The Success of Failure

There was an interesting and very instructive announcement from Buffalo Trace this week. Buffalo Trace is a bourbon distillery – it's one of the finest examples of the quintessential American spirit. With its parent company, Sazerac, Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley makes a whole string of iconic whiskies that have come to represent the very best of the distiller's art in the U.S.

What struck me so powerfully this week was not one of the distillery's stunning successes but a clearly announced failure. Wheatley said that a whiskey he had been aging for 27 years, "did not meet the taste standards required." What is remarkable I think is not that the distillery tried an experiment that didn’t give the hoped for results, but that it tried an experiment and went public with the disappointing results. And this isn't the first time.

 Aging gracefully at Buffalo Trace (photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery)

Aging gracefully at Buffalo Trace (photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery)

In 2012, the distillery announced a series of "failures," noting that they had been experimenting with aging whiskey in small barrels. Small in this case means barrels of 5 gallons (about 19 liters), 10 gallons (37.8 liters) and 15 gallons (56.75 liters). The usual whiskey barrel in bourbon country is 53 gallons (about 200 liters) and this has become something of a standard since the Scotch whisky industry ages their spirit in used bourbon barrels from the U.S. (and no, that isn’t a typo – the Scots spell their spirit "whisky" while in the U.S. it's spelled "whiskey").

The point of Wheatley's announcement in 2012 was that a bigger barrel is actually better because the small barrels surprisingly don’t allow a whiskey to age properly. The thinking before the experiment was that a smaller barrel, by increasing the proportion of wood to whiskey, would age the spirit more quickly. As the distillery said in its press release announcing the failure, "Even though the barrels did age quickly, and (the spirit) picked up the deep color and smokiness from the char and wood, each bourbon yielded less wood sugars than typical from a 53 gallon barrel, resulting in no depth of flavor." The fact that Buffalo Trace makes the effort to figure this out only increases my confidence in them.

 Master distiller Harlen Wheatley

Master distiller Harlen Wheatley

There had been other failures as well – alternative grain recipes, different warehouse temperatures and more. Wheatley’s announcement this week concerned a spirit that had been aging since 1988 that, tasted at 27 years of age, was, "vinegary, sour, unpleasant (and) disappointing."

Why does the fate of a single barrel matter? In a sense, I suppose it doesn’t – they have thousands and thousands of barrels at Buffalo Trace that turn out fine. And yet, I had to smile at this announcement by a very tradition-oriented company that also believes in experimenting constantly. A few months earlier, they wrapped up an experiment that tried to find out if the same whiskey would turn out differently in barrels made from wood taken from the top of the tree or the bottom of the tree (the long-running project was called the "Holy Grail Project" and makes a fascinating story that you can read in the company’s press release).

Admitting failure is something most companies refuse to do despite the fact we all know that there is no success without failure. We don’t learn from succeeding, we learn from mistakes. I love the aesthetic at Buffalo Trace that embraces and celebrates what doesn't work out because it makes it so much more believable when they pour you a glass of something that did work out. Buffalo Trace experiments constantly in order to understand how the near mystical processes of distillation and aging work. I find it exciting, an adventure in taste that gives a new perspective on what it takes to raise the bar. And I love Buffalo Trace all the more for it.