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Bourbon is Booming at Buffalo Trace
I was both surprised and delighted when I received an email from Buffalo Trace's head of media inquiries, Amy Preske, inviting me up to the distillery for a visit. As I told Amy, I never need much persuading when it comes to visiting one of Kentucky's bourbon making facilities; there's just something about the unique atmosphere of a distillery that never gets old for me. I was also intrigued at the prospect of taking a look at their new Warehouse X experimental aging unit.
We agreed on a date for the visit and I sat out for Frankfort on a beautiful Kentucky day.
Our fist stop was the regauge room where bourbon gets dumped out of the barrels it's been quietly aging in for several seasons. The wonderful aroma of the newly freed bourbon was a great way to start the tour, and not a bad way to start the day. The next stop for the bourbon would be the bottling room before being shipped out to bourbon lovers around the world.
Then, Amy took me up a steep and winding hill to the newly stocked Warehouse X.
Buffalo Trace - Frankfort, KY
Master distiller Harlen Wheatley is one of a new breed of bourbon makers who are constantly looking for that next big bourbon flavor profile. His search has manifested itself, in part, in a very small and very expensive facility known as Warehouse X.
The story behind the experimental building is as interesting as the unique methods of production going on inside. A while back, a tornado ripped a section off of one of the distillery's brick warehouses, exposing some barrels of aging bourbon to the elements. When it came to sample the bourbon before bottling, Wheatley realized they had a uniquely flavored bourbon that had been influenced by exposure to the sun and changing temperatures. Not missing an opportunity, it was decided a special "Tornado" bourbon would be released, and it became an instant hit among bourbon aficionados. Since Wheatley wanted to delve further into aging bourbon with differing exposures to light, temperature and humidity; Warehouse X was born.
The Experimental Process
The five chambers of Warehouse X each have different climactic characteristics. Four of the chambers have controlled levels of light, humidity and temperature while the barrels aging in the breezeway section are basically in an open air environment. Some of the barrels in each chamber have sensors that lead to the main control panel that displays what's going on with the bourbon inside. A far cry from the early days of making bourbon.
There's not a definite timetable for bottling the bourbon that's currently aging. Wheatley will do several taste tests to determine when the time is right to bottle what will surely be some very special releases.
I took a moment to stand just outside the breezeway of the warehouse to soak in the view of much of the distillery grounds below us. I couldn't help but think about how far bourbon has come from its modest origins, and where it might be just a few years down the road.
The incredibly popular Pappy Van Winkle line of bourbon is a big part of Buffalo Trace's portfolio of premium spirits. The theft of several cases of Pappy from a distillery storage facility is still under investigation. The many fans of Pappy Van Winkle hope the perpetrators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and then some.
Other premium bourbons in the distillery's lineup include the namesake Buffalo Trace, Old Charter 8 year old, the 10 year old Eagle Rare, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg, Stagg Jr. and multiple releases of W.L. Weller. Buffalo Trace also produces the award winning Sazerac and Thomas Handy rye whiskeys.
The Single Oak Project
The Single Oak Project
I can honestly say I was floored by the level of complexity involved in the Single Oak Project. American white oak trees are carefully monitored and selected for their outstanding wood grain characteristics. The top and bottom sections of the chosen trees are each used to make the staves for two barrels.
The assembled barrels for the project are charred at different intensity levels and whiskey is added to groups of barrels from varying recipes and proof levels. It's all part of the distillery's forward thinking philosophy of finding a truly unique and enjoyable bourbon experience.
As it turns out, the Single Oak Project was inspired by Buffalo Trace's longtime employee, Ronnie Eddins. Having worked his way into the critical position of warehouse manager, Eddins began his own experimental batches of bourbon that concentrated on the wood quality of the aging barrels which led to his hands on selection trees in the Ozarks that would become barrels. His favorite Warehouse I has been dedicated to his memory.
I was taken aback once again when Amy told me the distillery had over two thousand experimental bourbon processes presently underway. The industry has truly come a long way since the stagnant days of the nineties when new bourbon releases were few and far between. Buffalo Trace and the Kentucky bourbon industry continue to be an American success story.
Aging Quietly (Experimental Bourbon)
The Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
There's a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the history of Buffalo Trace told by those who are part of the distillery's story. The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries, has archived an expansive collection of video interviews with several distillery luminaries. Oral presentations of people like legendary master distiller Elmer T. Lee, Harlen Wheatly, Ronnie Eddins, Leonard Riddle and many others can be accessed at nunncenter.org.
There are also numerous references to Buffalo Trace's history all over the distillery grounds. The name itself derives from the ancient migratory trail used by American Bison. There are also references to the distillery's forefathers. E.H. Taylor Jr. purchased the small distillery that was on the property back in 1870 and named it O.F.C. the initials of Old Fire Copper. Old Fire Copper referenced Taylor's belief that the best bourbon was produced in old fashioned copper pot stills. In 1872, Taylor built a larger distillery on the same property that would eventually be purchased by George T. Stagg.
During Stagg's ownership, the Warehouse A and B were built in 1881 and are still used today. In 1882, a fire destroys O.F.C., but a new and more elaborate distillery is soon built. In 1886, steam heat is added to the aging warehouses, and it's still in use today.
Needless to say, if you're looking for a unique experience that's part history, part American ingenuity and part fun, make your way to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY. Buffalo Trace offers various free tours; yes, I said free. Check their website for tour schedules, directions and information.
It's all good in bourbon land.
In the fall of 2014, Sazerac Company, Buffalo Trace's parent, was named Distiller of the Year in London by the International Wine and Spirits Competition at its annual awards ceremony. In addition, the influential Jim Murray lauded William Larue Weller as the "Second Finest Whisky in the World, and Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye the "Third Finest Whisky in the World." Both are produced by Buffalo Trace.