OK, so I did not jump on a plane to get to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, but I’d never say no to a free trip there.
So when the folks at United Airlines asked if Insider would like to attend a meet-and-greet/tour type of experience at the distillery on Thursday — celebrating the announcement that all United flights will now serve the distillery’s Wheatley Vodka on its planes — I said yes without hesitation.
And then asked my boss for permission.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to get into, but the hallowed grounds of Buffalo Trace are one of my favorites, so an afternoon spent among aging bourbon barrels wouldn’t be wasted. Also, it takes a while for things to sink in, so going on another distillery tour, even though I’ve probably been there 10 times, is a way I can keep my bourbon knowledge up to par.
I even found out a few little secrets on this trip, but more about those later.
The small group included staff from United, another local journalist and a handful of United customers — one from Cleveland and two from New Hampshire — who used their travel points to come on this trip.
Buffalo Trace rolled out the red carpet for our crew, giving us rare access to some parts of the distillery and having its top people lead the tour and tasting. Among those who stopped by for some portion of the afternoon were Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley, President & CEO Mark Brown and Tour Guide Extraordinaire Freddie Johnson.
It was also fun to experience the distillery through the eyes of newcomers. For the dude from Cleveland — who loves his bourbon but curses the lack of it in Ohio — Buffalo Trace was his Disney World, Harlan Wheatley his Mickey Mouse. From the moment his feet hit the ground, he was in awe.
Not even five minutes after we were in the visitor’s center, he spotted a bottle of Blanton’s on the shelf and lost his mind. “You can’t get this in Ohio,” he said as he clutched the prize jewel. “How many are we allowed to buy?”
Unfortunately, it was one per person, but he had a friend from Chicago with him, so I have a feeling he was able to finagle two. I told him Ohio’s strict control-state laws were the reason I left the Buckeye state some 19 years ago for the bourbon-saturated pastures of Kentucky — even though I was still weaning off Zima when I moved here.
He doesn’t need to know all the details.
And speaking of details — I won’t go into a play-by-play of the afternoon, but I will share the highlights and a few secrets that were unearthed. And you can take a gander through the photos below if you’d like to see more.
Here’s what I learned — some of it interesting, some of it random:
• In the distillery’s heyday in 1973, it produced more than 200,000 barrels a year. This year, it plans to reach that number, and with all the new equipment and rick-house additions, it hopes to eventually reach 700,000 in another couple of years.
• Buffalo Trace is building one rick house every five months.
• The Pappy Van Winkle that is being distilled today will be ready in 2041.
• Buffalo Trace has one of the widest stills in the industry, at 7 feet wide. There are six stills on the property.
• The distillery uses 80 acres of corn a day.
• They’re currently restoring one of the 14,000-gallon rectangular fermenters at the Bourbon Pompei site and will be recreating Col. E.H. Taylor’s original recipe from the 1869 distillery that was unearthed last year. That should be operating by the end of the year.
• Buffalo Trace has more than 14,000 barrels aging now that are considered “experimental.”
• We caught a glimpse of these experiments firsthand as we were taken inside the supersecret, brand-new Warehouse P, which contains a temperature-controlled room that stays at 45 degrees at all times. They believe that at 45 degrees, bourbon stops aging in the barrels.
• The very last barrel of the distillery’s 1993 distillate sits in that room, and if you’re interested in buying it, it would cost you around $2 million. The bottles that will come from that barrel will be priced around $5,000 each. They’re calling this experimental project Last Drop, and the room also contains several other highly coveted, rare bourbons.
• Our tasting included samples of Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Weller 12, George T. Stagg and Pappy 20 Year. Out of the five, I preferred the Blanton’s first, then Weller 12, then Stagg. That was eye-opening for me, since I tend to always side with wheated bourbons. And Pappy? Why didn’t I swoon over the Pappy? My taste buds must have took the day off. Maybe too much Zima in the ’90s?
• While conducting the tasting, Mark Brown let it slip that they’d soon be coming out with a limited-edition product called Double Eagle Rare, which will be served in a crystal decanter and contain 20-year-old Eagle Rare Bourbon.
• Buffalo Trace sells used half-barrels for planters at the distillery (while supplies last) for $80, and Freddie Johnson recommends spraying the inside with Rhino Truck Bed Liner to keep them from falling apart.
• United Airlines already serves Buffalo Trace as its main bourbon on board, so it made sense to them to also carry Wheatley Vodka. Vodka is the No. 1-selling spirit served on United flights.
Here are more photos below: