The Bourbon Trail (1 of 6): Buffalo Trace
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Major Products produced: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Sazerac, Rock Hill Farms, Ancient Age
Origin: Continued distillation since 1787; rechristened Buffalo Trace in 1999.
Nestled up next to the Kentucky River, the Buffalo Trace compound is an expansive mix of tended grounds, antique warehouses and modern factory equipment. They keep the oldest aging warehouse in Kentucky and all that, but the surprising things are the niceties, flowering trees and gardens and such, which blend well with the structures and were installed in the early 20th century by Colonel Albert Blanton, who decreed that fine bourbon should have fine surroundings.
Everyone who works there places a premium on history and tradition, and are visibly proud of the distillery heritage. The buildings themselves, particularly the warehouses, wear their age with dignity. Like John Huston said in Chinatown, “politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Our tour opened with a delightfully hokey, completely unironic video of actors in cheap synthetic pelts aiming prop rifles at off-screen buffalo. The bearded frontiersman on screen then stopped to sip from a bubbling creek at his feet before righting himself for some stoic squinting off-camera left. It’s the type of video that they showed 3rd graders in the early 90s, and it betrays a charming void where slick marketing prowess would otherwise be.
We found this to be a constant, especially when compared to other distilleries. Buffalo Trace is a big distillery owned by an even bigger company, and yet they maintain a homey, oh-put-that-anywhere nature that pervaded every minute of the 2.5 hours we spent there. They are, in other words, unassuming — especially so when considering that they make what is arguably the best bourbon in the world.
The history of the distillery is incredibly long. First this, pioneers in that. They’ll say things like “this is the oldest freestanding house in Franklin County!,” and we dutifully pretended to care. We were much more interested in the process, so from here on out I’m going to completely ignore history, as much as a favor to you as to myself.
Buffalo Trace produces three mashbills for their bourbon: Mash#1 is higher corn, and makes Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and George T. Stagg. Mash#2 is a bit more rye-heavy, and makes Blantons, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, and others. There’s additionally a wheated bourbon, which uses wheat instead of rye, and makes W.L. Weller and the whole Van Winkle line, and yet another recipe for their Sazerac ryes.
Bourbon by law has to be 51% corn, and Buffalo Trace (indeed, all the distilleries we spoke to) gets their corn locally. It’s no mystery why Kentucky’s native spirit is a corn-based one, as it grows voraciously in this part of the world and is delivered here daily on 18 wheels, along with Dakota rye and Dakota/Minnasota barley. It is inspected, and if passed, pumped into the milling room where it’s ground via hammer mill into a fine, flour-like powder before entering one of their enormous, 10,000 gallon pressure cookers that rattle the brick walls and sound like a brewing catastrophe.
One of the ways to control the final taste is to monitor exactly how the mill cooks: when to add the corn, barley, and malt. Buffalo Trace pressure cooks the corn separately from the rye, at 240 degrees for about 45 minutes. They’re then combined, and barley is added after it all cools a bit — barley is already malted, so there’s no need to render the sugars quite so violently.
Like all the others, Buffalo Trace is fermented by sour mash process. Some of the old mash (about 2% of the total) is added to the new to catalyze the process of fermentation. They have a proprietary yeast that is made off site, and it takes 66lbs of yeast to complete fermentation in Buffalo Trace’s gargantuan 92,000 gallon stainless steel tanks. There are 12 of these massive things, and they’ll typically fill two/day.
It takes 3 to 5 days for the bubbling mash to reach 9% alcohol. At the distillery, they let you stick your finger in the fermentation tanks and taste the brew, called “distiller’s beer.” We saw different tanks at different stages of the process: sometimes there’s a deep red oil (I assume corn oil) hovering on top that tastes terrible, sometimes it’s wrinkled and teeming and looks like a living cerebral cortex, and sometimes it’s a milder yellow brew that tastes like a sweet corn beer. I’ve never really tasted the corn in bourbon before — it’s definitely there, but not prevalent for me — and it wasn’t until trying this missing link that I really got it.
The distillation room in Buffalo Trace is loud and busy, wires and pipes everywhere, with everything clear made musty opaque with liquor and heat. The mash is pumped into a 40′, 60,000 gallon column still which roars away and drains off a product that’s about 120 proof but yet unfinished. That goes to a pot still which double distills it up to between 130-144 proof.
From 184,000 gallons of mash, distillation yields only 1,800 gallons of product — about 1% — which gets diluted to a maximum of 125 proof (Bourbon Law) and put into barrel.
