Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Buffalo Trace Tour

After completing the tour at Four Roses, I made my way back up to Frankfort for lunch before heading over to Buffalo Trace for an afternoon tour. There are actually five different tours offered at Buffalo Trace, but the primary one, called the Trace Tour, is the only one that doesn’t require a reservation. It’s offered seven days a week, every hour on the hour, and more frequently when necessary.

Keep in mind that Buffalo Trace is located on the edge of a densely developed portion of the state capital and that Lexington, which is ten times the size, is just 40 minutes away. The distillery is easy to find and get to, located off of a major four-lane road that links back to Interstate 64. That all translates to the potential for massive tourist influxes at Buffalo Trace. I believe a figure of 2000 people a day during the peak season was mentioned, and the distillery isn’t even part of the promotional Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

All of that being said, it’s understandable that the Trace Tour is somewhat simplified compared to the main tours given at other distilleries. While it does last an hour and includes a video and a tasting, it only brings visitors through a warehouse and a bottling hall and forgoes the other production areas. For those who are looking for something more in-depth, the Hard Hat Tour offers an extensive look at the parts of the facility that handle everything from grain delivery to distillation. The Hard Hat Tour is closer to what most other distilleries offer as their standard tour, but with a lot more detail.

I had originally made a reservation for the 10:30 Hard Hat Tour, about three weeks in advance. My plan was to precede it with the 9:00 Trace Tour, and then have lunch in Frankfort afterwards and head down to Four Roses for one of the afternoon tours. Then, about a week before my visit, I got a phone call from someone at Buffalo Trace who regretfully let me know that the tour I had reserved wasn’t going to be available that day (something about a special event and a lack of tour guides). She was very helpful though and switched me over to the 1:30 Hard Hat Tour that would still be running on the same day. That wasn’t too bad; I just ended up going to Four Roses in the morning and would still be able to catch the Trace Tour at 3:00 or 4:00.

The visitor’s entrance is a tree-lined drive from the main road (truck traffic uses two alternate entrances to the property). It’s about ¼-mile long and goes up and over a hill, giving the brief impression of a rural countryside setting before the distillery complex comes into view. It has a historical feel, though with quite an industrial look.

To the right of the drive there is ample parking, which is adjacent to Warehouse C. From there it’s just a short walk over to the visitor’s center.

I failed to notice the plaque on the building until after the tour, but at some point our guide did mention that it was originally one of the early warehouses on the site. As with Maker’s Mark, being here on a weekday in the dead of winter meant there were no crowds and only seven in our group (Hard Hat Tours are limited to 15). The tour does involve a lot of walking and much of it is outside, so be sure to dress for the cold if you’re there in the winter.

Touring distilleries in Scotland, I learned that the best people to be shown around by are the ones who have actually worked there in a production role. Our guide, Shelly, had been leading tours at Buffalo Trace for 10 years and she had worked on the bottling line at National Distiller’s Old Grand Dad plant back in the 1980’s. She had some great insight and was able to provide a perspective that is rare on typical distillery tours.

Along the way she talked about how much the tourists themselves have evolved over the last 10 years. Not only are there a lot more visitors these days, many of them are incredibly knowledgeable about the products, production methods and histories of the brands and distilleries. She noted how important it was for the guides to really know their stuff and also mentioned that she asks each group a few questions up front to get a feel for their level of knowledge and adjusts her topics of discussion accordingly.

At some point I mentioned the seasonal summer shutdowns, which currently last up to two months, and she recalled the entire industry basically shutting down for six months each year back in the doldrums of the mid-1980’s. I don’t recall the exact figures she used, but she also talked about the modernization of the bottling lines and how many more cases of whiskey could be bottled in a day by a much smaller workforce compared to when she had done the job about 30 years ago.

As our group gathered in the Visitor’s Center, Shelly asked if any of us had visited other distilleries in the area recently. When I said I had toured Four Roses that morning, another tour guide who was walking by smiled gleefully and gave me a thumbs-up. Shelly commented “oh, he loves Four Roses”. The fact the a Buffalo Trace employee felt comfortable expressing his adoration of a competing distillery in a room full of tourists really says a lot about the culture of the company.

