The Bourbon Chronicles: Buffalo Trace distillery tour
Buffalo Trace is the producer of some of the finest bourbons on the market (when you can find them): Blanton’s, Pappy van Winkle, Eagle Rare, and of course Buffalo Trace, among others. They’re some of the best – and highly coveted – bourbons in the eyes of bourbon collectors and connoisseurs alike. The distillery and its tour are humbly representative of the history and quality that come with their products.
This distillery is located about an hour east from Louisville in Frankfurt, the capital of Kentucky. If you have time, there are many other distilleries in the area worth visiting such as, Bulleit, Wild Turkey, and Castle & Key.
At a glance:
|Name||Location||Tour time||Tour name||Tour price||Address||Food on site|
|Buffalo Trace||Frankfurt||75 minutes inc. tasting||Trace distillery tour||FREE 🙂 reservations are required||113 Great Buffalo Trace Frankfort, KY 40601||only food option on site is the Firehouse Sandwich Shop. Be sure to check operating hours.|
The Buffalo Trace distillery is a considerably sized estate operation that sits in a nook of the snaking Kentucky River in the state’s capital of Frankfurt. The grounds are beautiful, well-maintained, and guests are welcomed and encouraged to roam them freely. That being said, don’t expect a tour (which includes a tasting) without a reservation – something you’ll need to make months in advance. While different bottles are made available to purchase day-to-day in the gift shop, daily allotments of Blanton’s and Buffalo Trace are almost always made available. But since many of their products are scarce in the open market, don’t count on any Blanton’s being on the shelf by 11:00AM (gift shop opens at 10AM, Mon-Sat).
Food option: Firehouse Sandwich Shop
In terms of food options on site, there’s really only one barbecue sandwich shop, with limited operating hours, that provides visitors with the on-premises food. It has outdoor picnic seating and is dog-friendly along with the property at large. The main area of the campus surrounding “Blanton Square” includes historic storage houses (AKA: rick houses), bottling rooms, the visitor’s center, and other functional structures vital to the working distillery operations.
The complimentary tour included ample history lessons on the pivotal players in the story of the distillery’s history. The numerous damaging disasters, failed experiments and how the company navigated prohibition are all explained. Pivotal members of the distillery’s legacy include Richard Taylor, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Elmer T. Lee and the current master distiller Harlen Wheatley and each of their contributions are all covered as well.
While the time spent on the history is understandable given the distillery’s lengthy and complex past (it is the longest continually operating distillery in the country), the Buffalo Trace tour probably spends the least amount of time talking about bourbon in general. Many tours include far more detailed descriptions of how bourbon is made via the distilling and aging process, as well as the parameters that define bourbon, though there was some time dedicated to walking through a storage warehouse (rickhouse), the barrel receiving warehouse and the exclusive bottling room of the mystical Blanton’s.
It’s worth mentioning the tour was mostly outdoors walking the grounds. It’s a good idea to come prepared with an umbrella or light rain jacket if rain is in the forecast, wear a brimmed hat to shield your face from sun exposure, and definitely wear good walking shoes.
After your tour, you’re predictably ushered into the gift shop, where there are three featured bottles on sale each day – but if you want a shot at purchasing one of the rarer bottles, make sure to book an early tour, as by the end of our 1:45PM tour, there wasn’t a bottle of Blanton’s to be seen (though there was plenty of Buffalo Trace bourbon, and Wheatley vodka).
Tour guide feedback:
More and more, we’ve found the enjoyment level of a distillery tour we go on to be directly related to the energy, engagement and historical knowledge of the tour guide. At first, our guide appeared to be sort of ‘over it’, as he looked tired and was sweating through his shirt (it was a hot day!). But as it turned out, he was extraordinarily engaged, informative, and funnier than all get-out! He spoke quickly – but not hurriedly, and welcomed questions with an appropriate frequency, each of which he answered candidly and intelligently.
Our tasting started with their (relatively new) Wheatley vodka, before getting into their big hitters: their namesake product (Buffalo Trace), followed by Eagle Rare, and then the highly sought-after/scarce Blanton’s. For “dessert” there was their bourbon cream which we were encouraged to mix with actual root beer (also produced on-site), for a delightful version of a root beer float, and finished with a pecan bourbon ball.
The vodka was surprisingly drinkable. Their signature product, Buffalo Trace is $28/bottle, and it drinks like it’s $10 more than that, as it would both compliment and stand out in a cocktail – though is also great neat or on-the-rocks. For me it had a bold, spicy finish. Eagle Rare is pretty much everything I just mentioned about Buffalo Trace, but a little more body to the flavor which made it smoother. When you can find it these days, it retails for $34/bottle and (likewise, just like Buffalo Trace) drinks about $10 higher than that.
I personally had never tried Blanton’s but my husband has in the past. Candidly, I’m probably too inexperienced of bourbon drinkers to appreciate what makes it unique but, suffice it to say, it was very enjoyable. According to our tour guide, Albert Blanton preferred his bourbon bold and spicy, and this is unavoidable in his namesake 6-8 year aged bourbon. It’s worth every penny retailing at $68/bottle, but once again only when you can find it. Due to its quality and scarcity, you’re most likely to find Blanton’s (re)selling upwards of $200 USD.
While the tour gave a cursory education on bourbon, this is not a tour that focuses on bourbon education. It’s a better tour for those interested in enjoying the rich history of Kentucky distilleries and enjoying this exclusively American spirit. If you didn’t have a reservation for a tour, this is still a lovely distillery to visit and explore. It’s dog friendly too.
Buffalo Trace managed to continue operating during prohibition, due to the fact that they were licensed to offer their product medicinally.
It was in the nature of Boomers to rebel against their parents and that included the spirits they drank. It was Millennials who discovered bourbon and made it popular again.
Bourbon usually takes at least 3 years to make because of the aging process. Any longer than 12 years and it no longer benefits from aging.
When copper hits a distilled spirit, it acts as a purification agent in the distilling process.
There are numerous factors and variables involved in the aging process. Everything from temperature, climate, humidity, atmospheric pressure, to time impacts how the flavor profile can be controlled. Interestingly, exposure to outside weather impacts the aging process for the better.
All bourbon is made with charred barrels from staves milled from white oak trees.
Our tour guide provided this fun historical theory: Bourbon sellers would ferry their product down the river(s) to New Orleans, where their distinctive aged whiskey began to earn them top dollar in the Crescent City. Highway robbers began to notice this, and would target these newly flushed bourboners as they made their way back north to Kentucky. To combat this, as soon as they sold their whiskey cargo, the bourbon salesmen would go and buy the fastest horses they could find so they could outrun the trail robbers. Much like how stock-car racing was born out of bootleggers racing the cars that they’d made fast enough to outrun the cops, these bourbon salesmen started to race each other on the way back to Kentucky, where they would load up another boat with more barrels of bourbon, and do it all over. As this process would repeat itself time and again, soon the horse population in Kentucky was flooded with particularly fast colts, and Kentucky became known for fast horses, just as much as (and this story would suggest, because of) its bourbon. *In fairness, I’ve done some Google searching on this theory, and haven’t found any historical evidence, or mention of it otherwise. But it’s a fun theory, and it holds water!
I documented more of our tour on my Instagram stories as “BuffaloTrace.”