced. And, uh,
like I say, it's a best overall representation of the distillery, and
it, it pays homage to all of the heritage here and all the people and
all the employees. So we're very proud of it, in case you can't tell.
TROLAND: When you, uh, do the tasting, who actually is involved in, in
the tasting process?
WHEATLEY: We have, we have a tasting panel up--of tasting professionals.
Myself, um, uh, and at least four others taste in the, uh, laboratory,
and we'll get those forty barrels and put them on a table. And the
nice thing about that is we don't argue amongst each other. If one
person out of the four, five or six that tastes that has an issue with
that one barrel, we turn it, and it's out and there's no arguing. Uh,
you know, if you, if you don't like that taste profile for any reason
or you don't think it matches the original, we turn it, and it's over.
And, uh,
I like it because it's a hundred percent. It's either all
good or, you know, there's a difference. We haven't made bad bourbon.
It's just a little different sometimes, so the nice thing is if a
person's off sick or out then you still have that nice panel to be able
to, uh, taste those. But we have a, a group of individuals that do
that. That's kind of how we do all of our projects, by the way. You
know, it's a team effort.
TROLAND: Is the same tasting panel used for the, uh, the other products
in your line?
WHEATLEY: Yeah. Yeah. We have, uh, the same professionals. Now we
also do, from time to time, have, uh, have people that don't normally
taste, taste because we want to know if a general public, uh, comes in
and tastes something for the first time what they think. So we also
do that, too. We have a, we try to do a little of both. We try to get
people who normally don't taste to taste it and see what they thing,
but, uh, we do have a, a taste, professional set that we use for
all of
our products.
TROLAND: When you select those forty barrels or so for the next batch of
Buffalo Trace, do they typically come, those barrels, from a particular
WHEATLEY: Yeah. We, we generally use three warehouses, uh, currently.
Now it's, we really feel like we could probably use all the warehouses,
but we, right now, we're using three of our eleven warehouses for
Buffalo Trace. And we try to stay in the middle floors because we
feel like that's kind of the average, um. Uh, it experiences the most
overall differences in weather and so you get a lot of nice aging.
And it's not too much over the top at the top floors and it's not too
little at the bottom. So it's really kind of a representative of the
best average bourbon, that, you know; the best average flavor, I should
say. Hopefully it's not an average bourbon, but.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about, about, uh, your work,
uh, as a
representative of Buffalo Trace. In modern times, the master distiller
often is the public face, uh, behind the product. How, uh, do you
spend your time in that particular, uh, position?
WHEATLEY: We do, uh, we do that as much as we can. Uh, I do, uh, I
have traveled, uh, across the United States and some across the pond,
um, to, um, promote and educate about Buffalo Trace and all of our
products. And, um, I do that, um, as much as possible. I probably
average one or two trips a month, and, uh, maybe--most of the time,
it's an overnight trip or something because, um, I do try to stay
really close to the operation and make sure nothing happens. You
know, I kind of feel like, um, on, on that note, I kind of feel like,
you know, I've got the baton that's been passed to me. I'm the sixth
distiller since the Civil War, and I've got the, you know, I've got
the baton now and I have to carry it. And so I have to make
sure everything's done right and, uh, so I watch that really closely,
but I also go out and try to educate. We do a lot of bourbon dinners
and, uh, bourbon tastings and try to show people the differences that
are out there and, you know, believe it or not, there are people that
don't know what bourbon is and that's hard for me to understand. But
there's 80 percent of the general public don't know what bourbon is
across the United States, and that's a, that's something that's, that's
nice because there's an untapped market out there of people who have
not experienced bourbon. And so the education piece is important; to
be able to teach people what an American spirit is, what, kind of what
they're missing, um, and what--how, how to appreciate some of these
drinks. And, um, you know, I, I get excited about that stuff. I
like doing that and, um, it's kind of, it's kind of a perk of the job
to be able to, to explain, you know, and brag about the guys and the
distillery and all the things we do here. So I enjoy that part of it.
