Buffalo Trace Old Charter Oak Spanish Oak Bourbon Review

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Buffalo Trace Old Charter Oak Spanish Oak Bourbon Review

American whiskey geeks could be forgiven for thinking that there’s some magical, worldwide species of tree simply known as “the oak,” growing on every continent of the Earth. Suffice to say, we mainly encounter a single species of American white oak (Quercus Alba) in the whiskey industry, although bourbon geeks with more experience will be familiar with at least a few, such as the French oak (several species) long used in wine and brandy production that has become a popular finishing barrel for American whiskeys as well. But American and French oak are just the tip of the iceberg–there are more than 125 species of white oak on record, and despite the common misconception, any of them can actually be legally used to create newly charred barrels for the production of bourbon whiskey. That’s a huge potential variation in flavors one can attain from wood aging, and this theory is at the heart of Buffalo Trace’s experimental Old Charter Oak series of whiskey releases, which has previously dabbled in four past releases: Mongolian Oak, Chinkapin Oak, Canadian Oak, and French Oak. Its fifth is just hitting store shelves: Old Charter Oak Spanish Oak Bourbon.

This is non-age stated (but probably decently mature) bourbon from Buffalo Trace, matured entirely in newly charred barrels made from the species of Spanish oak known as Quercus Hispanica. As the brand puts it, “Harvested from the forests of northern Spain, the trees used in this year’s experiment were made into staves that were seasoned outdoors before becoming the aging vessels for this unique whiskey.” The fifth release in the Old Charter Oak series was bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof), with an MSRP of $70. Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley describes the particular, unique character of Spanish oak as the following:

“The whiskey extracts from the charred oak barrel exciting elements like eugenol, vanillin and whiskey lactone. American Oak has higher proportions of vanillin and whiskey lactone. Resulting in bourbon with a softer, sweeter taste and notes of vanilla and caramel. Our Spanish Oak, on the other hand, has more eugenol. Meaning drier, spicier notes and flavors like clove are imparted onto the liquid. We specifically wanted to test Spanish Oak as part of this collection because of its connection to sherry, which is known to be a nuttier, fruitier spirit. We were curious how those flavors would impact the taste of whiskey, and we are very pleased with the result.”

Sherry is of course the market one can’t help but think about here, as this oak species is heavily used in the aging of fortified wines in regions such as Spain and Portugal. Those used sherry casks are then often used for the secondary maturation of scotch whisky, rum or increasingly for American whiskey, but this would be an entirely different use of the Spanish oak–not as reused oak that has matured sherry, but as a newly charred barrel. Suffice to say, few drinkers will ever have sampled a bourbon matured this way before; I certainly haven’t. The Old Charter Oak series intends to give a certain degree of novelty, and you have to acknowledge that it has delivered on that front.

So with that said, let’s get to tasting Spanish Oak Bourbon.

Just looking at this bourbon in a glass, the ruddy amber color suggests a very intense interaction between the spirit and the barrel. It’s kind of odd that this wasn’t a cask that previously was used to mature sherry, because it looks for all intents and purposes like a heavily sherried scotch that has really tinted itself with the fortified wine. Regardless, the nose on this Old Charter Oak batch is distinctive and immediately engaging, with assertive notes of spice and lots of dark dried fruitiness. I’m getting clove and cinnamon, ribboned with caramel and raisin, mingling with charred oak and traces of chocolate. It’s a very nice nose, all in all, suggesting a rich, fruity and spice-forward whiskey. There’s a certain exotic nature to it that does suggest a style of oak one doesn’t often encounter.

On the palate, the oak is equally front and center, though here it’s contributing a less decadent profile than suggested by the nose, and instead something more dry and elegant. I’m getting more of the clove and toasted baking spices (anise/licorice as well), along with significant char and wisps of smoke. There’s distinctive maple here, a quality one often finds in the sherries aged in such oak, but the maple doesn’t contribute a lot of overt sweetness, and the overall profile is fairly dry. The red fruit, spice and subtle earthiness mingle in a pleasant way, but Spanish Oak Bourbon turns toward the drier side on the finish, and minutes later I still feel some of the tannic sensation on my tongue.

All in all, this is a distinctive and pleasantly exotic expression of Old Charter Oak’s experimental ethos, though I don’t know if the palate quite lives up to the initial promise of the nose. It should appeal to drinkers who are looking to dive into exploring a more dry, spicy oak profile, merged with Buffalo Trace’s always solid bourbon.

Distillery: Buffalo Trace
City: Frankfort, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $70 MSRP

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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