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Taste Test: Buffalo Trace Gives China’s Most Popular Spirit the Whiskey Treatment

Reviewing the distillery's new barrel-aged baijiu.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Baijiu Photo: courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery

When you think of the world’s most popular spirits, brands like Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam likely come to mind, and for good reason. But it’s actually names and categories less familiar to most Americans that lead the way. In India, blended whiskies like Officer’s Choice and McDowell’s crush the competition. In Korea, soju reigns supreme, with the Jinro brand having been declared the world’s best-selling spirit in 2020 by The Spirits Business. And in China, baijiu is a behemoth due to its immense popularity and the sheer number of people there who consume it. According to the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, in 2019 baijiu accounted for a whopping 31 percent of global spirits volume. Which brings us, unexpectedly, to Buffalo Trace. For its latest limited-edition Experimental Collection release, the Kentucky distillery decided to take a cue from the Chinese and give baijiu a go, treating it the way it would one of its many whiskeys.

For the unfamiliar, baijiu is a clear spirit commonly distilled from sorghum, although other grains like wheat, rice or corn can be used, and it’s frequently bottled at a relatively high ABV of 50 percent or more. For the baijiu novice, it can take some getting used to, with an intensely pungent odor and assertive palate rich with earthy, fruity and umami notes. But this spirit is beloved by hundreds of millions, a testament to the wide range of styles and flavor profiles it comes with, as well as its importance in Chinese culture.

This is the 24th release in Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection, in which this large distillery gets to play around on a micro level with mash bills, aging, type of wood used for barrels and blending. The details about this aged baijiu are pretty interesting. Since it’s not actually a whiskey, it falls under the “distilled specialty spirit” category, and was made from a mash bill of sorghum and pea. It was matured for 11 years in just three different new American oak barrels (uncharred, charred and toasted), which were blended together, chill filtered and bottled at 90 proof. The result is an intriguing and weirdly delicious spirit, with moments that make you think you’re drinking a whiskey, and others that drive home the point that you are indeed absolutely not. On the nose, honey and vanilla is present along with some spice and butterscotch shell. After sipping, the initial sweetness dissolves into some earthiness and astringency, with notes of orange, apple and caramel coating the back of your tongue. And the finish lingers with a mix of sweet and sour notes, kind of like one of those weird hard candies you find at the bottom of your Halloween bag after going through all the good stuff (yes, that’s meant to be a positive tasting note).

The Experimental Collection comes in small 375-mL bottles, which is probably an ample amount for you to sip and enjoy this particular spirit. Overall, this is a unique and surprising experiment from Buffalo Trace, which arrived in late spring with a suggested retail price of $46.99. Of course, that seems laughable now that you find it listed at online retailers for upwards of $1,000 per bottle. But if you’re in the mood to sip something really different, this is a bottle worth hunting down.

Score: 90

Buy Now: $875

What Our Score Means

  • 100: Worth trading your first born for 
  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet 
  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram 
  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market 
  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable 
  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this 

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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