TROLAND: Speaking of education, I was, uh, recently in a, uh, pub
in Ireland, and I saw on the wall a list of their spirits available
which included American whiskeys. And the list of American whiskeys
included, um, Canadian Club and Southern Comfort.
WHEATLEY: There you go.
TROLAND: Now what, uh, what's your reaction to that?
WHEATLEY: Well, believe it or not, you don't have to go to Ireland. I
mean, you know, I do it all the time and, uh, not so much in Kentucky
but a lot in Kentucky you can go in and say, "What kind of bourbon do
you have?" And they say, "Oh, we got anything you want. We got Jack,
we got Crown, you know, we got some Jim Beam" or something like that.
So that's part of the education process to explain to people the
difference between a Canadian whiskey and a, and a Tennessee
and a bourbon and, um, one of the things we like about having a bourbon
is that there are regulations. You know, uh, there's certain things
you have to do to produce a bourbon, and so that kind of keeps a nice,
uh, reign on what's going on. But, you know, it's all about educating
and teaching people how, you know, the differences in the whiskeys
and the products out there. But it's pretty common and, uh, you know,
it's, but you just have to keep up the good fight and teach people,
teach people the difference if they're willing to learn it. Um, and,
uh, I remember I walked in a bar, a bourbon bar, in London and, uh, I
walked in just to see what would happen. And I said, "What's your best
bourbon?" And they said, "Hennessy." And I said, "Well, okay; well, we
got some work to do here." So now, those are all, you know, it's pretty
common. I find it every time I go out almost, to be honest with you,
TROLAND: During the
presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton
famously had a beer and a shot in Pennsylvania, and the shot was Crown
Royal. Would you have made another suggestion to her in choosing her
WHEATLEY: I absolutely would have. You know, uh, she, she did a shot
of Canadian whiskey and, uh, the, uh, you would think that you would
want to stick with an American spirit since, you know, it's kind of
important. But, you know, I would have recommended, uh, a beer and
a shot, I would probably have recommended a Buffalo Trace because
of, you know, it's, like I say, the best overall bourbon and for the
money; um, eight-year-old. But if she was going to really do a shot,
you know, we could have offered her a fifteen-year George T. Stagg
140 proof. That's put, you know, she would have said something about
that, I guarantee. So, uh, yeah. I could have offered her all kinds
of different options there. And, uh, you know, speaking of that,
somebody told me the other day the first spoken word on television by
a woman was about whiskey, and I didn't know
that; said something about
drinking a whiskey or something. But I learned that the other day.
TROLAND: It's not considered a good idea to ask a, a parent which of his
or her two children is the favorite, but I'm going to ask you a similar
question. If you had to sit down and have a glass of bourbon at home,
for example, uh, what would you choose?
WHEATLEY: Well, I choose all the time Buffalo Trace because, again, I
was in on that, the voting process, and I voted for the eight-year-old.
Um, but my everyday bourbon is Buffalo Trace. And I drink it with
everything, um, and I also mix it with cocktails; you know, Manhattans
and Old Fashioneds and--um, but I love having things like George
T. Stagg underneath the bar and being able to bring that out on a,
you know, for a conversation piece or, uh, you know, for a nightcap
or something when somebody's there. Um, I love having those things
available, part of the antique collection,
to--to come out on special
occasions, and so I really do like the best of both worlds. We have
all the different flavors there are, really. We have rye whiskeys and
small batches, single barrels and everyday bourbons. And, uh, so I do
like the fact that we have all those options, but my best overall is
Buffalo Trace.
TROLAND: What's the strategy behind the Experimental Collection?
Obviously each, each, um, issuance of an Experimental Collection
product is very, very limited. So only a very few people ever have a
chance to taste it, and obviously it has little effect on the overall
bottom line of the distillery because the production is so small. What
is therefore the strategy in terms of, uh, the distillery itself and,
and marketing with the Experimental Collection?
WHEATLEY: The Experimental Collection has nothing to do with
money because if we did it for money, we wouldn't do it. Um, the
Experimental Collection for us is literally to go
out and find the best
overall flavor that we can find and what are the factors that go into
creating those flavors. And so for us it's 100 percent educational
and being able to get, uh, feedback from customers and from people to
get excited about the products and understand why we do what we do.
