A look under the hard hat of the oldest continually operating bourbon distillery in America.
Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort is a sprawling campus bunkered on the edge of the Kentucky River: a muddy and sluggish waterway that has flooded the distillery grounds a number of times over its 200-plus years of operation. Those calamities are commemorated with placards on the bricks of the Dry House, where grains not used in the bourbon making process are made into animal feed.
The river isn’t beautiful. Of course, I visited in December, which meant the trees were skeletal and the sky grey and snow-melt and mud dirtied the current. Despite the river’s lack of attractiveness and the consequential dreariness of the horizon, for the bourbon fan, the Buffalo Trace Distillery is paradise.
Buffalo Trace is undoubtedly Kentucky. It stakes a claim to being the oldest continually operating bourbon distillery in America, having survived that ghastly and unfortunate period known as the Prohibition by manufacturing whiskey for medicinal purposes.
It is a place as rich in history as it is in cherished whiskey.
Buffalo Trace’s location on the Kentucky River provided the company its present name. Herds of American bison used to pass across the banks of the waterway where the distillery is situated, leaving indentions in the grass known as traces. From 1904 to 1999, the distillery operated under the moniker “George T. Stagg,” but concurrent with the creation of the bourbon now bottled and sold as Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the name was changed. Now both the distillery’s flagship bourbon and the rest of the family share the same historic title.
Famous names flit around the distillery like you might expect to find at a gathering of old military pals or a small-town high school reunion. In 1869, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., the grand nephew of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, bought a small distillery he dubbed “Old Fire Copper.” Also known by the abbreviation “O.F.C.,” that distillery was purchased by George T. Stagg in 1878 and became a part of what we now know as the Buffalo Trace bourbon family.
Another famous name, of course, is Julian P. Winkle, better known by a nickname that summons joy and reverence from across the bourbon universe: Pappy. Pappy van Winkle and Old Rip Van Winkle are both made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. However, mention of last October’s theft of nine cases of Pappy van Winkle from the distillery was never brought up during my visit. A few barrels using Colonel Taylor’s original O.F.C. recipe were aging in the warehouse – but I never saw any Pappy.
On my tour of the distillery, Buffalo Trace’s rich history was merged with its Kentucky pride and the precision and quality with which they make their bourbon. I arrived just in time for what Buffalo Trace calls the “Hard Hat Tour,” described as an “An insider’s look into the behind-the-scenes work that goes into crafting truly great bourbon.” It was that, indeed. After being forewarned by a woman at the information desk that the behind-the-scenes look at the distillery involved heights and see-through steps, myself and a group of eight or nine others embarked on the tour.
Our guide, Fred, was a full-bellied, bourbon loving man. He explained each process of the distilling process slowly and methodically, and he thoroughly fielded questions from our tour group. I was surprised – and delighted – by the tactility and engagement offered during our excursion. Fred encouraged us to touch, smell and taste what we could (whatever wasn’t scalding hot or a health code violation) when walking through the various distillery buildings.
When Fred directed us to the truck drop where drivers bring in hand-selected corn from local farms that gets milled for use in the mashing process, he instructed us to pick up bits of corn that had fallen to the side and to feel the bright yellow bits in our hands. A few in our group nibbled on the bits. It just tasted like corn.
When we took the grated, see-through stairs we were warned of a few stories up to the 92,000-gallon mash fermenters. Fred told us to dip our fingers (and not lose our phones or jewelry) into the huge kettles where yeast meets sweet mash and sugar feeds yeast; that is, where alcohol happens. We stuck our arms out and reached our fingers toward a stream of sweet mash spouting from a tube and filling up a gigantic caldron. It tasted like liquid cornbread.
When we went and looked at the beer still – a 60,000-gallon, four-story tall cylinder – we got our first experience with what some drink as liquor. When the fermented mash enters the beer still and moves down the tank, an alcohol-rich vapor goes through the double-still and becomes a clear liquid that Buffalo Trace sells as its White Dog Mash. As a non-aged liquor, White Dog is strong. I mean, toast your throat and incite a ZZ Top beard to spontaneously sprout from your chin strong. As our group gathered around what Fred called the Doubler Still, he poured a clear cup of the White Dog and told us to smell – and taste – if we wanted. All in our group opted for the sniffing. After everyone had a sharp snort, Fred poured a small drop into our hands, “like antiseptic,” he said. As I rubbed the White Dog on my skin like soap and shook my fingers in the air like I was performing some Holy Spirit-directed jazz hands, the specific, particular smells of bourbon – corn, mash, liquor – all wafted around my face and struck my senses.
