When the term “Distillery Tour” is spoken, mental images of weaving copper pipe latticework and carefully curated walks through red-bricked “experience centers” generally come to mind. A well-manicured attendant shepherds flocks of eager visitors through founders' stories and “tasting stations” while reciting well-rehearsed factoids about spirits and distillation. There's nothing wrong here - when done right, a casual tour is a great way to experience a new place, learn some local history, and subsequently forget it while enjoying a variety (and volume) of libations. A recent trip to Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, however set a new bar for spirited sightseeing.
While I’m admittedly no stranger to distillery tours, for those familiar, it’s pretty evident that Buffalo Trace isn’t your average distillery, nor your average whiskey, for that matter. Dating back to the 1700’s, the Buffalo Trace Distillery's history is as storied as surprising. In October 2013, only months after receiving a designation as a National Historic Landmark due to its status as the oldest continuously running distillery in America, the Buffalo Trace distillery made headlines for other reasons - the theft of over $100,000 in rare whiskey.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, better known as “Pappy Van Winkle’s”, you may be experiencing a bit of a shock. After all, how does one steal over $100,000 in whiskey? Well, when individual bottles can fetch over $5000 in aftermarket sales? The answer is - enthusiastically. Give the Netflix documentary series "Heist" a watch to see the rest.
The sprawling grounds in Frankfort that nestle up to the Kentucky River have changed hands several times over the 200+ years since E.H. Taylor Jr. started distilling whiskey on the site under the OFC (Old Fire Copper) brand name. The distillery speaks to a time in American history when Kentucky was the "wild west" and commerce was concentrated on the rivers that served as sources of water, our commercial superhighway, and a natural protective boundary. It's no wonder that this little corner of the state became the capital city. Whiskey helped build Kentucky, and this humble little distillery was a big piece of the early days of Frankfort.
Despite growing, changing hands, growing some more, and so on, this hugely sprawling distillery maintains a remarkably consistent identity. It's apparent that the current stewards of the land, The Sazerac Company, are committed to moving from strength to strength. They have plans to invest over $1 billion in the coming years, and they're well on their way with new warehouses constantly under construction to the tune of a couple of million bucks apiece...after you fill them up with whiskey, you're into it for well over $20m for each warehouse.
Despite the aggressive pace of expansion, one of the ever-present emotions I felt on the tour was one of good fortune. You see the Buffalo Trace Distillery makes a lot of excellent bourbons besides their namesake Buffalo Trace and the aforementioned Pappy Van Winkle. It's not surprising that a $5,000 bottle of whiskey is hard to come by, but what I found in America was that a bottle of Buffalo Trace was nearly just as hard to get my hands on. Despite visiting over a dozen liquor stores throughout my travels in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota, I only saw one bottle of Buffalo Trace in one liquor store during this past trip. That's right; it's downright brutal to come by. Even harder or at least equally hard to find are the other whiskeys they make in Frankfort: Sazerac Rye, Eagle Rare Bourbon, EH Taylor, Stagg, or Weller.
Back to our good fortune, after completing our tour of the grounds, tasting through a selection of their products and finishing with a delicious boozy chocolate bonbon, we were led into the Gift Shop. Normally something that I breeze through pretty quick, I was instructed that each tour participant could buy two bottles of Buffalo Trace and two bottles of today's selection from the portfolio, which happened to be Weller Special Reserve. I've already mentioned how hard it is to find Buffalo Trace; finding Weller is like spotting Halley’s comet, you may be in for a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime event.
As I poured my Weller Special Reserve, taking painstaking care to avoid spilling a single drop, I thought upon what makes Buffalo Trace a success - after all, in the world of spirits we’ve seen countless brands fade into obscurity, what’s the secret to their staying power? And even more curious, their ability to continue scaling? If it’s a mystery, your first sip should be your biggest clue. Quality. While I could write at length about the drink itself, perfectly nuanced, smooth as silk, full of complex, hidden intricacies waiting for your palate to explore - what’s just as important is what it represents. While one may naturally hold some subconscious aversion to overly produced tour experiences or brands that have that “corporate” polish, Buffalo Trace subverts and deflects that prejudice with a singular, undeniable focus - quality. In a world of flashy labels, artisanal glasswork bottles, and funky offbeat names and flavor profiles (all of which I love), sometimes you just need to focus on doing the basics really well to establish your brand. When you open Buffalo Trace you know you’re going to get a good drink, a taste so well-honed and refined that you’re reminded they started brewing American whiskey back before America was America - impressively, like their product, they’ve seemed to only improve with age.