One activity I’ve always promised myself I’d do on a visit to my home state of Kentucky would be to visit one of the many distilleries located around the capital city, Frankfort. Although there are dozens of distilleries located in the state, and quite a few located near my brother’s house, the cold and snow obliged me to visit only the ones closest, and on days that I could drive without worry. One of the distilleries I was fortunate enough to visit was Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States, producing whiskey since 1787.
In the eighteenth century the tiny city of Frankfort was surrounded by wilderness, covered in dense forest and inhabited by the emblematic American bison, colloquially known as buffalo. In their daily activities the bison created trails that eventually became the area’s modern roads. The distillery took its name from these trails created by the bison, Buffalo Trace.
Although the history of the production of Bourbon whiskey is not well documented, we do know that pioneers began distilling whiskey in the eighteenth century, using the abundant grain of the region, corn in particular, and fabricating wooden barrels from the immense forests of American White Oak (Quercus alba). The name Bourbon came to be associated with the spirit due to the geographic name of Bourbon County, in those times part of the large state of Virginia which included much of the eastern part of the modern state of Kentucky. Sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century the use of sour mash was introduced. In this process a small amount of the remains of a previous fermentation is used to initiate a new fermentation. This sour mash introduces acidity to the fermenting liquid which inhibits the growth of bacteria and maintains a pH favorable to the growth of yeasts. This process also gives the whiskey a characteristic flavor, and today all producers of whiskey in the United States employ this process. In 1964 the Congress of the United States declared Bourbon whiskey a product unique to the United States, and outlawed the importation of whiskey from other countries labeled “bourbon”.
To their good fortune, Buffalo Trace Distillery was allowed to continue its operations during the time of Prohibition in the United States. Distillation of whiskey continued uninterrupted during the years of Prohibition, 1920 – 1933, as whiskey was considered a medicinal product. Each and every person, including children, was allowed to purchase (with a doctor’s prescription) up to three bottles of whiskey monthly. Indeed, the distillery produced more than one million bottles during this era. All other distilleries were required to dismantle their operations.
I arrived for the “Hard Hat” tour at 1:30 p.m. This in-depth tour shows the functioning of the distillery as well as the processes used in the production of whiskey. Our tour guide was Freddy, whose father and grandfather had also worked in the distillery. After a short introduction to facts and history, our tour began outside. Much of the equipment used in production is of such a size that one must view the outside of the building to appreciate its size. We began with Kettle Still Nº 1, impressive for its size and capacity of 48,255 gallons (182,665 liters). From there we walked to the grain reception area. Freddy explained the importance of the origin and quality of the grain. Corn is sourced only from the states of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Barley and rye are sourced from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Genetically-modified grains are never used: according to Freddy they change the flavor profile of the whiskey. The grains are required to have a water content less than 14%, and must be intact and free of contaminants.
After reception of the grain, the first step in production is the milling of the grains. The whole grains are milled to a size of 10/64 of an inch (4 millimeters) to assure a homogenous solution favorable to fermentation. The milled grain is then mixed with water from the Kentucky River. During the production season, in winter when the cold water has less microbial activity, the distillery takes 1.5 million gallons (5,700,000 liters) daily from the river. The river water plays a key role in the whiskey’s flavor. Because of the marble and white limestone in the surrounding soil, the water has a high phosphorous content, responsible for the sensation of sweetness so typical of Kentucky Bourbon.
The grains are now cooked. First the corn, under pressure, is cooked at a temperature of 240° F (115°C) for twenty minutes. The temperature is then lowered to 190°F (88°C) and the rye is added. The temperature is then lowered a third time, to 64°F (18°C), and the malted barley is added. The barley is not allowed to cook so conserving its enzymes which convert carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, which yeast in turn will convert into alcohol. This liquid, the sweet mash, is now transferred to enormous tanks of 89,962 gallons (340,542 liters) and mixed with small quantities of sour mash. The fermentation will last from three to five days, resulting in a liquid tasting of flat, unhopped beer. This “beer” enters unfiltered directly into the still and emerges colorless with an alcohol content of 62.5%. This distillate, called white dog, is transferred into new, toasted White American oak barrels, and then moved to the distillery’s own ageing houses. Buffalo Trace Distillery at any given moment has 250 – 310 thousand barrels (of 53 gallons, 200 liters) of whiskey on hand. In order to maintain healthy forests, the distillery plants two new trees for every one tree harvested for barrel production.
Buffalo Trace Distillery maintains several warehouses for the ageing of its whiskey. Each warehouse has several floors, and depending on its location in a warehouse each barrel will mature in a different manner. The seasonal change of temperature is key in the maturation of the whiskey. The high summer temperatures cause the whiskey to expand into the pores of the oak barrels. In the cold winters of Kentucky the whiskey contracts, pulling flavor and color from the wood. In general, the whiskey will mature two to four years in barrel, although longer in the case of other premium brands which are also created at Buffalo Trace Distillery. At 23 years, whiskey will completely penetrate the staves of a wooden barrel. With years of experience the experts at the distillery have identified the zones in each warehouse for the optimum ageing of whiskey. Floors four and five of Warehouse C, and floors four through six of Warehouses I and K, always produce the best barrels of whiskey.
The contents of each barrel will be tasted by a panel of experts to determine if the whiskey conforms to the required standard of quality. Any one of the members of the tasting panel has the right to reject any barrel for any reason. Should this happen, the whiskey in the rejected barrel will never be used for Buffalo Trace Bourbon. From here, the whiskeys will be blended to produce a style typical of the house. The whiskey is chill-filtered at a temperature of 30°F (-1°C) to stabilize it. The last step is the addition of reverse osmosis-purified water to reduce the volume of alcohol to 45%.
In addition to the emblematic whiskey of Buffalo Trace, the distillery produces several other whiskeys, and one vodka, Rain, made from organically-produced white corn sourced from a single farm in Yale, Illinois. Among the other brands of whiskeys are Blantons and Eagle Rare, a personal favorite. Peychaud’s bitters is also produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery, and indispensible ingredient in mixing of several important classic cocktails such as the Sazerac.
The distillery offers complimentary free tours daily except for holidays.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace
Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
Telf: +1 800 654 8471