May 1, 2020

(Not quite) on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Buffalo Trace

After a lengthy but rewarding afternoon spent at the Wild Turkey visitor’s center near Lawrenceburg, Ky., we saved our final stop of two days of touring some of Kentucky’s finest bourbon distilleries for the Buffalo Trace headquarters in the state capital of Frankfort.

In full disclosure, the Buffalo Trace distillery was an original member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which has only been an “official” self-guided tour sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association since 1999.  But when the Sazerac Company purchased Buffalo Trace in 2010, Sazerac discontinued its partnership with other distillers on the trail (one supposed reason:  Buffalo Trace wanted to continue to offer free tours).  Regardless of how “official” its status is today, Buffalo Trace is widely considered part of the greater Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience, and since I happen to consider Buffalo Trace one of my favorite bourbons (much like Punky loves her Wild Turkey), we made it a priority to come here. 

I also feel compelled to describe my first impressions of Frankfort.  It’s one of the most oddly laid out towns I’ve ever seen, and it takes a little getting used to when you’re first exploring it.  It seems to exist along the Kentucky River in spite of the river’s and the surrounding terrain’s best efforts to thwart city planners who were intent on putting the state capital here.  About 25,000 people call it home today, and its historic neighborhoods near the capitol and the governor’s mansion are quite scenic and hilly.  Its small downtown area is very charming and walkable. 

You’ll find the Buffalo Trace distillery on the northern outskirts of Frankfort, where its location along the Kentucky River is still very much part of its identity.  According to legend, this is where migrating buffalo once crossed the river, hence the name “Buffalo Trace.”  Of course, bourbon was made her long before the Buffalo Trace label was introduced in 1999.  Other famous bourbons with roots here include Stagg, Elmer T. Lee and Pappy Van Winkle.

With a heritage like that, it’s no wonder the distillery is registered as a National Historic Landmark.  

As the expansive grounds came into full view as we drove up, it felt reminiscent of a factory town out of the first decades of the 20th Century – old brick warehouses and rickhouses toward the entrance, several factory buildings closer to the riverside for the distillation process and an occasional administrative building dotted throughout the site. 

Seemingly at the center of it all, the historic water tower completes the old “factory town” vibe.

We arrived late in the afternoon and were rushing to beat an approaching rainstorm, so we parked as close as we could to the distillery and joined the crowd gathering in front of what turned out to be Warehouse C where a guided tour had already begun. 

The scent of sweet mash coming from the windows combined with the “fresh rain” smell coming in from the north was almost indescribable, but it was certainly enticing. 

According to the distillery website, Warehouse C has been used to age bourbon on site for more than 130 years, and each barrel is stored in its proper place to produce a distinct flavor.  So, if you thought it smelled wonderful on the outside, imagine the combined aromas of aged bourbon and aged oak as you walk through the ground level. 

After walking though Warehouse C, we noticed the visitor’s center and gift shop directly across the road.  With closing time approaching, we decided check out the various displays inside and hopefully get a tasting.  But much to our surprise, the bartender at the tasting room sadly informed us they had sold out of product.  They did have some of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream left (which is better than Irish cream, in my opinion), but no straight bourbon left for sale.  I’m not sure how this happens, but I took it as an obvious sign of a highly successful weekend.

Undaunted, we continued our tour of the visitor’s center and eventually found the distillery’s whiskey vault on the upper level.

The history and value of everything behind these bars boggles the mind.   

Punky and I concluded two full days on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail feeling highly satisfied with our journey yet thirsty for more.  In many ways, we had barely scratched the surface of all of the sights and tastes the trail has to offer.  After all, with nearly 20 locations on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (and just as many more on the Craft Tour), one could easily devote a weekend to Louisville alone … and we didn’t even consider that destination on our first trip on the trail. 

If you love bourbon, and if you just love a good road trip, there’s no better experience that combines the two.  When the opportunity arises, we will definitely be hitting the trail again to revisit some of our favorite spirits and discover some new ones.      

I also have one final observation about Frankfort to share that compels me to come back someday – it’s not often you see your name given to a federal court house.  They even got the initial right.  Whatever the reason was for naming this building, all I know is I didn’t do it. 

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