Harlen Wheatley is Buffalo Trace Distillery’s sixth master distiller since the Civil War.

Born in Mount Sterling in 1969, the Kentucky native has spent almost all of his life in the Bluegrass. He joined the distillery as a supervisor in 1995 and has since made his mark on every aspect of production in almost three decades with the company, all while promoting and educating the public on some of the world’s finest bourbon whiskeys. Wheatley was promoted to distillery manager in 2000 and then master distiller in 2005.

There Wheatley has been recognized for his achievements numerous times. He is a four-time James Beard award nominee in the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional category and he was named Distillery Manager of the Year at Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whiskey American Awards in 2014, to name a few.  

Given it’s rare to get to speak to someone this senior at one of the major bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, we jumped at the chance to speak to Wheatley and ask him what makes Buffalo Trace different, why blending is underappreciated, and more. 

Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace master distiller

Say hello to Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace master distiller

Interview with Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace master distiller

Question: Why did you want to pursue a career in whiskey?

Answer: I was inspired to pursue a career in whiskey due to my love of engineering and chemistry, which is what I have degrees in, chemical engineering and chemistry (from Northern Kentucky University). Coming out of school I wanted to apply those skills while staying in my home state of Kentucky. In Kentucky, especially in the early 1990s, chemical engineering positions were somewhat limited, but distilling was one of them. At the time there were only a handful of big distillers – which is hard to imagine today, but the business of whiskey distilling in the USA was a lot slower and we didn’t have the demand we do now. What attracted me to Buffalo Trace specifically was the distillery’s history – as the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States we have 200+ years of heritage and expertise and I wanted to help ensure we saw 200 more years of growth.

Q: What is the balance between art and science in your role? 

A: We like to talk about whiskey-making as both an art and a science – you need both to age and distil outstanding products. That said, the position does require quite a bit of scientific knowledge and expertise. It is essential to understand all the technical aspects of the job to do it well, and much of that will come from doing the work and seeing how everything translates from a classroom to the real world. The beauty of the position is you never stop learning. The bourbon industry is ever-evolving… technology changes, and the realities of our world concerning temperature, atmosphere, etc. impact every part of what we do. It’s an exciting role and there’s never a dull day.

Q: Can you tell us what a day in the life of a master distiller is like?

A: The really fun part of the job is that every day is different.  There are a few constant tasks such as reviewing production numbers and plans, quality specs and readings, tasting products, etc., but there is also the opportunity to focus on short- and long-term projects.  My current scope maintains oversight of 10 distilleries spread across the globe, which includes an incredible team of professionals working together to achieve our distilling and ageing objectives and goals.  As a result of our combined skillsets, we’re able to continue to push the limits of production with volumes never seen before, while also unveiling innovations and experiments that push the boundaries of the bourbon category.  

Q: What have you achieved in your time as master distiller?

A: The beauty in the role of master distiller is that it’s ever-evolving! That said, a project I’m particularly proud of is Buffalo Trace Distillery’s expansion. In 2015 we broke ground on a $1.2 billion expansion to meet growing demand for our award-winning products. Today we are in the home stretch with over 75% of the project complete. This expansion project has seen improvements to every part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s bourbon-making process and we’re currently on track to be completed by early 2025. 

To date, all completed projects under Buffalo Trace Distillery’s expansion include a new distribution centre, bottling operation, steam boiler, still house, dry house, mill house, process cooling systems, and wastewater treatment facility as well as three 75,000-gallon cistern tanks, four new cookers, 12 additional fermenters, and 19 new ageing warehouses. We also expanded the visitors centre and upgraded the cistern room, while adding eight new 95,000-gallon fermenters and two new steam boilers and boiler house. Our team at Buffalo Trace has grown to support the increased production. Currently, we have more than 760 team members, which is more than double since the expansion project began.

Buffalo Trace whiskey

The classic Buffalo Trace whiskey

Q: Not long after you joined the distillery in 1995 it was rechristened and the flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon was introduced. Can you tell us what makes that product special and how it has developed over the last three decades?

A: While product demand and the production processes to meet that demand have certainly evolved, Buffalo Trace Bourbon itself remains consistent. We were extremely selective in the initial product creation – we wanted a good balance of age and flavour. We also implemented a tasting panel to consistently deliver the same quality to our fans, which is still a part of our quality process today.  The tasting panel is comprised of 20-30 trained experts who are constantly tasting our whiskey to ensure quality. To be certain every bottle we sell hits what we think of as the “Gold Standard” – a profile that matches an original bottling of Buffalo Trace Bourbon – we compare every new batch to that “Gold Standard” to measure consistency, regardless of when it was batched. If one person on the tasting panel doesn’t believe the whiskey is ready, it doesn’t get bottled.

