Tour and Tasting: Buffalo Trace
It was a warm July 4th. While many choose to have a “fifth on the 4th”, after catching the bourbon fever at Woodford Reserve, we checked out Buffalo Trace. Don’t bother taking your Kentucky Bourbon Trail passports in to be stamped – BT isn’t on the trail (though it was at one time).
Buffalo Trace is a large distillery located close to downtown Frankfort, KY and within eye-shot of the state capital on the Kentucky River. Owned by Sazerac Company, the distillery has been known by a number a names – many of which now grace it’s most prized bottles: George T. Stagg Distillery and the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C. Distillery). To be honest, the Buffalo Trace brand, like its nearby neighbor Woodford Reserve, is a recent addition to the bourbon roster. Buffalo Trace was introduced just 20 years ago, and the name hails from an ancient buffalo crossing along the Kentucky river.
Much of the distillery today hearkens back to Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (E.H. Taylor) who purchased the operations in 1870 and named it O.F.C – referencing that the finest bourbon was produced in old, wood-fired copper stills. By 1870, operations were purchased by George T. Stagg – recognize some names here? A number of the buildings that Taylor and Stagg built nearly 150 years ago are still carrying on their priceless duty – aging America’s native spirit – slowly and consistently. In 1897, a young Albert B. Blanton (where have I heard that name before?) joined the employment rolls as an office boy at the distillery, eventually rising to president by 1921.
Surviving Prohibition under the Schenley Distillers Corporation, the distillery survived as one of a limited few producing “medicinal alcohol”. In 1935, Blanton built Warehouse H (more about that later). As interest in bourbon rose and fell, the distillery introduced a new single-barrel product – Blanton’s – in 1984 to highlight the consistent product that a distiller could produce from an unblended product. In 1992, operations were purchased by family-owned Sazerac Company, and in 1999, the Buffalo Trace Distillery was re-christened.
We began our tour walking by the enormous brick aging warehouse – Bonded Storage E – to catch a brief video on the history of bourbon and distilling operations in Kentucky and at Buffalo Trace. I caught a glimpse of a small two-story metal clad building – Warehouse H – adjacent to our video tour location. I thought to myself – “Man, I want my bourbon to come from that great, old, brick rickhouse – not that small metal building”. I should remember that bourbon, like books, should not be judged by their cover – or in this case – their rickhouse. That Warehouse H I raised my eyebrows at – the only metal clad rickhouse at Buffalo Trace – is that little “honey hole” that stores and ages Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but our tour guide was also a “honey hole” and local legend. His name was Freddie and he knew everything about bourbon, the distillery, and the process – a true expert. As I started following Buffalo Trace on social media, I began to see and learn more about Freddie. It was while catching the documentary Neat: The story of bourbon that I learned Freddie was Freddie Johnson – a third-generation Buffalo Trace employee – whose grandfather had helped Colonel Blanton pioneer his revolutionary single-barrel product.
Buffalo Trace produces a number of brands: its flagship Buffalo Trace, along with Eagle Rare, Col. E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms, Weller, and the rare Van Winkle bottlings.
The tasting consisted of 5 products – Buffalo Trace White Dog, Wheatley Vodka, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare 10 Year, and a special “adult rootbeer float” with Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream and Dr. McGillicuddy’s Root Beer (recently renamed to Freddie’s Old-Fashioned Root Beer).
Buffalo Trace utilizes two main bourbon mash bills, aptly named Mashbill #1 and Mashbill #2. There is also a third mashbill, which is wheated and is used for the Weller and Pappy Van Winkle products. Mashbill #1 is a low-rye mix, comprising of corn, malted barley, and 10% or less rye. Mashbill #2 is a higher-rye mix, comprising corn, malted barley, and 12-15% rye. Both the traditional Buffalo Trace Bourbon and the Eagle Rare utilize Mashbill #1.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon: Carries no age statement but is thought to be around 7-9 years and bottled at 90 proof. Buffalo Trace keeps its recipes close to their chest, but it’s thought to be made from the low-rye Mashbill #1.
Eagle Rare Bourbon: Still carries a 10-year age statement – though the last I checked, it was in small letters on the back of the neck label. It’s bottled at 90-proof and made from the same mashbill as the regular BT Bourbon.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream: It would be heresy to call this “something like Bailey’s Irish Cream” … It starts with Buffalo Trace bourbon and whole cream. Bottled at 30 proof, it’s creamy, sweet, and perfect as a dessert or topping. Yes, you’ll smell and taste those classic bourbon notes, along with heavy vanilla notes from the cream. My wife is not a bourbon drinker but swears by a splash in her weekend coffee.
We were treated at the end of our tastings to an “adult rootbeer float”. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t fully disclose that my wife may have snagged an extra tasting of that float. Wow is all I can say to describe it! Basically, a mix of 1/3 Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream and about 2/3 root beer, it’s rich and creamy with all of the flavors of that last bit of root beer float in the glass where the ice cream and root beer have melted into a homogenous mixture – just with a slightly boozy, vanilla finish. Definitely a way to introduce a non-bourbon drinker to a bourbon experience.
Buffalo Trace is a go-to bourbon for many. When my brother retired, it was the bottle I wrapped up for his congratulatory gift. It’s a little sad that it’s just not as available as it once was. In the local regional liquor stores, it’s often missing from the shelves. And, Eagle Rare is…quite rare these days. What once was an easy-to-find spirit WITH a 10 year age label and a $30 price tag, it is now WAY harder to find consistently and often at a higher price point. I’ve recently been able to find it in my local regional food store chain…but at a 25% premium to its old price point.
Color: Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare each share a medium-to-deep copper color.
Nose: Both products have a great nose – tons of vanilla and oak. I even pick up a note or two of honey sweetness and even a touch of mint.
Palate: Vanilla, oaky wood, and a bit of leather hit the front of the palate for both of these spirits. Some have called this a “sweet” bourbon – I actually find it a nice mix of dry oak and sweet. For some time, I would have thought this had a much higher rye content, as there are spicy notes. The Eagle Rare has a nice, creamy mouthfeel. Overall, the palate is well-balanced with sweetness and spice.
Finish: The finish for both products is medium in length. You’ll catch some more subtle spice, and a somewhat dry, oaky finish. Eagle Rare shows its age as generating a slightly longer, lingering, smooth, and spicy finish.
These are great selections to have in your cabinet. If the (somewhat) mystical mashbill wasn’t in front of me, I’d swear this had a higher rye content. It’s hard to believe that some distillers with higher rye contents, are more vanilla and caramel-forward. I confess that I used to keep a bottle of Eagle Rare on hand almost all the time. With scarcity these days, it’s rarely seen in my cabinet.
I’m looking forward to checking out the latest “Pompeii” findings at Buffalo Trace and doing a bit of shopping in the gift shop to find a trace of those rarer bourbons.
As a side note – if you can’t find Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream in your local markets – then you definitely need to book a BT Tour or swing by the distillery in Frankfort, KY. You’ll find a good selection of BT, Eagle Rare, and Bourbon Cream on hand as well as the usual distillery tchotchkes.
One thing to be on the lookout for is the Buffalo Trace Pancake Mix – made by our friends back at Weisnerberger Mill and only available at the distillery gift shop. It’s packed with the spent distillers’ grains from the distilling operation. The nose on this pancake batter is incredible. These make truly unique pancakes – and packed with a little extra bourbon or bourbon cream punch – are absolutely delectable.
If you can find Buffalo Trace in the mid-$20 range and Eagle Rare around $30 or so – be sure to grab a bottle. It makes a great story and a great pour. And if your brother is retiring – it’s makes a great gift!