CocktailWonk Rating: 8/10 (Hard Hat Tour – free)
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Buffalo Trace Distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
Located on the banks of the Kentucky River on the outskirts of Frankfort, the Buffalo Trace distillery is the birthplace of numerous beloved bourbon and rye brands, including of course Buffalo Trace. But check out some of the other brands beloved brands distilled there:
- Colonel E.H. Taylor
- Elmer T. Lee
- George T. Stagg
- (Pappy) Van Winkle
- W.L. Weller
Surprisingly, Sazerac also produces vodka, but let’s just pretend I didn’t mention that.
The distillery claims to be the oldest continuously operating bourbon distillery in the world, dating back to the early 1800s. It remained open during prohibition as it was one of handful of distilleries allowed to continue operating to make whiskey for “medicinal” purposes. The Buffalo Trace moniker is relatively new, having been rechristened as part of a branding refocus, and to pay homage to a buffalo crossing near the distillery. Previously it’s been known as O.F.C (Old Fire Copper) and the George T. Stagg Distillery—less poetic imagery there, for sure, history be damned. In 1992, the Sazerac Company purchased the operation, and after a substantial renovation, renamed it Buffalo Trace in 1999. The Sazerac Company also owns the Barton 1792 Distillery about an hour way in Bardstown, which we visited last year.
The immediate thing you notice as you drive up to the Buffalo Trace visitor’s center is the red brick buildings, including several rickhouses. Most rickhouses I’ve seen have sheet metal siding, so this caught my attention. (Mrs. Wonk cannot resist breaking into a little Commodores tune every time we drive up to a distillery. After fourteen different tours, you do what you can to amuse yourself, no?)
Unlike many large distilleries, Buffalo Trace doesn’t utilize a dedicated visitor’s entrance to swoop you away to your curated experience, so you immediately feel like you’re part of the action. The visitor’s center is relatively modest and functional, unlike the “destination” visitor’s centers at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse or Wild Turkey.
Buffalo Trace offers a number of tours, including a basic Trace tour, a Hard Hat tour, a Historic Landmark tour, a Bourbon Barrel tour and a Ghost tour. Unlike most distilleries, however, all tours are free. However, for anything other than the standard Trace tour, reservations are required. We made advance plans for the Hard Hat tour, in which you “…witness everything from grain delivery to the cooking process to fermentation and, of course, distillation.” Mrs. Wonk and our traveling friends raved about this tour at the end, mostly due to the energetic and personable guide, Lee—a former school teacher who now leads tours and tastings for Buffalo Trace. Lee lead us directly into the middle of the process, alongside distillery employees, getting up close and personal with grain delivery trucks, peering into giant fermentation tanks, and so forth. Let’s go to the photos and see!
The tour starts with a short walk to the building where trucks unload fresh grain. Along the way you pass various brick distillery buildings including a large and well-outfitted machine shop, situated in a prime location that allows almost all repairs and upgrades to be handled onsite. You definitely get the impression you’ve stepped back in time and are walking through a giant factory complex – there’s over 100 buildings on site.
Arriving at the grain house, we were lucky to encounter a semi-truck unloading its cargo of corn through a chute at the bottom. The corn (or, on other occasions, rye or barley)) is delivered via gravity through the bottom of the truck bin through a grate in the ground, where it’s then whisked indoors. We were encouraged to reach in and grab handfuls of corn to check it out up close. Many trucks a day unload here, and when there’s no truck or people present, the local birds swoop in for a windfall of loose grain left behind.
Once inside the grain house, you first encounter several giant mash cookers holding 10,000 gallons of grain and water. It’s then up a set of metal stairs where you’ll find a 280-bushel grain hopper on rails, equipped with a scale. Having the hopper on rails lets it move around to the assorted cookers below it to deposit the exact amount of required grain for the particular mash bill. Upstairs you’ll also find several smaller, hot-tub sized cookers.
It’s then a short walk across a sky bridge to the fermentation building. The first thing that caught my eye upon entering were dozens of stacked cardboard boxes, labeled “Red Star.” Yup, the same company that makes yeast for your home baking needs also ships vast quantities of yeast to Buffalo Trace, among other distilleries. The distillery uses a single strain for all their mash bills—though the exact recipe is a well-guarded secret.
