Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Harlen Wheatley, October 30, 2008

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:01 - Origins of bourbon whiskey

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Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland and we're interviewing today Harlen Wheatley who is the master distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Aging; College; Discovery; Florence (Ky.); Inventory; Kentucky; Laws; Market; Mississippi River; Mt. Sterling (Ky.); New Orleans (La.); Origins; Products; Regulations; Sales; University of Kentucky; Warehouses

Subjects: Alcohol--Law and legislation; Bourbon County (Ky.); Bourbon whiskey; Economic conditions.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky; Whiskey industry--Kentucky--History.

00:05:37 - How different warehouses affect the aging process

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Partial Transcript: Um, our first large warehouse--big, new warehouse was built in eighteen seventy--around 1875.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Aging; Air pockets; Architecture; Barrels; Differences; Effects; Expansion; Experiments; Flavors; Growth; Location; Materials; Popularity; Products; Racks; Ricks; Warehouses

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Economic conditions.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:09:51 - Distillation process--Mash recipes

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Partial Transcript: You use the term wheated bourbon. Can you explain that?

Segment Synopsis: Wheatley talks about the different types of recipes that can be used to create bourbon, including rye, wheat, and barley-based whiskeys.

Keywords: Aging; Barley whiskey; Corn; Flavors; Ingredients; Japan; Malted barley; Mash; Mash bills; Recipes; Rye bourbon; Rye whiskey; Wheated bourbon

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:12:05 - Distillation process--Step by step

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Partial Transcript: Take me through, just briefly if you will, the, the process of producing bourbon.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Alcohol; Barrels; Beer stills; Cleaning; Consistency; Cookers; Delivery; Fermenters; Flavors; Grains; Grinding; Mash; Mash bills; Producing; Production; Products; Proofs; Recipes; Setback; Silos; Sour mash; Souring; Trucks; Yeast

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:17:06 - Distillation process--Yeast

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Partial Transcript: Tell me about the yeast.

Segment Synopsis: Wheatley discusses Buffalo Trace's proprietary yeast, its role in the distillation process, and how it affects the flavor of the product.

Keywords: Alcohol; Esters; Fermentation; Flavors; Fruit; Yeast

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:19:26 - Distillation process--Proof

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned that several proofs off the still are used at Buffalo Trace.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Balance; Congeners; Distilling; Ethanol; Flavors; Proofs; Reflux; W. L. Weller bourbon whiskey; Wheated bourbon; Yeast

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:22:04 - Distillation process--Barrels

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Partial Transcript: What about the barrels?

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Aging; Barrels; Blanton's Single Barrel bourbon whiskey; Differences; Experiments; Flavors; Learning; Missouri; Number 4 char; Science; Single barrel bourbons; Single tree bourbons; Trees; Understanding; Variables; Variation; White oak; Wood

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:26:32 - Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection

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Partial Transcript: That brings up the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and all of the experiments that--(Wheatley coughs)--you have done.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Batches; Beer; Best bourbon; Consistency; Control; Cookers; Design; Differences; Experiments; Fermenters; Flavors; Hybrid stills; Ideas; Industry standards; Micro distillation process; Micro stills; Proofs; Racks; Ratios; Reflux; Ricks; Science; Size; Small barrels; Surface area; Variables

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:35:16 - Responsibilities of a master distiller

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Partial Transcript: Take me through a typical day on your job--(Wheatley coughs)--as you perform it at present.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Aging; Consistency; Control; Duties; Employees; Experience; Flavors; Improvements; Knowledge; Leonard Riddle; Plant managers; Processes; Production; Projects; Quality checks; Responsibilities; Ronnie Eddins; Single barrel bourbons; Tasting; Teams; Typical day; Warehouses

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Distillers.; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:42:01 - Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey

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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.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Bottles; Consistency; Employees; Flavor profiles; Flavors; George T. Stagg Distillery; Heritage; History; Labels; Leestown settlement; Names; Packages; Proofs; Representation; Rye whiskey; Selection; Small batch bourbons; Tasting; Tasting panels; Voting; Warehouses

Subjects: Alcoholic beverages.; Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Distillers.; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:48:57 - Educating the public about bourbon

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Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about, about, um, your work, uh, as a representative, uh, of Buffalo Trace.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: American whiskey; Awareness; Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey; Cocktails; Differences; Drinking; Education; Favorites; Flavors; George T. Stagg bourbon whiskey; Hillary Clinton; Master distillers; Public relations; Regulations; Representatives; Shots; Tastings; Teaching; Travel; Variety

Subjects: Alcohol--Law and legislation; Alcoholic beverages.; Bourbon whiskey; Consumers.; Distillation.; Distillers.; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Sales promotion.

00:55:22 - More on the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection

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Partial Transcript: What's the strategy behind the Experimental Collection?

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Best bourbon; Education; Factors; Knowledge; Learning; Money; Profits; Science; Strategy; Variables

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Quality control.; Quality of products.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky

00:57:08 - How chemical engineering relates to being a master distiller

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Uh, once again this is Tom Troland.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Apprenticeships; Bachelor's degrees; Challenges; College; College majors; Distilling; Experience; Gary Gayheart; High school; Jobs; Julian P. Van Winkle; Learning; Master distillers; Mentors; Northern Kentucky University (NKU); Taste; University of Kentucky (UK); Whiskey industry; Young adulthood

Subjects: Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Chemical engineering.; Chemistry.; Chemists.; Distillation.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Distillers.; Economic conditions.; Education; Quality control.; Quality of products.

01:06:07 - Future of the bourbon industry

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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.

Segment Synopsis: 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.

Keywords: Awareness; Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection; Education; Evolution; Experiments; Future; Improvements; Innovation; Legacy; Master distillers; Namesakes; New products; Products; Professional; Traditions; history

Subjects: Bourbon whiskey; Buffalo Trace Distillery.; Consumers.; Distilleries--Kentucky; Distillers.; Economic conditions.; Whiskey industry--Kentucky