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Interview with JBF Award Nominee Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace Distillery

Elena North-Kelly

Elena North-Kelly

April 22, 2015


Harlen Wheatley is an undisputed whiskey authority: at Buffalo Trace Distillery, one of America’s most acclaimed and historic bourbon producers, the man has worked on every aspect of the business, from sourcing raw materials to barrel-aging. We got in touch with the 2015 Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional award nominee to get the scoop on his standard drink order, how his chemistry background has informed his product, and the lowdown on the cult-like Pappy brand. 


JBF: Buffalo Trace is one of the oldest distilleries in the county, having crafted bourbon whiskey for over 200 years and counting. How would you sum up the philosophy of the distillery and your products? 

Harlen Wheatley: The philosophy is to honor our legacy while embracing change.  We focus on delivering authentic products that consumers can have confidence in while balancing innovation with tradition. We deliver a variety of flavors to appeal to our customers’ range of tastes. We believe in not only a variety of tastes, but a variety of ages ranging from three to twenty-three years.

JBF: You had a formal education in chemistry and chemical engineering before you become a master distiller. How did you land where you are now? And do you think that your background helps you produce a superior product?  

HW: I landed here at Buffalo Trace because it’s in Kentucky and close to home. I was raised and schooled in Kentucky and once I graduated I was fortunate enough that Buffalo Trace had an opening in the distilling department for an apprentice to the master distiller at the time. I definitely think my background helped me understand the distilling business and operations. It’s also allowed me to stay focused on the things that are important to making a good quality product.

JBF: Last year the distillery launched a new, small-batch product named after you: Wheatley Vodka, which uses your unique recipe of wheat, corn, and malted barley. Are there any other exciting projects coming down the pipeline?  

HW: Well, we always have something in the hopper. Keep your eyes and ears open because we have some great ideas and plans for the future! We do think that there are always new things to explore.    

JBF: What’s your favorite watering hole to visit when you’re not working—and what’s your standard order there?  

HW: Generally, I try to move around and not stay in one spot. There are too many great bars and restaurants in Kentucky to do that! Where ever I go, however, I will try a bourbon on the rocks or a Buffalo Trace Manhattan on the rocks. One of the perks to the job is to be able to find some outstanding watering holes in cities all across the U.S.

JBF: Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, which is produced at Buffalo Trace, has grown to have a cult-like following, and is in such high demand that there are waiting lists with over 2,000 names deep to purchase the bottles—in the rare instances that they're even available at liquor stores. What do you think about Pappy being the scarcest, most sought-after spirit on the market? (And do you have any tips on how we can get our hands on a bottle? Just kidding!)

HW: Pappy has been an outstanding brand for us and I think all the scarcity certainly beats the alternative. When you deliver an excellent tasting, high quality bourbon to the public, the demand is bound to grow because people want quality for their money. Unfortunately for us, there just isn’t enough bourbon to go around, so when you combine the high demand with the inventory available the scarcity does go up.    

JBF: Bourbon is often incorporated into the culinary landscape—we’ve even hosted dinners at the Beard House where bourbon is a component of every dish on the tasting menu. Do you have a favorite dish that features bourbon as one of its ingredients?  

HW: I think bourbon compliments lots of different foods, some more than others, but the good thing for us is that we have so much variety it enables lots of excellent pairings: everything from Buffalo Trace with your steak to Pappy for dessert.

The 2015 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional is presented by BACARDÍ® Gran Reserva.

Elena North-Kelly is senior editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.