Mark Ludmon travels to Kentucky to visit the home of Buffalo Trace bourbon
Drew Mayville has been involved in making whiskey at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky for over 10 years but remains as passionate about his job as ever. “I’ve been in the industry for over 34 years but I’m still invigorated by going to work every day,” he says. Previously working with whisky producers such as Seagram, he is now master blender and director of quality at Buffalo Trace, making sure every bottle of whiskey coming out of the distillery is perfect and consistent, from the flagship straight Kentucky bourbons to ryes and special releases.
However, he says there is the added thrill of working with master distiller Harlen Wheatley and the team on exploring the boundaries of what makes great whiskey. Up on a hill at the distillery is the intriguingly named Warehouse X, which was completed just over a year ago. With four chambers and a central “breezeway” open to the elements, it houses 150 barrels filled with whiskey made to the same recipe as Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. They are currently experimenting with the effects of different amounts of light on the ageing process, including one batch of barrels exposed to natural daylight.
They came up with the idea after the six-storey Warehouse C, built in 1881, was partly destroyed by a tornado in 2006. Many of the barrels were exposed for four to five months but, instead of being ruined, they were used for the 2012 release, EH Taylor Jr Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon. “Over three-quarters of it had evaporated but it turned out to be a really flavourful, robust whiskey – one of the best whiskeys produced in many years,” Drew says. “That’s when we thought, let’s make a warehouse to find out what the best way is for making whiskey.”
However, innovation is nothing new. The distillery has been experimenting with making whiskey for more than 25 years, exploring variables such as unique mash bills, barrel char levels, types of wood and different grains and even rice. In fact, about 2,500 barrels contain experimental whiskeys across the 130-acre site next to the Kentucky River. “We have all been doing it for so long and doing it the same but is that necessarily the best way?” Drew explains. “We believe truthfully that we haven’t made the best whiskey yet.”
The Buffalo Trace Distillery produces 18 different whiskeys, aged in 330,000 barrels across 12 warehouses. Distributed in the UK by Hi-Spirits, they are led by the signature Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and the older Eagle Rare, which contains whiskeys aged for at least 10 years. Others include the rye-heavy bourbon Benchmark, wheated bourbon WL Weller, Sazerac Rye, White Dog unaged spirit, the EH Taylor Jr small-batch bourbon collection and Blanton’s Single Barrel bourbon with its distinctive horse-and-jockey stoppers.
There is also the annual Antique Collection which often wins awards with special releases of the likes of George T Stagg and Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye. “We have something for everybody,” Drew notes. “If you don’t like rye, we have wheated bourbon. If you don’t like that, there will be something else for you. We have a very strong portfolio.” If you visit the distillery shop, you will also find exclusives such as a bourbon cream liqueur and their vodkas including Rain, made from corn, and Wheatley, made from wheat, corn and malted barley.
While Buffalo Trace is now a well recognised brand, the distillery has gone through a variety of names and owners since distillation started on the site in 1787. The first modern distillery was built in 1857 and bought 13 years later by EH Taylor Jr who, under the name of the Old Fire Copper (OFC) Distillery, made it one of most advanced whiskey makers in the US.
Renamed the George T Stagg Distillery in 1904, it was one of only four companies in the USA granted a lease to continue distillation, for medicinal purposes, during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. After being bought by The Sazerac Company in 1992, the distillery was given its current name in 1999 to tie in with the introduction of Buffalo Trace bourbon – named after the trails left by migrating buffalo which guided American pioneers out west.
Visiting the distillery near the state capital of Frankfort, you can still see buildings dating as far back as 1792. But, while the site is a popular visitor attraction, it is very much a working distillery. Bartenders and other trade visitors don hard hats for a tour, often unable to hear themselves over the roar of machinery. There are four stills, of which three are three storeys high, and 12 fermenters containing up to 92,000 gallons of mash.
Like Drew, working at the distillery has not lost its lustre for its Kris Comstock, who is brand manager for Buffalo Trace at The Sazerac Co. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years and it’s still a helluva a lot of fun,” he says. “The popularity of whiskey keeps on increasing. A lot more people want to know about bourbon now. We are not necessarily marketers but more good old-fashioned whiskey makers, always looking to improve our quality and taste profile.”
Roll out the barrel: Pitt Cue Co
If you are serious about bourbon, you can travel to Buffalo Trace in Kentucky and choose a unique barrel full of whiskey for your bar. Those to invest in a single barrel include The Bon Vivant in Edinburgh and restaurant Pitt Cue Co (pictured above) in Soho, London. In October, Pitt Cue Co co-founder Jamie Berger visited the distillery – as part of one of the company’s annual visits by UK bar owners and bartenders. He tasted five different barrels of Eagle Rare with Beau Beckman, barrel select manager and the great-great-great-great grandson of Col EH Taylor Jr who bought the distillery in 1870.
It takes some months before the whiskey can be bottled, labelled and shipped but Jamie has already been building up an impressive selection of American whiskeys behind the bar at Pitt Cue Co. With Benchmark as the house pour, others on the carefully chosen list include Buffalo Trace Experimental whiskey made with rice, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old and William Larue Weller wheated bourbon as well as other whiskeys such as Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel and John J Bowman Single Barrel. Jamie points out that the price per measure in not marked up for profit as he wants the whiskeys to be as accessible as possible. “I am trying to build up a collection of whiskeys that people won’t have had before. The Buffalo Trace single barrel will be something unique.”