The final stop on my trip back from the Greenbrier, earlier this month, was a visit to what I now know to be the legendary Buffalo Trace distillery, where they create some of the finest Kentucky Bourbons on the market.
Buffalo Trace is a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It's being marketed to tourists and Bourbon lovers as a destination, and there are folks who even buy the "passport", make a trip of it and try to visit as many of the eight distilleries that ring the area around Frankfort as they can.
In keeping with this attempt to make this whole thing more marketable and accessible for tourists, I found the area to be well-marked, with street signs indicating where to turn once I got off the main highway, so finding the place was fairly easy. I pulled off into what appeared to be a large estate, and the drive wound around past some very well-kept gardens until I pulled into what was obviously the working distillery and tour zone.
As soon as I stepped out of my car, I was smacked in the face with the smell of bourbon. The distillery's parking lot sits right next to one of the large barrel aging warehouses, and the grainy, caramelly, woody smell seems to hang in the air around the compound of more than 100 buildings that make up the distillery. This smell, along with the fact that the 55 gallon barrels can yield as little as 5 gallons of finished product, have given rise to the term "angels' share" to refer to the huge quantity of the tasty brown liquor that evaporates into the Kentucky air as the environment and its temperature fluctuations work their magic and turn grain spirits into fine Kentucky bourbon.
I did what they refer to on their website as the "hard hat tour", which took me, according to their literature, "behind the scenes of the bourbon making process where the magic happens". As part of a small group of four guys, the tour guide walked us through the entire brewing/distilling/aging process from where the grain gets trucked in, right through to where the pure spirits go into the barrel to age.
The mash is then cooled, yeast is added, and it's allowed to ferment in huge vats. The mash is constantly bubbling furiously and an oily, bubbly scum forms along the top. It smells like beer.
Buffalo Trace is really a pretty amazing place. The name refers to the fact that buffalo herds used to cross the Kentucky river at this particular spot, and is the owners' way of paying tribute to the "mighty herds that carved paths in the wilderness and a destiny for our ancestors."
The site was first settled in 1775 by brothers Hancock and Wills Lee, and was originally called Leestown. The story goes that the region's fine limestone-filtered water and burgeoning grain farmers made it an ideal place for a distillery, and, perhaps due to those circumstances, there has been a working distillery on the site since 1787.
It's gone through a lot, though. It was known as Blanton in the early 1800's, then was purchased by George T. Stagg in the 1870's and rechristened O.F.C. distillery. It eventually came to be known as the George T. Stagg distillery, which is what it's called on the National Registry of Historic Places.
During prohibition, George T. Stagg distillery was one of only four distilleries in the country to be granted a permit to continue producing alcohol for "medicinal purposes". People could get a prescription from their doctor to purchase whiskey, and some 5 million people got in on the act, purchasing the quart maximum that they were permitted every 10 days.
In 1992, it was sold to the New Orleans-based Sazerac company, which gave the distillery its current name and, in 1999, started marketing bourbon under the Buffalo Trace (which is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon) brand name.
Which brings us to some of the rules and nomenclature associated with bourbon. The label "bourbon" is a federally-protected descriptor. In 1964, the US Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a "distinctive product of the United States." The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5) state that bourbon must meet these requirements:
- Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
- Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
- Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
- Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
- Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
- If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
So, for example, Jack Daniels, is categorized as Tennessee whiskey, and cannot, by law, be called bourbon.
Now that the term "bourbon" has been fully explained, we can tackle the concept of "single barrel".
Basically, as bourbons go, the less expensive commercially-produced brands like Jim Beam or Maker's Mark, while they are legitimately called Kentucky Straight Bourbon, they are not "single barrel" bourbons. These brands consist of the contents of hundreds of barrels--some may be ten or twelve years old, others as young as two--which are then combined (don't say "blended"--I learned the hard way) so that a consistent color and flavor profile is achieved.
Which is fine. There's a certain consistency and appeal to these products, and the price is right. Buffalo Trace's eponymous brand falls into this category.
But the real draw here is the single barrel stuff. In 1984, the world’s first single barrel bourbon to be marketed commercially was released under the label, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, named after Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who dedicated his life to preserving the tradition of handcrafted small-batch produced bourbon amidst a quickly-modernizing industry.
Buffalo Trace makes and markets its own brand of single barrel, Eagle Rare, which is available as a 10 year-old single barrel at 90 proof and a 17 year-old "antique collection" offering.
But what I found really cool is the fact that Buffalo Trace produces and ages a number of other brands, each to the specifications of their master distiller, each with a different personality and flavor profile; Blanton's is a great brand with a number of different offerings, Elmer T. Lee is named after Buffalo Trace's distiller emeritus, and is bottled when he decides the time is right, and Rock Hill Farms is much prized, but difficult to find. There are others.
These distillers get first crack at the prime aging spots. Experts claim that specific floors within specific aging warehouses are superior; they offer the best temperature fluctuations between Kentucky's hot, humid summers, and cool, foggy winters, and that these severe temperature changes are what gives the contents of the barrel its distinctive mellowness and flavor notes. According to their website, "the fourth and fifth floors of Warehouse C and the fourth through sixth floors of Warehouses I and K produce our absolute best whiskey." Who knew?
Other products produced at Buffalo Trace include Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, which is a wheated bourbon, has been rated the number one bourbon whiskey in the world and goes for around $250/bottle, and Sazerac Rye (rye whiskey is a smoother, yet spicier version of bourbon) are also made at the distillery. Rain vodka (the only vodka made exclusively from organically-grown American grain) is also produced at BT.
Bourbon is a distinctly American product which, despite achieving some degree of notoriety in recent years, hasn't even begun to approach the prestige level that Scotch whiskey has enjoyed forever. Until I went and immersed myself in the history of this fine amber sipping liquor, I was sorely ignorant of the amazing tradition, incredible standards, and great variety that Bourbon offers to those who are inclined to delve deeply into the genre and start learning and drinking. There's simply a ton to know, and there are lots of great resources out there.
And, amazingly, the center of the bourbon universe is a short 5-6 hour drive south of Chicago, tucked away in the country between Lexington and Frankfort, Kentucky, just waiting for city dwellers like me to discover, which, in my mind, is a pretty good excuse for a road trip.