When I left the tasting of Four Roses, succumbing to my “look and leave” instincts, and headed north. Buffalo Trace was not on my list because it was listed in my Bourbon Trail passport, but because all the road signs advertised it as a national historic site. I was not disappointed.
A very large parking lot leads to the visitor’s center.
I walked past a tour gathering just outside the doors and enter the center. The woman inside said that I could simply join the group gathered outside if I wished, free of charge. “There will be complimentary tasting at the end”. What? Free tour and booze?
The guide was explaining some of the history when I joined the group. I really didn’t pay much attention until he pointed out the OFC at the top of the warehouse.
He said that stands for “Only For Catholics”. That caught my attention… The history of the site included a couple of lightning strikes with disastrous results.
We headed down to a small auditorium. Our guide was named Jarrod. If you ever visit and see him leading a tour, just hop in. He’s the best guide I’ve ever seen. He has a very even, knowledgeable, at ease delivery, like he owns the place. Nothing forced at all.
Buffalo Trace is proud to claim their Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon was the first single barrel to market in 1984. It’s from the center of the only metal warehouse on the campus.
All whiskeys come from a combination of the basic ingredients.
Bourbon begins it’s time in the barrel clear and the barrel is pretty full. It takes on some of the darker tones from charred barrel as it begins to evaporate. Most bourbons are bottled after 4-6 years in the barrel and mixed with a large number of barrels to maintain a consistent taste. After 9 years, almost half of what went is is gone. All distilleries call that “angel’s share” but I think it’s the buildings absorbing it, turning the walls black. There’s little left after 18 years, which is why the prices are so high. Most tours say there isn’t much value in aging beyond 23 years. You don’t get much volume and the taste has plateaued.
The barrels are emptied inside the warehouses for the blends and then pumped through the overhead pipes to the bottling area. The sleeving is so they can use steam to control the temperature when it’s cold out. Jarrod said he watched one of the pipes burst and pour bourbon onto the ground for 35 minutes one day before they could get it shut off. Costly and sad.
I learned a bit about barrels. The round plug in the side is where the barrel is filled, and is called a bung. That means I now know where the term “bunghole” comes from! Bourbons MUST use new barrels. Used ones, however, have value. They’re sold to scotch makers in Scotland, and once they’ve aged a batch of scotch, they’re sent to Mexico for tequila. There’s always value in every stage of the process.
I love the musty, damp, warehouses, envisioning where the contents will go to be enjoyed. Jarrod described becoming qualified to be one of the official tasters. He said it took him a year to pass the taste test, and now he’s one of the younger members of the panel. It’s fun until you get called in at 3 AM to taste 70 barrels. And you can’t swallow…
There’s a lot of black magic in the aging process, and all these distilleries try to turn it into science. They want to figure out why this barrel is better than that one. For instance, a storm tore off the roof and part of one wall in the warehouse we toured. The barrels were exposed for a while to the elements, and the results were spectacular. Why? You can see the contrast between the new wall and the original when standing outside. They also experiment with different things, like these barrels of peated malt, which is essentially trying to make a single malt scotch outside of Scotland.
We toured the line where Blanton’s is bottled. I was in heaven…
We headed into the welcome center for our tasting. The second floor was set up like a bar.
Every 1,000,000 barrels is a pretty big deal. By 1983 they had filled 5 million. It took over twenty years to get to 6 million. Crazy. But now, they’re doing pretty well, scheduling to make 500,000 a year.
We were offered generous pours of two choices of four different bourbons, plus a bourbon cream (think Bailey’s). I didn’t know that those products had a two year shelf life and six months life in the fridge. Root beer and bourbon cream was a special treat, as was the bourbon chocolates. Buffalo Trace was quite generous.
I quite enjoyed the tour. I highly recommend it. I’ve talked to a few colleagues who sing the praises of this particular distillery. Don’t miss it.
I want to go back for their “hard hat tour”.
I found an interesting article about some long lost history found at Buffalo Trace. Just be sure to come back here for more;-)
Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace
Frankfort, KY 40601