And, uh, so really it's all about, uh, education and learning and,
and being professionals in the trade and being able to really have a
firm handle on what we do for a living. So, um, it has nothing to do
with money and, uh, and we hear about that. Uh, you know, people, "Why
would you do that if you can't make any money on it?" And really, uh,
it's not about that, and I said that earlier. We're lucky to be able
to do those things because we are privately held, and we can make those
decisions, um, based on trying to produce these different products
and, and like I say, education and learning about the products that we
produce. So it's all about that.
TROLAND: Okay, why don't we stop here.
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: Okay. Uh, once again, this is Tom Troland. We're interviewing
Harlen Wheatley who is the master distiller at Buffalo Trace
Distillery. October 30, 2008, Buffalo Trace Oral History Project, and
we are at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Harlen, tell me a little bit
about your, uh, your young adulthood as you graduated from college--uh,
excuse me--as you graduated from high school, what were you thinking
and where did you go and what did you do?
WHEATLEY: You know, I, I haven't told a lot of people this, but in
high school, um, my worst subject was chemistry. And, um, I did very
well in every subject except chemistry, and it literally to me was a
challenge. And, um, I said when I went to college, you know, there's
lots of options, and
my, my ba-, I have two bachelor's--my first
bachelor's is in chemistry, and I said when I get to college, uh, you
know I'm going to lick this thing because I was kind of competitive.
I'm still competitive anyway. And, uh, you know, so my worst subject
I decided that's gonna be my major. And, um, I got a bachelor's in
chemistry from Northern Kentucky University and then I knew, um, I
didn't really want to work in a lab the rest of my life. And, uh,
so I went into chemical engineering and, um, started--went, I went to
UK--and I started that in 1991, I think, and went down and, um, started
engineering school there and got a bachelor's in chemical engineering.
So, um, it was nice because I had all this chemistry background and
understood chemistry pretty well at that point, and I was able to--it
actually, I think, helped me in the engineering side because the
first couple
of years, um, you know, were teaching you about chemical
reactions and things, so I had a pretty good handle on that stuff and
it really kind of helped me get a head start. But the engineering side
was what really excited me. I like, I like, I love engineering and all
the things that you have to do to, to be an engineer so, um, lots of
options out there, but, uh, growing up in this area, knowing about the
whiskey industry in general, um, you know, there was a position that
came available after I graduated working under the master distiller in
an, um, in an apprenticeship basically, and then once he retired then
I would--if everything worked out--I would take his job. So for me it
was a perfect opportunity. Uh, the chemical engineering is perfect for
this position because you're using a lot of the engineering and a lot
of the chemistry, and, uh, I learned about separations and distillation
and all those things before I got here
so it really helped me get a
head start on, uh, learning the day-to-day activity. But really you
don't learn the distilling process for spirits until you get on the job
because there's so many different, uh, things that you have to learn
and you have to learn about this plant and how things operate and why
things do what they do. And you never really stop learning. I asked
the guy before me--his name was Gary Gayheart and he worked here for, I
think, thirty-six years, started in 1969 which was the year I was born,
and, uh, he worked the same length of time as his predecessor which I
thought was unusual--but, uh, I ask Gary right before he left, and I
said, "Do you ever stop learning?" And he said, "No." Um, he learned
stuff every day just like I did, and it was nice because we would
bounce ideas off each other. And I worked for him for ten years, and,
uh, it was, it was a great relationship.
He was an awesome guy to work
for, an awesome, awesome distiller; knows his stuff. And, uh, it was
great for me because I drew from all this great experience, uh, just
like with Ronnie and, uh, I'm able to take all this great experience
and blend it with some of the new technologies and new ways of doing
things and so on. So, um, I had to, I had a pretty good setup, you
know. It was all by design and I chose those things, but, um, it's,
uh, it's a pretty good setup. And so once Gary retired in 2005, early
2005, then they made me the master distiller, so--
TROLAND: So do I understand from what you've said that when you were
first hired it was somewhat envisioned that you would take this
WHEATLEY: Yeah. Absolutely. It was an apprenticeship program, and I
worked until 2000. Uh, I started in '94 and worked until 2000, uh, and
then they named me the distiller. They call them just the distiller,
uh, and really you're
the, you're the guy, you know, going around and,
uh, getting the things done, and, and, uh, Gary was overseeing, you
know, my, my good things and bad things and teaching me the right ways
to do things. And, uh, so it was a nice transition. I mean, we did,
literally we planned it out pretty well. It was really Gary and I
doing all the planning, you know, on how to do what and when to do what
but, uh, it's been a very nice and smooth transition, you know, to what
we're doing now.
