At the beginning of the tour our guide/folklorist Bob Gates told us a little about the history of Buffalo Trace Distillery and some of the basics of making bourbon. He explained that the distillery is the longest continually operating distillery in the United States and that it got its name because the current site in the State Capital Frankfort, KY was once part of a major bison migrating trail.
He also gave the group of 20 or so a brief rundown on what is requires for whiskey to be called bourbon. Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn and any other added grains must be varying proportions of wheat, barley and/or rye. Bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred or “toasted” on the inside. The aging whiskey moves through the char layer and imparts the unique flavors and colorings associated with bourbon. Bourbon must be aged at least two years and straight bourbon must be aged at least four years. If there is an age stated on the bottle it must be the age of the youngest bourbon if it was blended from different aged barrels. Bourbon can only consist of the chosen grains, yeast and water, no flavor or color additives are allowed.
You might think of bourbon production as a quiet and leisurely endeavor; oak barrels full of whiskey serenely aging through the changing seasons in a remote warehouse surrounded by chirping birds all in the middle of the beautiful rolling countryside of central Kentucky. That’s part of the process, a part that takes up quite a few years to achieve a quality bourbon, but the steps leading up to that part are all about noise and movement.
Bob took us through the entire process from a truck unloading corn, through the guts of the distillery where the grains get cooked and blended to the huge fermentation vats where the combination of grains and yeast slowly bubble into alcohol to the column stills where the distillation takes place and ends up as the clear “white dog” that’s pretty much the modern equivalent of “white lightning” from days gone by.
While in the distillation area, Bob drew a glass of the pristine looking whiskey and poured a bit in our hands. He had us to rub it into our hands and to note the different aromas as the alcohol evaporated. There’s a strong smell of tequila at first followed by the more subtle notes of corn and yeast.
After a visit to the large on site aging warehouse we followed Bob to the tasting room where we enjoyed a few sips of Buffalo Trace and the premium Eagle Rare and capped off with a sampling of their Bourbon Cream.
The tour takes about an hour and there is some climbing involved. Both the tour and tasting are complimentary. Oddly enough, a hard hat isn’t worn when taking the Hard Hat Tour but it’s a great way to learn about bourbon. I also found that Pappy Van Winkle comes from the best rated or “honey barrels” of W.L. Weller.