Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Buffalo Trace Distillery: A Taste of History

How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon -- and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter.
--W.C. Fields

Van Winkle, Elmer T. Lee, Blanton's, Eagle Rare and more. These are all excellent bourbons that happen to be produced by the same distillery, Buffalo Trace. So when deciding on which distilleries to visit while I was in Kentucky, Buffalo Trace was at one of those at the top of my list. The distillery runs several different types of tours, from spooky ghost tours to the more architectural driven post-Prohibition tours, and I ended up taking their hard hat tour, which is more of a behind the scenes look at the distillery.

The Buffalo Trace Distillery sprawls across approximately 119 acres, with about 114 buildings. As soon as I stepped upon the premises, I was struck by the strong smell that permeated the air around the distillery. It was a dominant yeasty smell, actually a pleasant aroma, almost like a massive bakery was on the premises. I later learned it was from grains which were being dried. They dry out old mash and then sell it to farmers as "distiller's grain," which often ends up being fed to animals.

The land upon which the distillery lays once had many paths, called traces, for great herds of buffalo. One such path was known as the Great Buffalo Trace and led to the nearby Kentucky River. This was the origin of the distillery's current name, an homage to the history of this region. The first settlers were established in this area around 1775 and within 25 years there would be a thriving community.

The first known distillery in this area was established in 1787, so a distillery has been at this location for about 225 years. It would not be until 1857 that the first modern distillery was constructed here, and it used steam power, a significant technological advance at the time. It was later purchased by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr., a famous historic figure in the bourbon world, who continued to add innovations to the distillery.

During Prohibition, the distillery was extremely fortunate to obtain one of only four legal permits, allowing them to continue to distill alcohol, yet only for medicinal purposes. Distilleries which lacked such a permit had to send their barrels to the distilleries that did possess them. Doctors could prescribe a person a pint of bourbon every ten days and this led to more than 6 million prescriptions in Kentucky alone. Sure seems like Prohibition caused many, many people to be ill and require some medicinal alcohol. Or at least it caused many people to claim to be ill.

After the repeal of Prohibition, Albert Blanton took over the operation of the distillery, continuing to improve its production, and he is commemorated with a statue on the distillery grounds. In 1992, the distillery was purchased by the Sazerac Company, and in 1999 they renamed it Buffalo Trace, also starting to produce Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

The current Master Distiller is Harlen Davis Wheatley, who has occupied that position since 2005, though he has worked for the distillery since 1995. Buffalo Trace now produces 14 different brands, including Van Winkle, Old Charter, W.L. Weller, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Benchmark, Eagle Rare, Blanton's. Hancock's Reserve and Ancient Age. These bourbons are generally aged from 4-23 years.

Our hard hat tour was led by Fred, who did a great job explaining about the distillery, from its history to the details of the distillation process. The distillery was still operating during my visit, and they would not stop distilling until June, restarting operations after Labor Day. About 350 permanent employees work at the distillery, which generally is operational each day from 6am-10pm.

Buffalo Trace uses distillers grade corn from Kentucky and Indiana, and does not use any GMO corn. Their basic mashbill has 70%-80% corn, and of their fourteen brands, 12 are rye dominant while the other two are wheat dominant. The same mashbill can lead to different tasting bourbons, such as Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare which both are small batch that use the same mashbill. Blanton's, which is 6-7 years old, and Elmer T. Lee, which is 10 years old, are both single barrel, using the same mashbill.

This cleverly designed mural is on the outside of one of the buildings, and it is interesting as it appears to move with you as you walk by it.

They have three stills, two of which are four stories high and located in the same building.

One of their buildings, three stories high, contains 10 large fermentation vats and they can ferment about 180,000 gallons per day.

Most of their equipment is geared to large scale production, thousands of gallons at a time. This allows them to produce sufficient product for 14 different brands.

They buy their yeast from Fermentis, based on their own formula, and they use that same yeast for all of their brands. They keep some of their yeast strain in five separate places so that it will never be lost.

We walked through the mash fermenter room, seeing lots of large tanks containing the mash, the bubbles in the mash caused by carbon dioxide. There is a "No Swimming" warning here, which could actually be a hazardous activity. They allowed us to taste some of the mash, which generally was very sweet.

