Buffalo Trace Barrel Aged Competition Results

Buffalo Trace invited a group of bartenders to create unique Barrel Aged Cocktails which extolled the virtues of this latest cocktail trend, up for grabs was a trip to the distillery in Kentucky.

At the start of this year BarLifeUK judged what we believe to be the first ever Barrel Aged Cocktail Competition. At that time Buffalo Trace had already started the preparations for their very own version.

Andy with another understated garnish

It is fascinating to see how Barrel Aged Cocktail Competitions have, and no doubt will continue to, evolve as this concept is understood more and more by brands and bartenders. Buffalo Trace’s take on the competition was a very interesting one, to show the positives of barrel aging a cocktail.

To this end each competitor was to produce their barrel aged cocktail and serve it alongside the same cocktail made fresh. This was a superb way to show how barrel ageing, when done right, is a great tool but that it is far from simply a matter of chucking the ingredients in a barrel and leaving them for a couple of weeks.

The rules were pretty simple leaving the bartenders maximum scope to explore the opportunities the barrel provides. Everyone was supplied with a barrel made of the same oak used to age Buffalo at the distillery. The cocktail, which must contain a minimum 30ml of Buffalo Trace or White Dog Mash Bill #1, had to have been aged for a minimum of 1 day (it could be decanted prior to the competition date).

Our hosts for the day were Match Bar W1 with Andy Mil and his team banging out some great Buffalo Trace Mint Juleps to keep the crowd (and judges) happy whilst everyone prepared themselves.

Joining BarLifeUK on the judging panel were drinks writer Claire Dodd, Crobar Manager Steve Horne and representing the distributor of Buffalo Trace in the UK, Hi-Spirits, Ian Bayliss. Our task was to try 9 bartenders aged and non-aged cocktails with a chunk of the points given over to the question of ‘what the barrel added to the final drink’.

Seasoning the Barrel

Something that is already becoming clear in the two Barrel Aged competitions BarLifeUK has judged is the skill of ‘Seasoning’ or ‘Curing’ the barrel before the cocktail is added. In this competition whilst some chose to simply use water others used ingredients such as white and red wine, sherry, rose water and Buffalo Trace.

This is definitely an important part of the process and can make a huge difference in the finished drink – for better or for worse.

As the competition kicked off it became quickly apparent that some superb drinks had been created. It also became clear that barrel aging really lends itself to the inner geek inside every bartender. The creativity and experimentation was off the chart.

Matteo Cazzaniga of Skylon combined the skill of infusing the base spirit of Buffalo with dates, banana and roasted almond for 7 days before decanting it to the barrel. Paul Loki from Mint Leaf took a similar route but using White Dog as his base for his Pecan, Cinnamon, Fig and Walnut infusion.

Roy Varty from Under Dog took it to a whole new level though, ageing each of his ingredients for different amounts of time in the barrel before combining them. Not only that but the ageing periods each had a Buffalo Trace relation e.g. the homemade vermouth (using Brewdog’s beers as the base) was aged for 5.5 days or 130 hours = 130 acres on the distillery!

It was left to Andy Mil to bring the silliness back into play, as usual, with the superbly named ‘A sloe not so comfortable screw against a sandy wall during Derby with a jockey in a cape’ or ‘Asnscsaaswddwajiac’ for short. A combination of several classic cocktails it was garnished with an ice lolly, orange sorbet, Love Hearts, edible bubbles and a lemon twist.

It was also interesting that all of the judges found they preferred a couple of the un-aged versions of the drinks best, showing that adding a cocktail to a barrel won’t necessarily make it taste better. I won’t taste bad, but it maybe that the fresher is better. This is an art we still all have to learn a lot about.

First past the post

With a prize as impressive as a trip to the Buffalo Trace distillery up for grabs a winner had to be decided. In only his second ever competition (and on the same day he discovered he was the new manager at ECC) the victor was Chris Tanner from Experimental Cocktail Club with his Le 13eme.

Chris’ winning drink

His cocktail used the White Dog, a great product which has to be balanced with superb skill, and was aged for one of the longer periods, 4 weeks. The White Dog was combined with a Champagne Reduction, Picon and Antica Formula. The beauty of this drink was that the barrel aging process balanced the ingredients perfectly to create a very complex but rounded cocktail.

Chris had this to say:
“The name and the use of champagne connects the brand’s heritage with the history  of the cocktail in French New Orleans, while the 13 is  a reference to the fact there are 12 warehouses at the Buffalo Trace distillery – so my  barrel is the thirteenth. I was trying to make classic drinks accessible as well as to get all the flavour out of the White Dog.  It’s quite simple, but the champagne reduction and the corn from the mash, when aged in the barrel, creates a really nice vanilla flavour. There were some great drinks created for the contests, so I’m very pleased to have won and looking forward to my trip to the distillery later this year.” 

It was a great competition with some excellent drinks and a real education for everyone involved with regards to the barrel ageing process. It is through events like this that allow people to experiment and share ideas that the UK will soon be leading the world in yet another cocktail trend.

Thank you to Andy and his team at Match Bar as well as Hi-Spirits for putting together such an interesting and well thought out comp. Also a huge congratulations to every entrant, everyone brought something new and interesting to the table and I learnt a lot during the judging process.

Winner – Chris Tanner, ECC

Le 13eme (per serve)
40ml Buffalo Trace white dog
20ml Carpano Antica Formula
5ml Champagne Reduction (50% reduction)
5ml Amer Picon
The barrel was used as supplied and the entire drink aged in the barrel for 4 weeks. Decanted and stirred on ice before straining into a coupette.