Photographs by Ryan Kurtz
You’re not officially on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail here, but Buffalo Trace is a convenient entry point when you’re coming from Cincinnati. Throughout the history of bourbon, so many distilleries and brands have come and gone, even on this piece of real estate along the Kentucky River: Benjamin Harrison Blanton and Daniel Swigert both owned property—and possibly produced spirits—on the Buffalo Trace site; Colonel E.H. Taylor purchased an existing operation and named it Old Fire Copper in 1870. And the names of the men responsible for crafting the liquor in all those barrels reads like a who’s who of bourbon brands: starting with Colonel Taylor and George T. Stagg, then W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle (yes, the very one), Albert B. Blanton, Elmer T. Lee, and today’s keeper of the flame, Harlen Wheatley.
The Trace Tour will give you all the basics of bourbon production (also available: the Hard Hat Tour, National Historic Landmark Tour, Bourbon Barrel Tour, and Ghost Tour), and you’ll be able to step inside Warehouse C, where you can smell the angel’s share and gaze upon bourbon quietly aging—including experimental barrels. Buffalo Trace may have a strong tradition, but the Sazerac-owned company is not afraid to experiment. After the warehouse, you’ll visit the Blanton’s bottling hall, before ending up at the gift shop tasting room, where you can taste a variety of products, including vodka (yes, this brown spirits maker also distills clear liquor, too).
Tours: Mon–Sat 9 am–4 pm, Sun noon–3
Reservations are required for all except the Trace Tour
Samples: Two (Choose from Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, white dog, Bourbon Cream, or Wheatley Vodka)
Yes, they’ve been making fine whiskey since approximately forever, but Buffalo Trace has never been content to rest on its laurels. For more than 25 years the distillery has been tinkering with the variables that make their bourbons some of the best in the business—specifically mashbills (the ratio of corn to other grains they use) and levels of barrel char.
Sometimes nature delivers a lesson, too. A few years ago, a tornado ripped off a warehouse roof, exposing barrels to open air for months. When they finally tasted the bourbon, it was real good. Hence the set-up in Warehouse X. Four different atmospheric environments (each chamber holds a maximum of 30 barrels) isolate natural UV light, temperature, humidity, and air flow, which will allow a team of chemists to conduct a series of experiments over the next 20 years, all in the zealous quest for what master distiller Harlen Wheatley refers to as the ultimate “holy grail bourbon.” “We think that by focusing on the environment within Warehouse X we can gain extra knowledge on why the bourbon picks up certain extracts from the wood,” he says. “We had our first experiment about eight months ago and we have already seen differences within the chambers.” Let’s just hope there are no more tornadoes to deal with.