The Buffalo Trace distillery has a long and storied history. Its official name was O.F.C from 1870 to 1904 and George T. Stagg from 1904 to 1999, when it was renamed as Buffalo Trace. The oldest building on the site dates back to 1790, industrial scale distilling began in 1858, and significant periods of expansions occurred after the Civil War, after Prohibition and after World War II. All of that would be way too much to talk about on a one hour tour, so Shelly chose to focus on the role Col Albert B. Blanton played in shaping the distillery into its modern configuration during the post-Prohibition period of reconstruction and expansion.

Blanton, who was raised on a farm adjacent to the distillery property, was hired on as an office boy in 1897. He worked his way up in the company and become president of the distillery in 1921. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the bourbon industry was anxious to restart. Schenley, the company that had owned the distillery since 1929, was a little slow out of the gate but had initiated a major rebuilding of the distillery by 1935.

Blanton was the driving force of this initiative. Shelly explained to us that it was his decision to keep the whole operation on one campus rather than building warehouses, bottling facilities and finished goods storage at remote locations. She also told us about his decision to rebuild the old stillhouse into the new power plant. Now with tremendous boiler capacity, the distillery was properly positioned for rapid growth. Next to come were the new buildings for mashing, fermenting and distilling.

As we walked from the visitor’s center back toward the production facilities we stopped to check out an interesting mural on the side of a cinderblock wall. It depicts the view down an aisle of a barrel rackhouse, but it is meant to be viewed at a steep angle (maybe 60 degrees from straight on) to give the proper perspective. Looking at the image while standing directly in front of it elongates everything from side to side.

Continuing on, we walked down a narrow alley between two buildings. Looking through the windows to my left I could see the mills, lathes and other tools of a fully equipped machine shop. At some point Shelly also mentioned the number of pipefitters, plumbers and electricians they have on staff at the distillery. The operation is clearly quite self-sufficient.

Once we had made our way out to the buildings that house all of the production equipment, we moved back indoors. The group of buildings, which lie just off the east bank of the Kentucky River, are all multi-level and interconnected. It’s a bit maze-like in there and one can easily get a little disoriented, losing perspective of where you are relative to where you’ve recently been.

Feeling like we’d entered the belly of the beast, we first got an up close view of the three mash cookers, each with a capacity of about 10,000 gallons. They look massive and are quite loud as they cook the corn under pressure and at 240 degrees.

Moving up one level onto the steel grate flooring over the cookers, we saw the mechanism that feeds the grain into the tops of those vessels.

Moving up yet another level we saw the travelling scale hopper that connects to the top of the flexible tube we had just seen below. The hopper fills with corn, weighing it out for the various recipes and can move across the floor to line up with each of the three cookers below.

Next to the hopper are the two “small grain” cookers. This is where we learned that the rye, wheat and malted barley are all cooked separately from the corn at Buffalo Trace, unlike at most other distilleries. One of the two vessels is used for malted barley only, and the other is used for either rye or wheat, depending on the recipe that is being used. The individual grains are fed in from a scale hopper and cooked at their respective appropriate temperatures, breaking down and dissolving starches. The small grains are then pumped from their cookers down to the larger cookers below and added to the corn, which has been cooled down by this point. Now the actual mashing takes place with the mixture held at 145 degrees, which activates the enzymes from the malted barley and converts the dissolved starches into fermentable sugars.

This is just a different way of doing the same thing as other distilleries. At Buffalo Trace the cooks happen simultaneously in separate vessels before the grains are brought together to mash, where the more common method is to cook them in stages in one vessel before mashing, as I described in my Four Roses post.

Right next to the “small grains” cookers was a yeast mash cooker which I believe was no longer in use, as Buffalo Trace no longer propagate their own yeast; they’ve contracted that out to another company and have used dried yeast for at least 20 years. The yeast mash cooker still has a dedicated scale hopper above it which used to supply a mix of malted barley and rye.

Next we went through an elevated walkway to get to the fermentation building. Like most things at Buffalo Trace, this too was massive in scale. Each of the 12 fermenters is 30 feet deep and can hold more than 90,000 gallons.

A few of them had covered tops with openings that we could look through, but most of them were open-top tanks.

A system of ducts ran to each fermenter, putting a small exhaust hood just above the liquid. This is necessary to remove the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, which could otherwise result in the room having dangerously low levels of oxygen.