Finally, the fermentation tanks. I’ve seen plenty of 10,000, 20,000, or even 45,00 gallon tanks in my distillery travels, but the tanks at Buffalo Trace are staggeringly large: 92,000 gallons each, the largest in the industry, according to Lee. They measure thirty feet deep, or three stories high. Peering into an empty tank is vertigo inducing, for sure. When filling a tank, raising the level a single inch requires 265 gallons, or roughly five barrels of mash. Some tanks are covered with hoods, while others are open. As is typical, we’re encouraged to reach in and grab some mash to taste—which always elicits puzzled looks of “Are you sure?” from first-time tour goers. It’s not every day we’re encouraged as grown-ups to stick our hands in something that seems off limits—though the high-heat distilling process makes short work of any germy things left behind by hands and fingers.
Next on the Hard Hat tour is a visit to a micro-distillery within the larger distillery. This is where small batches of experimental spirits or special releases like the $300 Clix vodka are made, so as to not interrupt the giant whiskey-making pipeline culminating at the main still. The centerpiece of the micro distillery is a custom-built Vendome still, a combination pot and column still that can be reconfigured as needed. In addition to the gleaming still, it’s hard to miss several rows of what looks like a marriage of a hot tub with an electric ice cream maker. The distillery used to grow their own yeast in these tanks, but eventually switched to Red Star yeast, so the giant ice cream making hot tubs currently sit unused.
The final stop before heading back to the visitor’s center is the main stillhouse. It does not disappoint! The beer still, where the fermented mash enters the distillation pipeline, stands several stories tall, with a 60,000 gallon capacity. A few feet away, the column still has a 48,000 gallon capacity. A squat doubler still with a capacity of close to 10,000 gallons sits nearby.
The obligatory spirit safe is a bit of a showstopper: Two copper, pony-keg shaped “barrels” with windows showing new-make, white dog distillate gushing through them, straight off the stills. Each barrel is topped with a buffalo, and off to the side, a beer tap (also crowned with a buffalo) enables our guide to fill a glass with fresh distillate. Fresh whiskey on tap – how damn cool is that!
Back at the visitor’s center, on the upper level, the guide leads us through a bourbon tasting – you get to select two, 0.5 oz pours from a small set of mainstream Buffalo Trace products. No Pappy 23 to be had here! In fact, no Pappy to be found anywhere in the gift shop. The whiskey selection is limited to fairly standard release you can get just about anywhere. Lee tells us that just about all the rare or hard-to-get products are essentially spoken for prior to bottling. I’ve also heard (unconfirmed so far) that Kentucky liquor laws don’t allow distilleries to sell straight off a bottling line – bottles must be delivered to a distributor, and then sent back to the distillery, which certainly puts a damper on having lots of distillery-only releases. Incidentally, Kentucky liquor laws are byzantine, to say the least. There’s all sorts of “What the hell?” passages to be found lurking within.
Around the corner from the tasting bar you’ll find a display of all 192 bottles in the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, an experiment involving 192 permutations of trees, barrel char levels, and locations in aging warehouse. Following the tasting, our guide offered to take people over to tour a rickhouse. Having been in many rickhouses, we passed so as to not be late to our next tour.
The gift shop has the expected selection of branded apparel and knick-knacks. One surprising find was the complete set of Blanton’s bottle tops, each available for $2.75 per bottle top. Backstory: Each bottle of Blanton’s bourbon comes with a stopper topped with a tiny metal casting of a horse race scene. If you look closely, you’ll also see a tiny letter in circle. If you collect the full set of stoppers and arrange them, they spell out “Blantons,”along with chronologically ordered horse race scenes. If you’re missing a strategic letter, pony up for a stopper, just don’t admit that you got it the cheater’s way.
Our guide, Lee, did a splendid job keeping people engaged, and we saw a ton of things, without too much time in any one spot. However, being a Hard Hat tour, it would have been nice to see barrel filling, barrel dumping, and the bottling lines, even briefly. That said, it’s only an hour tour, including tastings, and it’s possible that some of the other free tours show these aspects. Had we had more time, I’d happily have stayed and taken all the tours. (Mrs. Wonk has different opinions on that.) Although it’s a massive distillery, the overall feel is more homespun feel than some of the other nearby distilleries. Well worth a visit!