All bourbon must be aged in charred, new, 53 gallon white oak barrels. The level of char, source of barrels, method of drying wood, and pretty much everything else is up to the individual distillery. Buffalo Trace insists all their barrel staves get air-dried for at least 6 months before giving them an “alligator char,” very heavy, 3.5 or 3.8 out of 4.
The barrels are rolled into the brick aging warehouses, stacked 3 or 6 tall into ricks, and left to contemplate the passage of time. The barrels do not move until it’s time to be bottled. Buffalo Trace has over a dozen different warehouses, each with its own distinct personality. Some have better air flow than others, some concrete floors, some wooden, some 9 stories others 6, etc., as which part of which warehouse each barrel is in will dramatically influence aging and therefore final taste.
What they do all share is steam heating, which is significant for the following reason: Kentucky’s seasons are what hasten bourbon aging. The liquid soaks up into the wood in the warm summer and comes out of the wood in the cold winter, again and again, over and over (or, as we experienced, 80-degree Wednesday and 45-degree Thursday) As it leaves the wood grains, the spirit keeps some of the barrel’s color and flavor as a souvenir, which is essentially the whole significance of aging. Heated warehouses simulate this phenomenon, so in the winter, they oscillate the temperature between 40 and 68, up and down, in and out, creating mini-seasons and making the whiskey mature beyond its years. So by the time Buffalo Trace is bottled, at between just 8 and 11 years old, it’s already taking classes at the local community college.
Touring the warehouses is a quiet experience. All that wood reminds me of an old church, as if the hot, immature spirit goes there for years of silent reflection. There’s something about it: the endless rows of solemn barrels, the darkness, and the still thickness of the air that is, literally and otherwise, intoxicating. Oak is semi-porous, so about 3-5% of the spirit will evaporate out of each barrel every year. This is called the “angel’s share” and it’s like breathing true love.
For their namesake whiskey, they select somewhere between 20 and 120 barrels to blend together to achieve the desired taste. The less excellent barrels will find their way into the less excellent products, and the single barrel selections speak for themselves.
The nicer, single barrel products are hand bottled, and the more mass produced stuff is done by machine. And one last thing: all Buffalo Trace’s whiskey is chill-filtered. In the world of Scotch, these are dirty words, and yet our tour guide said it with a measure of pride. Chill filtering ensures the bourbon doesn’t cloud up in transit or storage, and is purely cosmetic. Purists cry blasphemy, and others just shrug.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t personally tasted a difference in chill-filtering, though I’ve never tasted two otherwise identical whiskies side by side. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t effect the flavor, but that’s just a guess. I can only speak to the finished product, which is fantastic.
It’s hard to say what exactly Buffalo Trace does to produce such a phenomenal product. At Fortaleza in Mexico, the differences were clear as day. Not so here. All Scotch buzzwords are more or less uniformly ignored: high-malt, pot-still, small production, low-proof distillation, chill filtration… it could be that they make more substantial cuts in the distillation, choosing quality over cost. Or maybe their proprietary yeast strain is extra good. I don’t know. Aside from aging their barrel staves (as opposed to kiln-drying them) and that steam-heating business, they seem to do the same shit everyone else does. They just do it better.
I claimed in my Fortaleza post that industrial processes make an inferior product, and I don’t extend that truth to bourbon. This is an example of mass-production done very, very right.
Some products are better than others, but I’d recommend at least trying anything coming out of this distillery. Their portfolio is too broad to go into the specifics of everything, but a couple highlights:
- Buffalo Trace is one of my favorite bourbons, and the price ($25) just makes it even more so. It’s sweet but not too sweet, the predictable caramel and vanilla with corn graininess and fully textured oak, which takes over the finish with a layer of rye. Elegant, powerful, and with complexity that belies its age and price.
- Eagle Rare is a 10-year, single barrel Buffalo Trace, and as it’s single barrel will vary bottle to bottle. I must say though that on the whole, I like it a bit less than the other.
- W.L. Weller 12-year is one of the better wheat bourbons on the market, again for an incredibly low price. A good side-by-side with Buffalo Trace to see how wheated bourbons compare.
- The Antique Collection (Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17, William Larue Weller, George T. Stagg, and Thomas Handy Sazerac) are vintage, put out every fall, rarer than they are expensive, and better than they are both. Excellent whiskeys all, with the Sazerac, Stagg, and Weller frequently cited every year among the world’s best whiskeys.
- The Van Winkle line needs to introduction from me. Wheated bourbons, they are exceptional and extremely rare. Bourbon aficionados look on the Van Winkle products with almost sexual glee, and bourbon message boards will frequently devolve into an orgiastic litany of photographs of Pappy Van Winkle products, with captions like “look what I had last night! :-}}}!!!”