Reprinted with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise
By Roseanne McKee
Oklahoma is inextricably linked to bison, or buffalo as they are often called. Bartlesville uses buffalo statuary as symbols throughout the city. With Oklahoma’s connection in mind, my husband and I recently visited the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky — the oldest continuously producing distillery in the United States — started in 1887.
First, a bit of history. According to an article “Castle & Key Distillery Rising fom Ruins after Old Taylor Distillery Narrowly Escaped Wrecking Ball,” dated July 27, 2016 on the Distillery Trail blog, Taylor started in the distillery business in 1869 with the purchase of the Old Fire Copper Distillery and the Carlisle Distillery.
The article said, “Taylor later ran into financial troubles and in 1878 was forced to sell the distillery to George T. Stagg. Stagg then turned around and hired Taylor to run the distillery. On a quick side note, in 1904 the O.F.C. was renamed the George T. Stagg Distillery and years later in 1992, that distillery was renamed again to what we now know as Buffalo Trace Distillery.”
On a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery recently, provided free of charge with about six liquor samples included, I learned that the land where Buffalo Trace is located was once on the path of migrating herds of buffalo who fertilized as they traveled, leaving the soil optimal for planting corn. Since corn it the starting ingredient in whiskey, it only made sense to open a distillery near the crop location.
That is exactly what Buffalo Trace did.
The land was originally a part of Virginia, which was then governed by Thomas Jefferson. He decided to define the area where Buffalo Trace is located as Bourbon County in honor of a French family that had helped the United States in the Revolutionary War. That is how the whiskey produced in the region came to be called bourbon whiskey. Later, the area became part of a new state — Kentucky in a new county — Franklin.
During Prohibition, many distilleries closed entirely, but not Buffalo Trace. Why? Because people could still get prescriptions for small quantities of whiskey for medicinal purposes. In this way, Buffalo Trace survived the Prohibition years.
The whiskey begins as corn, water and starch. There is an enzyme that converts the starch to sugar and produces a slurry called sweet mash.
“Our fermentation vats are 92,000 gallons and two stories tall,” the tour guide said. “They’re big enough that if you put them on their side, you could drive a semi truck through them.”
They add yeast to the sweet mash, which consumes the sugars, gives off carbon dioxide bubbles and alcohol. That makes distiller’s beer, the tour guide said. The fermentation vats give off the scent of bread — that hangs in the air of the distillery campus.
The beer moves to a still where, at some point, it reaches 173 degrees — the temperature at which ethanol evaporates.
“Then it goes into a vapor. We let that vapor condense by cooling it and we’ll have 110 proof clear alcohol. We need higher proof than that, so we put it in a still called a doubler. The temperature goes to 140-150 degrees, add some water to it, and take it to 125 proof and put it into a barrel. That process take about a week to a week and a half,” he said.
There is an interesting story about how whiskey came into existence. It was really by accident, he said. Distilleries in Bourbon County had a market for their clear alcohol in Louisiana and so they hauled it there in oak barrels. When the alcohol arrived, it had an amber hue and had taken on the flavors of the oak barrels. That is how bourbon whiskey was born, the tour guide said.
A byproduct of the distillation process are corn solids, which are extracted, dried and sold as [livestock] feed, he said.
In a video about Buffalo Trace, the narrator said Bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States that has won recognition and acceptance around the world.
“Here, and here alone, is a place where it has been crafted without interruption for more than 200 years,” the narrator said. Historically, the distillery has operated under several different names, including the George T. Stagg Distillery and the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery. Today Buffalo Trace is owned by the Sazerac Company.
“It takes its name from the buffalo traces that frontiersmen followed in the years before the Revolutionary War. Near where the buffalo had long crossed the Kentucky River, distillers found rich soil, perfect for growing corn and the naturally filtered limestone water was ideal for distilling that native grain into whiskey,” the video narrator said.
In the late 1700, the Old Taylor House was built on the distillery property. It is not only the oldest structure at the distillery, but the oldest residential building in Franklin County, Ky. Soon others built homes in the region and began distilleries, and the legend of Kentucky bourbon began.
According to a Buffalo Trace Distillery press release, the one-story house was originally built for Commodore Richard Taylor who served as superintendent of navigation on the Kentucky River and who was great-grandfather to Colonel Edmund Haynes. Taylor, Jr., a grand nephew of U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
Later a second story was added. Since its inception, the two-story house has held many different roles, including being a residence, first aid clinic, and even a laboratory for the distillery. The house underwent extensive restoration and renovation in 2015.
“The renovated house features beautiful hardwood floors and fresh paint throughout, and is lit by hanging Edison bulbs. The second floor lab displays old beakers and artifacts once used in the house,” the press release stated.
“Taylor’s great-grandson, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr., founded the bourbon industry as we know it — introducing techniques and standards that still endure.” His successors, Swigert and Kenner Taylor, [who organized E. H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons in 1894], would bring the business into the 20th century.”
In 1919 their business was threatened when Prohibition was enacted.
“This distillery was among the very few allowed to continue producing whiskey, strictly for medicinal purposes,” the narrator said.
After Prohibition, the business expanded. Today, Buffalo Trace makes a variety of acclaimed spirits. Among their brands are: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, White Dog, Bourbon Cream, Stagg Jr., Single Oak Project and W.L. Weller, a wheated bourbon, Wheatley Vodka and McAfee’s Benchmark.
“Buffalo Trace claims to have won more official honors and accolades on our brands than any other distillery. Repeatedly named distillery of the year, in 2013 Buffalo Trace earned its most cherished designation — as a national historical landmark,” the narrator said. “Generations of visionaries, builders, preservers and protectors have sustained this unique enterprise through adversity, past historic milestones to worldwide acclaim. … They seek to both honor tradition and embrace change.”
As one of the few distilleries that offers free tours, it is definitely worth the stop, but bring your wallet because the tour finishes in the gift shop after samples of many of the products, including their chocolates, have been offered. If you’re not careful, you’ll leave with several bags goodies from Buffalo Trace.
To learn more about Buffalo Trace, visit their website at https://buffalotracedistillery.com/.