We were offered the opportunity to dip a finger into the fermenting liquid for a taste. But unlike on other tours, we were instructed by Shelly to taste a few of them as she directed us from a very recently filled tank to others that were progressively further along in the fermentation process. It was really interesting to taste the flavors evolve and become successively less sweet.

Shelly also pointed out the pools of corn oil that had separated out in some of the fermenters and was floating on the top. She recommended we avoid that when dipping a finger in, as it would taste pretty awful.

One of the fermenters was in the process of being filled, with liquid flowing in from two pipes. One was larger than the other and supplied mash from holding tanks which had been filled by the 10,000 gallon cookers that we saw when we first entered the production buildings. The smaller pipe was delivering spent mash from a previous distillation run. This is a byproduct of the column still distillation, and it’s what puts the sour in sour mash. The purpose of adding this liquid, which is also know as backset, is to lower the pH of the wort (unfermented beer), creating a more accommodating environment for the yeast. Almost all modern American whiskeys are made with the sour mash method but it is something that’s associated with certain brands more so than others, primarily because they feature it prominently on their labels.

Within the fermenting building is the smaller yeast room. This is where they used to send the yeast mash, which was used in yeast tubs to propagate the yeast into sufficient quantities for pitching into the fermenters. But as I mentioned above, Buffalo Trace switched over to dried yeast purchased from another company more than 20 years ago.

In 2008 the yeast room was converted into the Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. “OFC” Micro Distillery. The old mash tubs, which each hold about 2400 gallons, now serve as its fermenters.

A small but very versatile combination still was installed. This is where many of the Experimental Collection whiskeys and some of the E.H. Taylor Jr. whiskeys are now produced.

We exited into another enclosed walkway that connected over to the stillhouse by passing across the roof of the building that I had noted earlier as housing the machine shop. Entering on the 3rd floor, we were confronted with the mid section of the column still, which is absolutely massive. At 84 inches in diameter, it may be the biggest column still used to make whiskey in the U.S.

I should note that the column stills operated by these large producers are all roughly the same height, at about 4 stories. Capacity is determined by diameter; more height just allows you to distill to a higher proof. There’s an optimal distance for the spacing between the plates in a column still and the more plates you have the further you can refine the distillate. But if you’re making whiskey you don’t want to distill it too far, otherwise you’ll lose the character of the sprit. Shelly mentioned that Buffalo Trace goes to 110 proof with their column still and the proof off of the doubler ranges from 142 to 150, depending on what they’re making.

If the diameter of a column still is doubled, its cross-sectional area quadruples (remember from grade school, the area of a circle equals pi times the radius squared). This means that the single 84 inch column still at Buffalo Trace has nearly twice the capacity as the three 36 inch diameter stills at Maker’s Mark combined. Shelly also noted that production is currently at 800 barrels per day.

This level of the stillhouse is also where the condensers tailboxes are located. We had the opportunity to taste the white dog straight out of the tailbox, which is always a nice touch on a tour.

Next we stepped outside onto a steel grate walkway that runs along the edge of part of the stillhouse roof. The view back to the east over the distillery grounds was pretty amazing, overlooking many of the warehouses and various production buildings.

Looking down, in the foreground, we could view a few of the big outdoor tanks. The bigger one was actually the beer well, which holds 100,000 gallons and is filled by the liquid from the fermenters. This is the tank that feeds the column still. It seemed a little odd to have that outside and uncovered, but I guess a little rainwater wouldn’t make much difference with that volume of liquid.

The other two tanks, which were smaller, are filled with the “spent beer” (spent mash, backset, it goes by a lot of names) that comes out of the bottom of the column still. They’re a little hard to see because of the clouds of water vapor coming off of them on a cold winter day. One tank is used to supply the backset that is fed into the fermenters and mixed with the newly cooked mash. The content of the other tank is transferred to another building where it is dried and becomes animal feed.

Back inside we went down a few flights of stairs to the ground level of the stillhouse where we saw the doubler and the spirits tanks, as well as the heads & tails tanks. It was nice to see proof here that the doubler is used to separate out unwanted congeners, as I did at Four Roses.

Also on display were the many pumps that keep all things liquid in motion at Buffalo Trace.

Outside again, we made our way back to where we had started, passed the visitors center and entered the Albert B. Blanton Bottling Hall. This building originally served as a power plant, producing steam to heat some of the warehouses in the winter. It was expanded in the 1930’s and now it is where the single barrel whiskeys and some of the small batch whiskeys are bottled. The main bottling hall is a much bigger building located between the visitors center and the fermentation building.

