Spend just a little time wandering around the 400-acre Buffalo Trace distillery, located along a stretch of the Kentucky River in Franklin County, and it becomes apparent that you’re never too far removed from the ghosts of bourbon distillers like E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg and Elmer T. Lee.
After all, it was under the watchful eye of those pioneers and a who’s-who of other Kentucky bourbon legends, that spirits first dripped from the stills on this site more than 200 years ago.
“When I started with the company in 1995, we filled 12,000 barrels a year,” Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley says. “Today the growth seems moderate, but when you think about how far we’ve come, it’s actually phenomenal, considering we’re on track to produce 200,000 barrels this year.”
Starting operation in the late 1700s, Buffalo Trace, owned by Sazerac Co., Inc., remains the oldest continuously-operating distillery in the country. Even during Prohibition, when the practice was outlawed, the distillery was permitted to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”
Its name and operators have changed through the years, beginning its life as O.F.C Distillery, then the George T. Stagg Distillery, and now Buffalo Trace — named for the buffalo migration pathway that crossed the nearby river. More than 100 buildings now sit on the distillery property, most just a stone’s throw from the water source that has played a vital role in the process for generations.
“Most distilleries are located along or near some kind of water source, Buffalo Trace in- cluded,” Wheatley says. “When distilling first started on this site, back in 1787, the location along the Kentucky River was the primary reason. Supplies were shipped down the river to make the bourbon. Once aged, the finished bourbon was sent down river in barrels to New Orleans; and yes, that is where Bourbon Street got its name. ”
Wheatley began his chapter in the Buffalo Trace story nearly 24 years ago. He started
as a supervisor and then distillery manager before being named in 2005 as Buffalo Trace’s sixth master distiller since the Civil War. As a result, he’s worked in every aspect of production, from raw materials to barrel aging. His evolving career is fitting because the 49-year- old is steeped in Kentucky bluegrass.
“Growing up, there were only basic choices for bourbon whiskey,” Wheatley says. “I knew of the industry, but it was very different at that time. The industry was known as an industry that once was. I was always fascinated by the history — which is what drew me to it, along with wanting to work and live in Kentucky with my family.”
A typical day could find him driving initiatives like solidifying standards and finding ways to maintain consistency, to focusing on quality and investigating efficiency gains. It could also find him in one of the many warehouses that dot the property, keeping a watchful eye on the whiskey at rest, and specifically, what it’s resting in. As it ages and gives up a percentage to the angel’s share, the bourbon picks up caramels, wood sugars, color and tannins from the barrels.
“The barrels are probably the most important part [of the process],” Wheatley says. “They are responsible for about one percent of the contents of the final product, however probably 50 percent of the flavor. From the age of the wood, the char, the aging location, the time — they’re all factors on the final product.”
Buffalo Trace gets its barrels from several off-site suppliers, but they hold those suppliers to incredibly exacting standards. “From our grain to our barrels, we have the tightest specs in the business with no exceptions,” he says. The bourbon starts with local grains — corn, rye and malted barley — which is milled into a meal and dropped into meal cookers. It’s fermented for 3-5 days and then double-distilled, (“The second distillation ensures the product is clean and consistent from batch to batch,”) he says and then aged for eight years.
“We have always felt this age delivers the best balance of age and grain to our recipe for bourbon.”
The goal: a sweet, smooth, slightly-spicy bourbon. And while much of the distillation involves standardized, time-honored processes, there is new technology involved in an ongoing expansion at the distillery. There are 21 warehouses currently on-site, with a new one planned to come on-line every four months.
“The new warehouses we are building are heated — the only distillery that does this — but we’re using more modern technology,” Wheatley says. “Instead of using steam heat, as E. H. Taylor, Jr. did in the late 1800s when he originally built them, we are using a type of energy-efficient radiant heating system. There are many other examples of us using modern technology but in a historical setting.”
The location of each barrel of bourbon can play a major role in the final product, according to Wheatley. Buffalo Trace produces a variety of bourbons, and each floor in the warehouse plays an important role in the final results.
Among the spirits produced at Buffalo Trace:
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: A deep amber whiskey with complex aromas of vanilla, mint and molasses. Pleasantly sweet with notes of brown sugar and spice that give way to oak, toffee, dark fruit and anise.
Eagle Rare: Aged for at least 10 years, the nose is complex with aromas of toffee, hints of orange peel, herbs, honey, leather and oak, with flavors of candied almonds and rich cocoa.
Stagg Jr.: Named for George T. Stagg, who built the most dominant American distillery of the 19th century, it is uncut and unfiltered with chocolate and brown sugar flavors and a long finish that lingers with hints of cherries, cloves and smokiness.
Sazerac Rye: This rye symbolizes the tradition and history of New Orleans, with aromas of clove, anise and pepper and a big finish with hints of licorice.
E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch: Tastes of caramel corn sweetness with butterscotch and licorice. The aftertaste is a soft mouth- feel that turns to subtle spices of pepper and tobacco. Also in the E.H. Taylor collection, are the E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey and the E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Whiskey.
Add-in other Buffalo Trace offerings such as Blanton’s Single Barrel, the Experimental Collection, Bourbon Cream, White Dog Whiskey, and Wheatley — a vodka created by and named for the master distiller — and the rare and extremely sought-after Pappy Van Winkle line, and Wheatley has his pick of nightcap options.
At the end of the day, however, it’s about quality and simplicity.
“For me, it’s a nice cocktail made with Buffalo Trace,” Wheatley says. “That’s my drink of choice. I appreciate everything that goes into making it and all those that are responsible. When I take a sip, no matter where I am in the world, it is like being at home. There’s no better place for me than on a boat relaxing with a Manhattan made with Buffalo Trace.”