Without doubt one of the world’s most important distilleries, Kentucky based Bourbon makers Buffalo Trace have scaled to heights never previously seen in the whiskey business.
Distilling began on this site prior to the existence of the United States as an independent nation, with the first liquor running in 1775. Buffalo Trace and Burk’s Distillery (home of Maker’s Mark) now contend for the title of oldest continuously operating distillery. The initial operation was run by Hancock Lee – an early settler to the area who gave the town its first name: Leestown. At the time Kentucky was largely unsettled by Europeans, though stories were beginning to spread of its fertile, verdant land. Daniel Boone, American hunter, pioneer and explorer, passed through the area following a “buffalo trace” in 1771.
Following America’s independence from Britain, Kentucky became the 15th state in the Union, and its population grew. In 1792, Commodore Richard Taylor constructed “the Old Taylor House”, a small stone building which remains on the site to this day. A proper distillery was built at the location in 1812, with a three story warehouse storing many goods, including barrels of Bourbon that were shipped as far as New Orleans. The name of this early distiller, Harrison Blanton, is worth remembering. The location was ideal for distillation, with a ready supply of fresh water from the nearby Kentucky River and its tributaries (which also allowed for easy shipping) and fertile land, perfect for the cultivation of corn, surrounding the site.
In 1858, Daniel Swigert developed a small distillery, using the latest techniques and technologies, whilst also utilising the existing warehouse and riverside facilities for storage and shipping.
Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Junior (E.H. Taylor – another name worth remembering – and said to be descended from two US Presidents) purchased the distillery and renamed it Old Fire Copper (or O.F.C.), a reference to the direct fired copper pot stills he used to make his whiskey, in 1870. Taylor was of the firm opinion that the best whiskey is produced by old fashioned Scotch style stills. The Colonel invested $70,000 into the distillery – equivalent to $1.4m in 2020 dollars. Taylor was also instrumental in pushing for the Bottled-in-Bond act of 1897, which pretty much saved the reputation of American whiskey. He is now known as one of the fathers of the American whiskey industry.
In 1878, George T. Stagg bought the distillery. Stagg had previously worked for Taylor as a whiskey salesman, and worked with him to fine tune the distillery prior to purchase. Taylor continued to oversee production, whilst Stagg worked on expanding the distillery’s markets.
Two more warehouses were added in 1881, known today as Warehouse A and B. Just one year later, calamity, and lightening, struck, causing a disastrous fire which burnt some of the distillery’s facilities to the ground. Nevertheless, the O.F.C. distillery was rebuilt, in a yet more grand and impressive style, costing Stagg and Taylor another $44,000. This new rebuild included a larger fermentation wing that remains in use at the distillery. In 1885, the owners followed this investment with the construction of another warehouse, Warehouse C, which is still standing. With this final piece of the puzzle, Taylor’s vision of “Model Distillery Plant of the World” had been realised.
The distillery continued to innovate, being the first in the world to install steam heating of their warehouses in 1886. This move allowed them to manipulate the climate and therefore the maturation of aging stock.
Another Blanton, Albert B., joined the business in 1897 at the age of 16, initially working in the offices. Blanton had grown up on a farm that lay adjacent to the distillery, and made it his mission to work in every department of the distillery’s business. Blanton was so immediately successful that by the time he was 20 he had been appointed as superintendent of the distilling operation, the warehouses and the bottling facility.
In 1904, the distillery was renamed George T. Stagg Distillery, a title it maintained for nearly 100 years.
During Prohibition, Albert Blanton skilfully avoided a hit to production by acquiring a licence for the distillery to continue producing for “Medical Purposes”. Eager drinkers would travel across state lines to acquire a prescription from Kentucky doctors. In 1929, the Schenley Distillers Corporation purchased George T Stagg. At the end of Prohibition in 1933, George T Stagg was one of only four distilleries in Kentucky capable of whiskey distillation. Schenley take advantage of their privileged position by investing heavily in the distillery, constructing several huge new warehouses, including Warehouse H, which was clad in metal.
