The sprawling 400-acre grounds of the Buffalo Trace Distillery has the feel of a bustling college campus. A place of higher learning and storied tradition. And of course, any proud, longstanding university must have its own motto, a slogan that its alumni proudly pass onto those who follow in their stead. At Buffalo Trace, it’s: “Honor Tradition, Embrace Change.”
Reciting such a slogan is one thing, but actually living it out is another. At Buffalo Trace, they very much embody their motto though, and today two of their top must-visit destinations are what they’ve dubbed “Bourbon Pompeii,” the unearthed site of the original distillery, and Warehouse X, home to precision experiments across myriad maturation variables. Tradition and change.
I visit the distillery just before July 4th, and with flags waving and patriotism flowing freely, it felt like the perfect time to soak up the knowledge of good ol’ American made bourbon. You can keep your apple pie and baseball, bourbon is the lifeblood of this country.
My instructor for this in-depth educational tour is the inimitable Freddie Johnson. He’s a boundless source of knowledge and enthusiasm, greeting all passersby with “daddy-O” before delving into the little known story behind yet another nugget of wisdom. He’s the 3rd generation of his family to work at the distillery, and his grandson will soon become the 4th. If it’s happening at Buffalo Trace, then Freddie knows about it, and his personable storytelling will likely leave you feeling as if he divulged a hidden secret he’s never told anyone before, although he probably shared the same gem of an anecdote with a dozen other people that very same day.
For Johnson, one of the fundamental keys of the distillery and its unquenchable thirst for experimentation is not to discover the next big or best thing, but instead to understand all of the finer points of why a bourbon turns out the way it does. “If I make a bourbon and you liked it, it’s my responsibility to know what I did so I can keep on doing it,” he explains.
An oak tree is to bourbon as a grape vine is to wine
Buffalo Trace has some 14,000 experimental barrels stowed away in their warehouses. There are prized Japanese Mizunara oak casks. There’s peated malt. French oak. The list goes on and on. All told, they currently have approximately 400,000 barrels spread across 15 warehouses. Within the next eight years, they’ll have room for 1 million, with a new warehouse being constructed every six months.
One massive experiment which the distillery recently tackled was the Single Oak Project, which let consumers call the shots by determining their favorite from a selection of bourbons produced to highlight different variables: barrels made from the top or bottom of a tree; different barrel chars, grain sizes, and stave seasoning times; varying barrel entry proofs and warehouse styles and mashbills. All told 192 different bourbons were produced, and the winning bottle will now be added as a mainstay to the product line – you’ll just need to wait until 2025 to see it on store shelves.
“An oak tree is to bourbon as a grape vine is to wine,” Johnson says. In other words, every factor down to the most minuscule of details makes a difference. Its place, its soil, what grew near it, what grew on it, all encapsulating its unique composition and terroir.
Another essential variable to the outcome of a whiskey is an individual barrel’s location within a warehouse. “Barrels in the warehouse are like real estate: location, location, location,” Johnson says. Within a single warehouse, walking from one row to the next you’ll notice different smells, humidity levels, and temperatures, micro-climates working their magic in distinct ways. As you walk, Johnson may tap this barrel or that one, judging how filled it is, and how delightful its contents may be. “It’s like picking fruit,” he says.
Never short of one-liners, Johnson sums up the difference between the different floors of a warehouse thusly: “Top floors produce bottom shelf.” So when you trek down to the murky, cool bottom levels of one of their warehouses, that’s where you’ll find the gems of their product line, bourbon which will soon go into the bottle as Pappy Van Winkle 20, 23, or 25 year old. Johnson also confirms a popular theory many Buffalo Trace fans have. “Weller and Pappy are the same,” he says, “just aged in different locations for different times.”
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Bourbon Pompeii & Warehouse X
A placed as steeped in its history as Buffalo Trace must know everything about its past, right? Well, even here things slip through the cracks, or more accurately, are forgotten about over the decades after having concrete poured over them.
Such is the case with the site of the original O.F.C. Distillery. Buffalo Trace was working on building a new visitor’s center and events space overlooking the river, when they uncovered the actual remnants of the old distillery. The site dates to 1869, and the placement of its original wall can be seen, along with the one that came after it in 1873 following a rebuild. Giant rectangular fermenting beds are left in place, with drainage openings leading to the river. With this physical discovery of the Bourbon Pompeii site, the distillery is also working on recreating the methods of production from those early days as well.
“That was yesterday,” Johnson says. “Now let’s go look at tomorrow.”
Tomorrow can be found at Warehouse X, an experimental whiskey wonderland. Within the warehouse, built perched atop a hill overlooking much of the distillery grounds below, Buffalo Trace is examining a plethora of maturation variables including exposure to the elements, airflow, humidity, temperature, and natural and UV light. “It’s continuing to blow our minds and give us aha moments,” Johnson says.
The warehouse consists of five separate 30-barrel chambers designed to create specific and extreme conditions. Computer monitors within can pull up each chamber and offer barrel-by-barrel readouts loaded with intricate data. The project has been designed as an ongoing 20 year study, with barrels being replaced every two years.
“This is really important to the industry,” Johnson says. Think of the outcome as the Big Data of the whiskey world, providing specific answers to problems or questions we didn’t even know we had yet.
“We’ve had three visionaries here,” Johnson says. He goes onto explain a lineage starting from with Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr., who laid the foundation for the distillery and its dedication to quality. There was Colonel Albert Blanton, who kept the distillery alive and well through the Depression, Prohibition, and two World Wars. And today, there is the president of the Sazerac Company, Mark Brown.
“His vision is that the best bourbon hasn’t been made yet,” Johnson says. “His vision is that we’re a legacy. We’re the keepers of this place for the next generation,” – those who must continue moving ahead and be experimenting, not just for the sake of it, but to grasp everything that’s – “really core to understanding bourbon.”
To honor tradition and embrace change, you might say.