American Whiskey

February 23, 2001 -- The Bluegrass Parkway East: Kentucky

The Buffalo Trace Distilling Company
Frankfort, Kentucky

If you're reading all of these pages, you might think there's been a mistake here. Much of what you'll read on this page looks awfully similar to our visit and tour of the Leestown Distillery,  home of Ancient Age, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, and several other products. That's because this is the same distillery. It's known as Buffalo Trace now. They still market those brands, and some others have been introduced as well.

The tour they give here is still the best of the large plants, but we won't be taking the public tour this time. Actually, we have taken the public tour since the change to Buffalo Trace, but this time is very different. We are here as the personal guests of Sazerac Bourbon Brand Manager Ken Weber and two of his finest, Jim Locker and Sandy Goins. The Buffalo Trace Water TowerThey will be taking us for not one but two tours. The first will be a customized version of the regular public tour, and the second will be what they call a "hard-hat" tour which is far more involved. We first met Ken electronically, as members of an internet bourbon discussion group and he extended his kind invitation to come see what changes have been made to the old Ancient Age place.

We arrive at 9:00 and say hello to Wally, the gate guard. He sees so many people we don't expect him to remember us, and he doesn't. But we remember him. We know exactly where he'll tell us to park, but we quickly discover the first of the changes; the tours now begin and end in a gift shop and tasting bar. Jim Locker & Ken WeberThe old tour also did that, but this is in a different building. Here we meet Nancy Gum, who runs the gift shop, and also Jim Locker, who is waiting for us and Ken to show up. Actually, the gift shop isn't really the first change we notice; we could hardly miss the famous Ancient Age water tower, which now sports the Buffalo Trace name and logo.

Ken arrives, looking younger than we expected (a man in his position probably hates hearing that; oh well...) and shortly afterward Sandy Goins. Excuse me, that's Colonel Sandy Goins. Now, in Kentucky you're likely to find many distinguished citizens with the title "Colonel" (Harlan Sanders being a very well-known example). The civilian title of Colonel is semi-legitimate in Kentucky, which is to say that it isn't a valid military rank, but it is a valid honorary designation given by the governor and it is neither given nor taken lightly. Sandy is a Kentucky Colonel. He is also an Arkansas Colonel, which is a similar designation. But he is also a true U.S. Army (retired) colonel as well. At least Ken says so, and he sure acts like we'd expect a retired Army colonel to act. A balance of down-home and royal dignity. You see a lot of that in Kentucky people; it's one of the things we love most about them.

We begin the first part of the tour. Since we've done this several times before, we skip the video about how bourbon is made, but if you take this tour you really shouldn't miss it. Ken is, of course, quite familiar with all the elements of the tour, but he doesn't normally act as tour guide. That's Jim's job, and for the most part Ken lets him do it. We, however, tend to treat the whole thing as just five friends walking around the distillery where three of them work.

Of course, we talk a lot about the history of Buffalo Trace. The current company is still in transition, and undergoing a major identity crisis. The new management (which is really a portion of the old management who have now gained control) want desperately to establish an image of their own. The difficulty is that they are the same folks who so successfully established the very brands they now are trying to replace. If they hadn't been so good at what they do, it would be a lot easier, but customers who have become die-hard fans of Rock Hill Farms, Blanton's, Mural on the distillery wallHancock's Reserve, and Ancient Ancient Age are reluctant to switch over to Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare, or especially to Old Charter or Weller, brands that were once competitors from another distillery. And since all the custody battles are not yet completely over, the new management can hardly be blamed for hesitating to promote brands they don't already own 100% of. Those of us who love both the old brands and the new ones can hardly wait for the dust to settle.

Other than a new coat of paint, the distillery doesn't look much different. The mural of the barrel warehouse, with its eerie perspective that makes it look like the door on the other end of the room is following you as you pass, is still there. Except that now it says Buffalo Trace instead of Ancient Age. And, even though the tours no longer begin and end there, the employees’ clubhouse and cafeteria, a huge, almost Scandinavian-looking log house overlooking a beautifully landscaped park and grounds is still in daily use. There is also a matching (though smaller, of course) guest house nearby. The clubhouse and gardens at Buffalo TraceThis all appears to be part of the property of Col. Albert Blanton, the distillery’s founder, whose stone mansion stands at the top of the hill overlooking everything. His statue still stands near a stream in the park. But it is now joined by an even more impressive artwork. You see, they had this tree...