In 1937, a large flood overwhelmed the distillery, peaking at 17 feet over the distillery’s power point. The distillery recovered, and produced its millionth post-Prohibition barrel in 1942.
Another great name in the distillery’s history, Elmer T. Lee, joined the business in 1949. Lee had worked as a radar engineer during the Second World War, and came home to Kentucky where he earned a degree in engineering from the University of Kentucky. He turned up to interview at George T Stagg in 1949, where he was turned down by Blanton with the words “Son, we’re not hiring any hands today”. Lee decided to turn up the following week anyway, and swiftly rose in the company to become Plant Engineer, then Superintendent and finally Plant Manager and Master Distiller.
In 1984, Lee introduced Blanton’s, the first single barrel Bourbon range in the industry, named in honour of the man who had initially rejected him. Eight years later, the Sazerac company, a traditional family owned business named after the coffee house in New Orleans, purchased the distillery.
On the eve of the millennium, Sazerac renamed the distillery Buffalo Trace, after the migration path that first brought settlers to the region. A year later the distillery picked it up its first Distillery of the Year award from Whisky Advocate. It was the first American distillery to win this award. At this time, the distillery’s flagship standard bottling, Buffalo Trace Straight Whisky, was launched.
In 2002, Buffalo Trace launched a range of barrel proof, often well aged, bottlings, known as the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Alongside the Pappy Van Winkle bottlings, which are also produced by the distillery, BTAC are the most sought after and eagerly awaited releases of the Bourbon calendar – hitting the shelves every autumn. The range includes Thomas H. Handy – a barrel proof rye; Sazerac 18; Eagle Rare 17; William Larue Weller – a well aged wheated Bourbon and George T Stagg – a powerful, well aged traditional Bourbon, made with a low rye mashbill. Each of these bottles have picked up a considerable number of awards, year after year.
Harlen Wheatley, an excellent name for a distiller, became Master Distiller in 2005, and the distillery produced its six millionth post-prohibition barrel three years later. A decade after Wheatley’s appointment, the distillery expanded to over 400 acres.
Beyond this range, the distillery produces a dizzying array of Bourbons, including the E.H. Taylor Collection, younger versions of the BTAC’s Stagg and Sazerac whiskies (known as Baby Saz and Stagg Jnr.), the Blanton’s series, Elmer T Lee, OFC and many more.
Buffalo Trace uses four major mashbills, the exact recipes of which remain a secret. The mashbills are: #1 (low rye Bourbon – used for the majority of the distillery’s classic bottlings), #2 (high rye Bourbon), a wheated mash, and a rye mash. Mashing occurs in a large pressured cooker at 115Cº. Following mashing, fermentation is performed in Buffalo Trace’s 12 fermenters, which are the largest whiskey washbacks found anywhere in the world. Each fermenter can contain 92,000 gallons (nearly 350,000 litres). Buffalo Trace uses a traditional sour mash process.
Beer distillation occurs in an incredibly tall column still, over four storeys tall (we say over as each of the storeys of the stillhouse are much greater than the standard). Spirit is then distilled again in a large Doubler. New make spirit, or “white dog” weighs in at 74% ABV.
Buffalo Trace whiskies are aged for a minimum of 6 or 7 years. In practice, many are aged for much longer than this, particularly those destined for the Pappy Van Winkle or BTAC ranges. The spirit is matured in new American oak barrels, provided by the Independent Stave Company largely harvested from Missouri oak forests.
In 2013, Buffalo Trace opened Warehouse X. This is an experimental aging facility that attempts to discern the effects of different variables (such as light, the part of the three from which the oak comes, humidity and temperature) of the maturation process. These whiskies are bottled under the “Single Oak Project” brand name. This experiment, by far the most extensive of its kind, illustrates that even after two centuries, Buffalo Trace is as committed to innovation as ever.
The premiere Bourbon distillery of its age, Buffalo Trace is responsible for some of the finest American whiskies ever produced.