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Friday, 8 August 2008

"10 min dram with... Harlen Wheatley"

Exclusive time again folks!! Whilst on a "once-every-ten-years" trip to the UK Harlen gave us a fantastic insight into how the fabulous bourbons of Buffalo Trace were put together and this was a rare chance to ask him a few interesting questions on wood, desert island casks and just what its like to hold the title of 'Master Distiller'!

Over to you Harlen....

How would a regular day at the distillery start and end for Harlen Wheatley?

The day starts by assessing the operation and look for any problems or issues. Once the issues are cleared up then I directly go to planning the next moves and staying focused on the priorities. We currently have many projects and plans that have to be thought out and completed. I have a team of about 48 people that are doing everything from receiving raw ingredients to putting barrels away and withdrawing them. They are excellent professionals that do an awesome job completing the multitude of tasks throughout the day. We have a production lot that we must complete everyday. Once production is completed I wrap up thoughts with the supervisors & managers and call it day.

The title 'Master Distiller' gives you an almost 'enigmatic alchemists' image... how much of your distillation skill is down to an element of science and how much is down to instinct- and essentially, your senses?

The science is the real answer. You have to understand and manipulate the science to be able to get the output that you want. I have been at this distillery long enough for all those variables to be
instinctive however I do rely on my science knowledge for everything. I sometimes do scare myself by predicting problems before they happen based on sounds, time, etc...

What, in your experienced opinion, has been the pinnacle within your distilling career?

I will humbly say that that hasn't happened yet, however the distillery winning "distillery of the year" awards the last 4 yrs is a nice reward for all the people here that work so hard.

Is your production craft influenced by other areas of distillation, (like the Scotch malt whisky industry) for instance- the successful experiments of finishing spirit in different types of cask etc?

I would say it has some influence. We have discussed distilling single malt whiskey and aging it in our barrels. We have looked at their techniques for production like distillation, yeasting, enzymatic actions, etc. to see if we can improve our operation.

Are you managing to meet the demands for your bourbon in new markets? Has the Far East seen growth in your product sales?

We are managing it however it is a bit daunting at the moment because the demand is bigger in some areas than we have whiskey. We are closely monitoring the output and sales to match our inventories. The Far East is basically untapped at the moment for us. We have seen growth in the industry and we have to gear up if we want to have a big impact in that market.

The George T. Stagg is probably one of the finest spirits I have ever tried. Do you plan to introduce any new premium, small batch bourbons into the Buffalo Trace line?

Hey, we are BT. Anything could happen. :-)

We've found that whisky and indeed bourbon appreciation seems to be becoming a younger past time than perhaps a few years ago. Will this influence your approach to distillation and the tastes of younger drinkers?

We do consider our customers with every one of our products. We will continue to offer our current brands consistently without flavor changes however any new products are carefully selected based on the consumers.

Have you ever tasted a particular cask and wanted to run off to a desert island with it?

Yes, I have had several "sugar barrels". I tend to hold on to those in my "special rick".

How important is the climate in Kentucky to the maturation of your bourbon?

It may be one of the most important part of our maturation. We experience basically all types of weather which gives the bourbon excellent aging characteristics. It allows the proper breathing of the barrel which gives the bourbon its awesome flavor.

Has there ever been spirit from a rival that you wished you'd invented?

We have admired many of the new spirits out there, however there is plenty to go around and we are too busy to covet too much.

Finally, the 64,000 dollar question...your all time favourite bourbon??

Well, of course that's a trick question because it really does depend on the occasion. For an everyday drink at any occasion I love BT. For an around the camp-fire conversation piece I would pull out some Stagg. For an excellent mix drink or a mild sweet drink I would have a Weller 12 YO. If there isn't any bourbon around I would have a Rain and cranberry. I love it all really.