TROLAND: What do you think there was about you and your preparation--
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: What do you think there was about you and your background that,
uh, made you, uh, attractive to the distillery for this position, and
what is it, what is it that you think best prepared you, uh, for this
WHEATLEY: I think what they were looking for is somebody young and
enthusiastic about coming into a,
um, you know--at the time when I
started, you know, I don't like to talk a lot about doom and gloom,
but things, the industry wasn't booming like it was, like it is now,
and at the time when I started, things were just starting to turn
around, and they wanted some, I think, some new blood. Get some, a
young guy like myself at the time--and I'm still young--but get a new
guy in and, and try to, you know, get some excitement going on some of
the things that we were trying to get accomplished. I think that was
something that attracted them to that. You know, I'm thinking from
my perspective. I'm sure that's what they were thinking and then,
you know, the education is important because it was probably easier
for Gary to explain certain things to me and try to grasp, uh, some of
the areas. And at the time, the distillery was at the end of some bad
times, and a lot of the things were falling apart and we had to do a
lot of engineering to, uh, upgrade some
things and do some things to
get us back on track, um, and get us producing the way we're producing
now. If we would have continued the same path when I started, this
place wouldn't be here. I mean, you know, the place was just not, uh,
neglected basically, and so I think the engineering and the chemistry
side and the young, you know, enthusiastic helps. And, uh, they didn't
know what they were getting into, of course. You know, you never do
until, until I started, but, uh, I think that's what got them, got them
started and then once I got here, you know, I tried to work hard, and I
still do--(coughing)--and, um, that's the idea to work hard and try to,
try to cover all the bases, you know?
TROLAND: Distilling legend Pappy Van Winkle once famously said that no
chemists were allowed at his distillery in Louisville.
TROLAND: How do you react to that?
WHEATLEY: Well, it's all--and that's just exactly what you said, legend
because, uh, everybody knows you have to have a
chemist and, uh, you
know that, that statement literally means that at the end of the day
it's all about taste and flavor. And, uh, you can analyze and figure
out chemical compounds, esters and talk about aldehydes and all these
things, but at the end of the day it's all about how does it taste
on your palate. So you could get away without a chemist, but it's
nice to have that chemist backing you up saying, "Well, this is the
reason why you taste the way it does," and, "This is how you make it
a consistent product." And so, you know, that statement is, uh, means
a lot actually. It means, you know, the focus is on flavor and making
customers happy, and the chemist is, is not a neces-, necessity on the
day that you taste it. But when you're producing stuff, it's nice to
have that chemist to help you produce a consistent product, so every
distillery has one. (laughs)
I can tell you that, and even back then
they had one, so.
TROLAND: Bourbon is obviously a product of, of great tradition but also,
uh, there are innovations as you've discussed that, uh, affect the
product and will continue to affect the product in the future. Where
would you like to see bourbon go in the future in terms of either taste
profile or marketing or production?