Q: How is Buffalo Trace whiskey made and what makes it different from other brands?

A: Most of the differences are related to our distillery and production methods.  We can tap into centuries of knowledge, expertise, innovative methods, etc. when creating our products.  

Honouring tradition but embracing change is a crucial part of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s DNA. We age our bourbon longer than most others on the market because we truly believe there is no substitute for the impact of age on the quality of whiskey. Specifically, our flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon is aged on average eight years, often double the age of other comparable bourbon offerings. 

We are also deeply committed to experimentation and expanding the boundaries of the category, as evidenced by Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Experimental Program, including our dedicated experimental warehouses X and P.

Warehouse X is an experimental warehouse custom-built with four distinct chambers, allowing us to take experimentation to the next level. In Warehouse X, we are experimenting with natural light/UV, temperature, humidity and airflow.

Within Warehouse P is a unique section that contains a temperature-controlled environment.  This allows us to test the impact temperature has on the ageing of whiskey over time. 

Some recent experimental releases include: Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat, Eagle Rare 25,  Experimental Collection and Single Oak Project.  

Q: We never think of American whiskey being blended, but you’re marrying huge amounts of stock at one time to create a consistent product like Buffalo Trace. Do you think that skill goes underappreciated?

A: Blending can be commonly misunderstood in whiskey-making, which is a shame because it can play a critical part in producing quality, consistent products. Most whiskeys are blended in some way throughout their lifecycle!

When producing whiskey – specifically bourbon aged in Kentucky – two separate but equally important variables are at play, working together harmoniously to create the final whiskey: age and maturation. 

As stated before, we age our flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon substantially longer than what is typical of other bourbons on the market. Equally important to age in the creation of premium bourbon is the maturity of the spirit – meaning how the whiskey changes and develops over time due to a variety of factors, including oak, barrel char, temperature, humidity, light, and more. Age often contributes to creating a mature spirit, but many factors work together to create an outstanding tasting experience.

Blending is an art form – it requires nuanced knowledge and appreciation for how whiskey of various ages, finishes and mash bills can work together to produce something even more special than those liquids on their own. Blending is a marriage of both age and maturation. The idea here is simple: the finished product, which combines multiple liquid streams is greater than the individual parts on their own (even when those individual parts are outstanding).  

Blended offerings don’t always feature an age on their labels because a whiskey’s age statement reflects the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle at the time of bottling. What’s important to understand about that, though, is this does not necessarily mean a whiskey is “young” or “immature” – often a blended whiskey features much older liquids as part of the recipe to create the intended flavour profile with the desired uniqueness and complexity.  

The Buffalo-Trace-Distillery

The Buffalo Trace Distillery

Q: Did you feel a huge responsibility working with a brand like Buffalo Trace?

A: Of course! As only the 6th Master Distiller since the Civil War, I feel a huge responsibility to carry the baton for Buffalo Trace Distillery and take it very seriously. I want to leave the distillery and industry better than I found it and I’m committed to constant learning, experimentation and training – both of myself and those I am fortunate enough to work alongside.  

Q: How has the customer changed since you took over?

A: Consumers today are more educated about the category – there is way more information available than 30 years ago! There are also more distilleries, more innovation, new offerings, etc. We see this as a great thing for everyone! With that increased interest comes an open-mindedness and a willingness to try new, different things. This has allowed us to have a lot of fun with experimentation, which is a big passion at Buffalo Trace.

Q: What do you think will be the challenges for whiskey distilleries in the coming years?

A: Some of the same challenges we’re experiencing today will likely persist in the years to come, such as understanding, predicting, and meeting demand, while also balancing the realities of the environment we operate in. 

Q: What is your greatest achievement in your career?

I’m particularly humbled to have played a part in launching Buffalo Trace Bourbon – it was our first foray into new products! We started out hoping we could sell 1 bottle then 1 case, and now to look at how far we’ve come is really remarkable. 

Q: What is the best thing about working in whiskey?

A: The history and heritage! It’s what attracted me to this profession to start out with and it’s what’s kept me passionate all these years later. I’m proud to make whiskey at the world’s most award-winning distillery in my home state that spirits fans around the world can enjoy. 

Buffalo Trace whiskey

How do you like to drink Buffalo Trace?

Q: Finally, do you have a favourite cocktail (and feel free to share a recipe)?

A: My go-to is Buffalo Trace Bourbon, on the rocks. My favourite cocktail is a riff on a Godfather cocktail we like to call the Kentucky Godfather. In the recipe, which typically calls for scotch and amaretto, you swap bourbon for Scotch. Or I like a classic Manhattan.