Buffalo Trace Distillery Tour

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The problem with Buffalo Trace Distillery is that hardly anyone knows them.  As I told friends about visiting a Kentucky distillery, they expect to hear Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, or Wild Turkey.  Maybe Evan Williams or Woodford Reserve.  Rarely Four Roses.  Never Buffalo Trace.  There’s nine distilleries within 125 miles of Louisville, all in Kentucky.


But... it’s the oldest continually operated distillery in the U.S., even during Prohibition during which they were licensed for medicinal purposes.  The distillery had been known for a good number of years as the George T. Stagg Distillery, but they were acquired in the1992 by a family owned company (Sazerac) and changed their name to Buffalo Trace in 1999.  

That name gives homage to a buffalo migration route which crossed the Kentucky River at the site of the Distillery.  This works from a historical sense, but if thinking about either “Buffalo” or “bourbon,” few would tend to associate one with the other (Similarly, a souvenir T-shirt with a buffalo on it likewise falls short).


The name hasn’t hampered their history.  According to their website and their tour guide, they’ve won more awards than any other distillery in the world in the last 20 years, and given the global demand for bourbon, that says a lot.  But not if you’re thinking solely of a product named “Buffalo Trace Bourbon.”

They make bourbon under a wide variety of names, which include:

Buffalo Trace Thomas H Handy Sazerac
Sazerac Rye George T. Stagg
Eagle Rare Stagg, Jr.
William Larue Weller W.L. Weller
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr.
Pappy Van Winkle Rock Hill Farms
Hancock’s Reserve Ancient Age
Benchmark Old Charter
Blanton’s Single Barrel Old Weller

Where labels are named after people, they each have had a role in the Distillery during its history, usually as an owner... except Pappy Van Winkle, which is made for a company no longer owns or operates a distillery but shares a heritage with Buffalo Trace.  Of note, Blanton’s Single Barrel was the first single barrel whiskey offered for sale in the world, beginning in 1984 (as opposed to blending it with whiskey from multiple barrels).  

Colonel Taylor pushed heavily for the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which set industry standards for uniformity for whiskeys to be called Bourbon.   Requirements for bourbon include:

    • Aging a minimum of four years,
    • Bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume),
    • Made by one distiller at one distillery location,
    • No artificial colorings such as iodine or tobacco,
    • Aged in a federally bonded warehouse

I think governmental requirements later added:

    • The grain mixture (wheat or rye, barley, corn) should be at least 51% corn
    • Aged in new, charred oak barrels
    • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
    • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof
    • Bottled at 80 proof or more

There is no minimum specified duration for its aging period, except straight bourbon which requires two years.  However, if it is less than 4 years, it must state the age on the bottle.

As of 2013, 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky.  The state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon that are aging, which exceeds the State population.  Tennessee Whiskey is a straight bourbon and technically meets the other specifications for bourbon.

So, why Kentucky?  Heritage and a high concentration of limestone, which removes iron from the water.

Distilling at this particular site is said to have begun in 1811 by Mr. Blanton (thus their 200 year history), but their website notes 1858 as a firm distillery being built at the site.  Through the years, others improved upon the facility as technology advanced, often by the ingenuity of the owners of the distillery at the time.  The company website gives a good bio on the contributions of each.

The warehouse below was built in 1885 and is still used today.


In 2008, Buffalo Trace produced their six millionth barrel after Prohibition.  Their first had been in 1942, and, as they purchase 80,000 white oak barrels per year from the Ozarks, and as a barrel can only be used once... it will be a while yet before they reach their seventh million.

The current “problem” for Buffalo Trace and the industry is that worldwide demand for bourbon is up (10% in the last year), and it’s not simply a process of making more.  Supplies today are based on sales projection made 10 or more years ago about what the demand would be today, weighed against the cost of making it then.   It puts pressure on the industry that essentially results in higher prices... unless a distiller makes a faux pas such as the decision Maker’s Mark attempted in 2013 to dilute their product in order to increase their supplies.  The guide alluded to the TV show, “Mad Men,” as one possibility for the renewal of interest in bourbon, but in any case, that interest was apparent as at 2:00 on a Monday afternoon, around 20 people were gathered for a tour when some years ago there might only be a few.

Parking is plentiful, after a short drive in a well landscaped entrance.  Upon entering the distiller, you see what will get you coming and going, the usual novelties and, of course, drinks.