I find it fascinating that Buffalo Trace has a special experimental program, where they produce small batches of bourbon, trying to alter all sorts of aspects of the production, testing various factors. The program began in 1989 and have tested items such as aging bourbon in fine grain, coarse grain, double barrels, with oak chips, French oak, and finished in barrels that once held Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. There are about 1000 barrels of bourbon currently in the program and some will eventually get released in the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection label. Twenty products have so far been released under this label.

Since 2007, their experiments have been produced in a special micro-distillery, pictured above. This is a combination pot still/column still and can produce 1-10 barrels of bourbon, as opposed to previously when they had to make a minimum batch of 70 barrels. This allows them to conduct more experiments, and it is much more cost effective than producing the far larger amount. Innovation and experimentation are very important so Buffalo Trace deserves kudos for their program.

The distillery owns 12 warehouses, where approximately 320,000 barrels of bourbon are aging. We spent some time in Warehouse "C," which was originally constructed by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. in 1881. It holds about 24,000 barrels, separated by recipe and not brand, and the floorboards are still original. The walls are separated from the ricks so if the wall happens to collapse for any reason, the barrels will be fine. This has been beneficial when a terrible storm damaged the warehouse, yet the ricks remained secure.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. once produced a bourbon named "Old Taylor" and in November 2009, Buffalo Trace decided to replicate this historical bourbon. They used the original recipe and it is currently aging in one of their warehouses. There is not a planned release date yet, as they will conduct periodic taste tests to determine when it is ready for release.

After the tour, we finished with a tasting of four of their products. First, was the Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is about 8-9 years old and 90 proof. I found it to be smooth, with plenty of spice notes, vanilla, mild caramel and hints of sweetness. Good for drinking on its own, or mixed in a cocktail. And at around $25, it is a good value too.

The Eagle Rare Single Barrel is about 10 years old and 90 proof. It was also silky smooth but spicier than the Buffalo Trace. Its flavors were more complex, a melange of caramel, almonds, honey, vanilla, and dried fruits. A lengthy and pleasing finish really satisfied my palate. It costs around $30 and it too is a very good value. This is definitely a bourbon I would prefer drinking neat, though it can enhance a cocktail as well.

One of the surprises of the tasting was the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream Liqueur. It resembles Bailey's Irish Cream, but I much prefer the Buffalo Trace. It is made with real cream and has a rich, creamy and sweet taste, just pure hedonistic pleasure. I even tried some mixed with some root beer, which was kind of like a float without the ice cream. Unfortunately, it is currently not sold outside of Kentucky, though I did buy a couple bottles while I was there.

A bourbon distillery making vodka? Yes, that seemed strange to me as well but Buffalo Trace seemed to think it worked well together. Their Rain Vodka is certified organic and is produced from 100% organic white corn. The use of corn does provide a link to their bourbon. They have a dedicated vodka still and this vodka is distilled seven times. It actually had an interesting taste, with a bit of sweetness, and was fairly smooth, enough that you probably could drink this alone on ice. I was not expecting it to taste as good as it did, and it is worthy of a recommendation.

They are working on another vodka, which they will name HDW CLIX. The HDW are the initials of their Master Distiller, Harlen Davis Wheatley. The CLIX is the Roman numeral for 159, which will be the number of times that the vodka is distilled. That is an incredible amount of distillations though I am not sure that many is really necessary or will accomplish anything. At some point, multiple distillations probably won't produce any noticeable changes. But I am intrigued to see the final product.

Buffalo Trace Distillery is a fascinating place and if you are in the area then you definitely should take one of their tours. The distillery has a firm foot in its historical past yet its other foot is firmly in the future, devoted to innovation and experimentation. They produce plenty of excellent bourbons and you should explore the various brands that they make, enjoying the diversity of flavor profiles.

1 comment:

Jason Phelps said...

Can't go wrong with some Eagle Rare or Van Winkle so long as you are ready to plunk down some dough. My bottle of Eagle Rate from a barrel the folks at Brix in Boston bought has been long empty. I might need to remedy that!