Buffalo Trace is known for many things, but to date, vodka has not necessarily been one of them. Recently, Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley has sought to change that.
In the midst of a massive distillery expansion, the team at Buffalo Trace has just launched Wheatley Vodka, an uncomplicated yet intentional spirit that’s designed to taste “the way vodka should taste.” Distilled tenfold and bottled at 82 proof with a soft flavor profile and delicate finish, this small-batch vodka is both refined and unpretentious. Here’s an inside look at the spirit’s namesake, his journey up the company ladder, and what the brand has in store for 2020.
Tell us about your career journey to Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace.
After completing a chemical engineering and chemistry degree, I started working for a chemical company in Central Kentucky. That only lasted for a short time before I was recruited away to work at Buffalo Trace as a supervisor in 1995, where I had the fortune to work with two former Master Distillers who had 30+ years’ of on the job experience, and I was able to learn so much from them. I was promoted to Distillery Manager in 2000 and named Master Distiller in 2005, becoming the distillery’s sixth Master Distiller since the Civil War. I’ve worked in every aspect of production from raw materials to barrel aging, but I still spend a lot of time learning from some of the “old timers” at the distillery who have been here for 30, 40, even 50 years! Most recently, I’ve been putting in the time to create Wheatley Vodka, made in small batches using a micro-still and unique recipe of wheat and other grains.
Describe your day-to-day on the job.
These days I spend a lot of time on expansion projects, as we are planning and working toward expanding all areas of the operation (more info here). I continue to focus all our efforts on delivering quality and staying on track to meet the demand for the future. Lots of activities – from production and quality tastings to sales and operations – every day.
You’ve recently released your first vodka, Wheatley. What inspired this product and what makes it stand out from the other vodkas on the market?
We were focused on delivering a craft style vodka that represents what we are about here at Buffalo Trace Distillery. We have the distilling knowledge and equipment in place to deliver a super high quality vodka, “the way vodka should taste.” Some of the main points that set the vodka apart are the fact that it is produced here at Buffalo Trace and for those that know our distillery, it gives them confidence that it will be high quality. We also produce it at 82 proof in the bottle and 10x distilled with some red winter wheat in the recipe, which delivers a nice, smooth and delicate finish with notes of vanilla. All we ask is people taste test it.
What’s your preferred post-workday drink?
If I’m in a bourbon mood, it’s a Buffalo Trace Manhattan or Bourbon Godfather. If I’m in a vodka mood, it’s a creative cocktail with Wheatley of course, like a Rosemary Greyhound.
Any future products or projects on the horizon that you might be able to share a bit about?
We are always looking ahead and working on ways to continue to evolve and improve. One of the great things about Buffalo Trace is that there is always something innovative happening, from experimental products that have the potential to become full-fledged brands, to our biggest project, a $1.2 billion expansion at Buffalo Trace Distillery. We’re in the process of building new barrel warehouses, adding more cookers, fermenters and growing our Visitor Center – the whole distillery is going through a major transformation. It’s an exciting time to be here.