Fred thought it was a pretty cool experiment. Our nostrils and hands were burning.
Entering one of the many aging warehouses at Buffalo Trace felt like being let in on a secret – I wondered if my name would be registered on a Kentucky Freemason list or something like it upon my infiltration. It was dimly lit and cold with barrels stacked from ceiling to floor and just enough room for a small group to maneuver around in-between. Buffalo Trace uses white oak for their barreling, usually from trees 70 to 80 years old. An open flame chars each barrel, and the distillery has a variety of warehouses made of different materials – stone, brick, metal – which helps give each different liquor a distinct flavor.
One of the most rewarding parts of the distillery tour was, of course, the (free!) tasting. While I was slightly disappointed the counter at Buffalo Trace didn’t offer any Pappy or Rip van Winkle, the room and experience was a perfect afternoon-cap to an enlightening and inspiring tour. The liquors offered: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, White Dog Mash and Rain Vodka were each explained and delivered with pleasure. We had our choice of two, and I went with the Eagle Rare (a personal favorite on my liquor shelf) and the White Dog Mash (which tasted like it smelled – stronger than any homemade moonshine or rubbing alcohol I’d ever ingested). The real treat was when Fred brought out Buffalo Trace’s Bourbon Cream, which he described as their personal whiskey take on Bailey’s. He poured us each a small glass and told us to only drink half. That was difficult and required patience. Shortly after, however, he brought out bottled root beer and made us each a Bourbon Cream Root Beer float – a king’s dream of a treat.
After returning our empty glasses to the counter and saying lighthearted goodbyes to Fred and a couple of chatty members of our group, I left the tasting room and browsed the gift shop, buying a tumbler and a coffee mug for two of my Buffalo Trace loving pals, and a few postcards for me. While snapping pictures as I walked back to my car, I did a 360 and surveyed, one last time, the distillery’s campus, I was astounded by how much I didn’t get to see. There seemed like an infinite number of buildings – from shacks to warehouses – I didn’t have the opportunity to enter.
I felt like I had seen so much and drank deeply from the knowledge of an American treasure, but what was behind those closed doors?
Probably the Pappy.
Accolades & Oral History
Buffalo Trace Distillery is plastered with posters and signs announcing the many and various awards it has won among the liquor and whiskey-making community. In 2000, Buffalo Trace won Whisky Advocate’s “Distillery of the Year” award. In 2010, it was awarded Whisky Magazine’s “Visitor Attraction of the Year.” Perhaps most remarkable, in 2013 the Buffalo Trace Distillery was named a National Historic Landmark. Buffalo Trace’s line of bourbons and whiskeys and even its vodka has won a plethora of prizes at various competitions (recently, Eagle Rare won a Gold Outstanding Medal at the International Wine & Spirits Competition).
Further proof of the distillery’s commitment to its heritage can be found in the Buffalo Trace Oral History Project, which was created and is currently curated at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral Histories at the University of Kentucky Libraries. The project began in 2008 and exists for the purpose of preserving the people and stories surrounding the 200-plus years of distilling at Buffalo Trace. A view of any number of the interview videos curated by the Nunn Center shows what we already know is true: the Buffalo Trace family loves bourbon, people, and Kentucky. Check out The Nunn Center’s Buffalo Trace oral history videos here.
Tour & Visitor Information
Five tours are available at Buffalo Trace: The Trace Tour, The Hard Hat Tour, National Historic Landmark Tour, Bourbon Barrel Tour and a Ghost Tour. Trace Tours leave every hour on the hour, but reservations are required for the others. All tours are free and included a tasting. While there, Firehouse Cafe, a short walk from the Visitors Center, serves lunch. More information and hours can be found here.
All photos, except for tour guide Fred, courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery.
For more on Kentucky Bourbon Country and the Bourbon Trail, read about Getaways for Grownups’ visit here.