But... there’s also a promise of a pleasing end of the tour (note the shot glasses):


The basic tour includes a visit to the warehouse and the packaging line.  There’s not a lot to say about a warehouse.


Or, is there?  They have 12 warehouses on the property (None elsewhere; the equivalent of having all of their eggs in one basket should a catastrophe occur).  They store approximately 300,000 barrels which age anywhere from 3-23 years. 

During the tour you learn a bit about the time it takes for the wood to flavor the whiskey, including seeing a cross section to see how far the bourbon had seeped into the walls of the barrel.  But it’s not a straight-line effect.  The bourbon seeps in and withdraws, varying with the temperature.   The placement of barrels within the warehouse influences their ultimate flavor, such as the distance from walls or on which floor level they are stored.   Air flow, the angle of the sun, open or closed windows depending on the season, even wood or concrete floors make a difference. Add to that steam heating for the winter months, and Buffalo Trace claims each warehouse has a unique aging profile, which makes sense.

Also, we learned about the shape of the barrels.  First, they weigh over 500 lbs, so the ability to roll them is a great advantage in transportation.  The convex sides allow for changing directions with little friction.  Engineering at its simplest, the work done by “coopers” for those doing crossword puzzles.

The subject of barrels emerges in a warehouse because the bung hole needs to be at the top (for sampling some years later).  They aren’t slid into place; they’re rolled.  In other words, the employees have to plan the relative placement of the hole at the entry position so that it is on top when it reaches its resting point.  The photo below demonstrates the wasted effort of having to roll a barrel back out if it’s not placed properly, and the experience to know how many revolutions are needed for each stop (surprisingly not noted on the wood framing).


During the years of storage, evaporation occurs.  In low humidity, most loss is in the form of water.  In high humidity, more alcohol than water will evaporate.  Their most sought after product, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, is sold at 15, 20, and 23 years.  After 23 years, a 53 gallon barrel yields only 10-12 gallons.  For this reason, it’s sold almost covertly due to limited supplies, for ~$150 if you can find it.  We observed at a Louisville bar that a single shot was $75.

More fun with barrels – these are from, I think, an area where the barrels are filled, feeding in from the far right on a track system by gravity.  At the left, you’ll see a hand rail around an elevator to lift it to the road level:


At which point the crossing guard goes down, and the barrel rolls along, unguided.  It’s convex shape keeps it perfectly aligned on the rails.


After crossing the street, they feed to an elevator to take them to the desired warehouse floor.  Yesterday’s technology still works today.


The fungus on the building is fed by the loss of ethanol during evaporation and is known as the angels’ share fungus.

On to packaging we go.  The barrels roll in and are tapped.  I think the proof is adjusted in the tanks below, because...


It’s straight to the bottling line.


After which the bottles are processed largely by hand, including wiping of fingerprints before placing in the box.


Why Kentucky?  Bourbon can be made anywhere, though for it to be declared bourbon it must be a “distinctive product of the U.S.”   Sorry China.  Our guide pointed out that bourbon can be made anywhere, but the area’s water supply has the perfect limestone and calcium content. 

Speaking of our guide, I don’t recall his name, but if he’s on duty, count yourself lucky.  Experienced, knowledgeable, and as “down home” a delivery as you might hope.  Hang close, though, for other little nuggets, and be sure to ask questions.


Which takes us back to the bar and those shot glasses.  They offered their own Vodka brand and their “White Dog” – essentially moonshine (alcohol before aging in the barrels).  Is this a pick one? or both?  Answer is, you can try both.


Then the good/better stuff came out, Buffalo Trace Bourbon and Eagle Rare.  Interestingly, their own branded bourbon is a “straight bourbon” rather than something aged further.  I guess it’s their flagship “quick to the masses” product.  In any case, it was good, but not nearly as good as Eagle Rare, their 10 year whiskey. 

But wait, there’s more!

Afterwards, we were offered Bourbon Cream, which is very similar to Bailey’s Irish Creme.

But wait, there’s more!

Locally made Kentucky Bourbon Balls – I forget the name.


And it’s all free!  FREE!

While the distillery offers the Trace tour hourly, check out some of their others for a more focused tour.  They do not occur as frequently and may require reservations.  The site is listed as a National Historic Landmark.


Money, waiting to be made:


1 comment :

  1. Very nice. Makes me proud to have a bottle of BT in my liquor cabinet.