Finally, we started to make our way over to Warehouse C. I hadn’t noticed which warehouse this was when parked in front of it and walked by it upon arriving. Realizing where we were going, I asked Sherry where the tornado damage had been. She stopped in her tracks, turned nearly 180 degrees and walked us around to the other side of the building to point out the newer brick work all along the upper floor of that wall.

The others on the tour had no idea what I was talking about and were baffled by our sudden change of course. Shelly had to fill them in with a brief explanation. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, please see my post regarding the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon that resulted from that incident.

This traditional brick wall, wood floor rackhouse holds barrels three high on each of its six floors, with a total capacity of 24,000 barrels.

Inside we saw many of the experimental barrels, some of which had more information on their heads than others.

There were also barrels which were larger and smaller than the traditional 53 gallon ones. These had to sit in the aisles because they wouldn’t fit in the size-specific racks. The biggest was 132 gallons.

The tour ended with a tasting back at the visitors center. We were offered a choice of two out of four; Eagle Rare Bourbon, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Mash Bill #1 White Dog and Wheatley Vodka (named for current Master Distiller, Harlan Wheatley).

I went with the two bourbons, and Shelly explained that they are both made from the same recipe, Mash #1, which is the distillery’s low rye mash bill (they don’t disclose the exact recipes used at the distillery, but most sources estimate that Mash #1 has between 8% and 10% rye and Mash #2 has between 12% and 15% rye). Both of these bourbons are bottled at 90 proof, so the only difference really comes down to age and warehouse location. Buffalo Trace Bourbon carries no age statement, but is said to be at least 6 years old and its barrels come from the middle floors of warehouses C, I and K. Eagle Rare carries a 10 year age statement and comes from the lower floors of the same warehouses.

It’s tough to make tasting notes during a distillery tour, but I’ve had each of these bottlings sitting on the shelf at home for some time, so I can follow up now. I should note that these bottles are a few years old and the label of the Eagle Rare bottle has changed. It was previously bottled as a single barrel bourbon and essentially still is, thought it is no longer labeled as such. This was due to an increase in production which meant it had to be bottled on different equipment where they can’t guarantee that whiskey from the individual barrels won’t mix in the line from the tank to the bottling equipment.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon
nose – The more aromatic of the two, it shows caramel, vanilla fudge and a bit of leather.
palate – Well balanced with just enough sweetness. Caramel and candy corn play nicely with the dry oak notes.
finish – Dry, warm and lingering, but a little static in terms of flavor development.
overall – A straightforward and uncomplicated bourbon.

Eagle Rare Bourbon
nose – The aromas are somewhat similar, but with more of a dry, earthy character. Notes of a dusty earthen cellar floor come through.
palate – There’s a floral spice note (maybe teaberry) up front, accompanied by some subtle sweetness.
finish – A floral / fruit character shows early in the finish. That note fades as it becomes drier and more spice driven, with a clay-like note coming to prominence at the tail end.
overall – This one has a good bit more complexity overall, with the flavors showing a greater range as they evolve from start to finish.

At the end of the tour I mentioned that I was planning to stick around for one of the late afternoon Trace Tours. Shelly explained that after what she had covered (I think she extended our Hard Hat tour a bit since it was a relatively quiet day) I really wouldn’t get much more out Trace Tour. Instead, she suggested that I take a drive out of town and check out the sites of the former Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries, both of which were being partially refurbished for upcoming distillery projects. She even gave me great directions to that area from my hotel on the other side of town. I’ll follow up with details of that visit in another post.

On the way out, I stopped to take a quick picture of Warehouse X. This is the experimental warehouse that was built in 2013. Some experimentation was going on at the distillery before it was purchases by Sazerac in 1992, but the new owners really ramped up that program. In 2007 there were 1600 experimental barrels aging in the warehouses. By 2015 that number was up to 4000.

The new warehouse holds 150 barrels and is split into 5 chambers. The center one has a gate at each end, leaving it exposed to the outdoor conditions. In the other four chambers light, temperature, humidity and air flow can all be individually controlled with a state-of-the-art HVAC system. This project was inspired by the success of the Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon, which came from barrels exposed to the elements for an entire summer while the warehouse was under repair.

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