It was a beautiful old sycamore tree, one of several that dotted the hillside leading up to the mansion. And it stood for many many years, until a lightning bolt split and destroyed it. They had to have it cut down. When they next looked at it, they were shocked to see the tree surgeons had left a stump several feet high. Ken and Linda pose with the Sycamore BuffaloThey were planning to have the stump dynamited and removed when a local artist, Stan Shu, agreed to carve a buffalo out of it. The result is an amazingly beautiful, almost life-size rendition of a buffalo. Ken points out, though, that the statue isn't entirely maintenance free. The stump is not completely dead, and shoots tend to grow out of the beast, which also shrinks and swells with the climate. Nevertheless, the management was so impressed with Stan's work that they commissioned him to carve an eagle-topped totem pole from a living tree next to the mansion. He'll probably do more works around the distillery from time to time.

Of course, much of our interest in this tour has to do with the history of Buffalo Trace, as it has been the home of much bourbon history. When the first Americans knew it, Kentucky was a place where people came to hunt. Native tribes didn't live here, but many different ones sought the buffalo that did. And long before there was a Frankfort, or a Leestown, this particular area was part of a major path of migration for buffalo. It was here that their trail (or "trace") crossed a shallow part of the Kentucky River. And this was a good location for settlement, which is what Hancock McAfee and Willis Lee established in 1775. Fermenting vatsThese names live on in Hancock's Reserve, McAfee's Benchmark, and Leestown. Distilling here began as early as 1787, but became a commercial enterprise after Benjamin Blanton went off to seek his fortune in the great California Gold Rush of 1849. Unlike many other "Forty Niners", he was quite successful. In fact, he struck it rich, didn't gamble or lose it all in investments, and returned to his home in Kentucky a very wealthy man. He bought the old Rock Hill farm near Leestown and established a distillery here sometime between 1857 and 1865. He soon learned that whiskeymaking was not something he wanted to do, however, and he sold it only four years later. The man he sold it to named it the Old Fire Copper Distilling Company and began producing bourbon. OFC remained a very famous brand of bourbon until it was sold to Schenley (who still produces whiskey under that brand, although it's Canadian whiskey now and the name has been changed to "Old Fine Canadian"). Only a couple of years later, Col. Edmund Taylor purchased the facility. Dumping bourbonColonel Taylor owned several distilleries in the Frankfort-Glenn's Creek area and it was during this period that he revolutionized the bourbon industry by introducing scientific methods of ensuring consistency and high quality. Taylor also didn't own the plant long however, passing ownership on to George T. Stagg (who was principal owner of the E.H.Taylor, Jr. Co.) in 1886. Stagg added his own brand and changed the name to the Old Stagg Distillery , but he kept the OFC brand as well. He also continued to produce Old Taylor whiskey here. Eleven years later, he hired a young man named Albert B. Blanton, who was the son of founder Benjamin, and he went on to become the master distiller from 1912 until he retired in 1952. The distillery did not operate during Prohibition, but was used for warehousing and bottling of medicinal whiskey. In 1929, the Schenley Corporation bought it, and they began producing bourbon here in 1933. Sometime much more recently, perhaps in the eighties, a group of Schenley executives formed their own company and bought the distillery to operate it on their own. That didn't work out well and they shortly sold it to Sazerac, a New Orleans-based beverage corporation. This was in partnership with a Japanese group headed by Yutaka Takano. The new company was called Age International. Takano's group held the majority of the ownership until recently, when Sazerac began buying up more and more until they now hold a majority. This was the point where it became Buffalo Trace. The relationship between the two owner groups is competitive at best and sometimes downright adversarial. Thus the uncertainty of the individual brands.

The first tour is great, but the second is even better. For this one we put on special hard-hats to protect us as we climb around the catwalks and ladders in the main distillery building. We have a chance to smell, taste, and compare freshly distilled low wine, bourbon that has just come off the main still, with true white dog as it comes from the doubler, ready to be put into the barrels. We also get a chance to see parts of the distillery no one ever gets to see, as the three guides manage more than once to lose track of how to get from one place to another. John is reminded of scenes from the movie, Goonies where the kids are climbing through the tunnels.

Our collection of Buffalo Trace/Ancient Age bourbon

Back at the gift shop, we turn in our green hardhats and thank our hosts for a really wonderful morning spent learning how one of the most important bourbon distilleries in the world works.

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Story and original photography copyright ©2001 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.
Buffalo Gals" (PD), sequenced by Xavier Barron, and used by permission