Making The Bourbon Pilgrimage

Well before the now long-standing hype surrounding scarcity-managed bourbon brands, Buffalo Trace has been a distillery enjoying (and deserving of) legendary status. The campus outside Frankfort, Kentucky is where some of the most sought-after whiskies in the world are made, including what is perhaps the world's most revered, hyped, and marked-up bourbon label, Pappy Van Winkle. It's also the place of origin for other bourbon hunter targets like Eagle Rare, Blanton's, Stagg, EH Taylor, Elmer T Lee and more. But it's also home to working-class bottlings like Ancient Age and Benchmark No. 8, which retail for about $13 per 750ml bottle.

Last week I had the chance to tour this hallowed place, which was busy with visitors and production activity while at the same time feeling unhurried. The grounds outside the production and aging facilities is lush, pretty, and historical. The distillery has been around for over 200 years, expanded upon over time, though not necessarily modernized a whole lot. Our tour guide was a college student who struck a perfect balance - relaxed, informative, entertaining, hospitable, and fun in a low-key way. He brought to life characters whose names adorn many of the labels here, and put them in the context of the nation's history. 

It was fascinating, for example, to hear how Colonel EH Taylor and Elmer T Lee came to be business partners - and bitter rivals. As important to the experience, however, was the welcoming openness here. Whereas we had a sterile, contrivance of a tour at Woodford Reserve the day prior where visitors were constantly told of where not go, what not to do, Buffalo Trace was a relaxed walk through the heart of their production lines. As our guide said, "Most of these buildings are steam-heated, so try not to touch anything that looks hot. Other than that, let's have some fun - take pictures of anything you want and ask anything you want."

Along the way we watched a semi truck full of virgin barrels being unloaded into the branding building where each barrel is marked with a fill date and which mash bill is in it. We walked through a century-old haunted rick house with an overpowering (and delicious) aroma of angel's share where barrels age up to 23 years. The building where barrels are opened and dumped was cool as hell. The whiskey empties into a stainless steel canal that pipes into another building where it's proofed down to bottling strength, blended, and goes on to the bottling lines. Finally, we popped into the quaint Blanton's bottling hall where people seated at tables hand write on the labels and bottle probably much in the same way as it was done a hundred years ago.

Along the way we learned more than is practical to write about, because if you haven't got the message yet, you need to go for yourself. That said, the most surprising fact we learned is that the 17 brands bottled at Buffalo Trace come from just 4 mash bills, or grain recipes. More on this below, but it's a little mind-blowing to think that the stuff that goes into the barrel for Ancient Age is the same as for Blanton's. And Eagle Rare as for Benchmark. The same goes for Weller and Pappy. What determines which barrels become which bourbons are time in barrel, location in the rick house, and, ultimately, the master blender's tastings. 

The tour ends with a tasting in a classroom-like setting on the beautiful second floor of the visitor center. The house vodka (Wheatly) is lined up next to Buffalo Trace, Weller Reserve, EH Taylor, Bourbon Cream, and root beer. 

The tours here are free and fill up quickly, so advance reservations are a must. I'd advise booking a morning slot, if possible. Once on site, hit the gift shop first, as the rare bottlings often sell out early. Highly recommended.