WHEATLEY: Well, I think, you know, to be honest I've been pretty happy
with the path that bourbon has taken because I think bourbon has taken
kind of the high road. Uh, we, we haven't really focused on the, uh,
you know, I don't know what you want to call the, uh--we've taken the
high road. In other words, uh, the products that are produced are, uh,
with, with pride, you know. People look at it as a, as a product that
has a lot of quality. It's all about, uh, time and technique,
and, so
I think for everything that I've seen out on the market, that's kind
of what people are um, using as the selling point and I think it's in
the right direction. I think as, as we go on and we educate all these
people that are, that are uneducated about bourbon, I think as long as
we stick to the high road, uh, then I think we're gonna, we're gonna
be on the right path. I think it's a product kind of like the scotch
industry that is going to be around forever. I mean, uh, I just don't
see, uh, product being faded out or a fad. I think, I think once
people understand bourbon, they're on it for life, and, um, there's a
reason for that. And so I think we're on the right track. I'd like
to see more education. I'd like to see, not necessarily commercials,
but I'd like for people to understand there is an alternative to beer
and wine and all the-, these other drinks that they're having. And so
what I'd like to see, to be able to walk into a bar and order
a bourbon, and they say, "Okay. We've got Jim Beam, we've got Buffalo
Trace and we've got Wild Turkey." And we've got these bourbons, you
know, they know what they're talking about. That's what I, that's
really what I'd like to see, and I think someday we'll get there, you
TROLAND: If a history were written of Buffalo Trace Distillery let's say
thirty, forty years from now and one part of that history was, uh, the
statement that in, let's say, 2015 a new bourbon product was introduced
by Buffalo Trace that was a tremendous success--it was a bit different
from what had been produced before and became very popular--any
thoughts about what that new product might, might be like?
WHEATLEY: Well, the nice, the nice thing for us is we are preparing
for doing that. We have a mechanism for coming up with new products;
namely through the experimental program or, uh, experimental
So, uh, we do have a mechanism for coming up with new products, and
for us it's, it's going to be one of those things where we've made
these products and all these different types of products and all of a
sudden, eureka. All these combinations of things come together, and
this is the product that we need, that we need in the marketplace. So
I think it's going to be a, uh, uh, evolution for us. I don't think
one day they're going to say, "We need to come up with a new product."
It's just going to be an evolution, and we're going to come up with
something, uh, through all these steps that we're taking, and, uh, I
think it's going to happen. Um, and we work on it every day, different
projects, but at the end of the day, we're going to come up with
something based on all these, all this work that we're doing, so--and
we're one of the few people that do that, too; um, maybe the only, I
don't know. I'm sure there's other people experimenting, but--so it'll
be there.
Do you envision someday there might be countless decades in the
future a product called Old Wheatley named in your honor and probably a
wheat, uh, flavored bourbon?
WHEATLEY: That's not the first time I've been asked that. I think, uh,
you know, I would love for that to happen, of course. I think I've
got some good ide-, great ideas, good ideas on, uh, different styles
and different ways to, you know, produce, offer bourbons to the public.
Um, who knows, you know? And that's not entirely up to me, of course,
but, uh, if it was up to me I'd already have one, right? But, uh, you
know, there may, there may be, you know? And that's kind of the, you
know, based on history, that, people do that. So, um, you know, if,
God willing, my health holds up and I'm around that long, you know, and
we might see something like that. So--
TROLAND: Speaking of this at least imaginary history of Buffalo Trace
Distillery, imagine such a history written fifty years in the future
which, among other things,
described your tenure here as master
distiller. What, ideally, would you like to see written about you in
such a book?
WHEATLEY: I'd like to see that, um, in, in fifty years that they say
that, uh, "He was, uh, an extreme, uh, professional, and he maintained,
uh, and improved, um, the distillery and, uh, carried the torch well."
And, uh, really that's all you can ask for. At the end of the day,
uh, as long as, uh, it was a little better than when I left it, uh,
than when I started, um, then I think, you know, I think I've done
something. And, uh, you know, this place, like I say, has been here
for so long that, uh, if you can have a little, uh, improvement in a
chunk of that time then, you know, I think it's kind of a fortunate
thing. So, uh, that would be, that would be what I hope they would say
that he made a very nice,
uh, consistent product and, uh, improved the,
uh, the distillery overall.
TROLAND: Is there anything else you'd like to say that, uh, I haven't
asked you?
WHEATLEY: Oh, I don't know. You've covered the bases. You've done a
good job. I don't know. I don't know of any.
TROLAND: Well, Harlen, thank you very much for taking out time for this
interview. We appreciate it very much.
WHEATLEY: Thank you.
[End of interview.]