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The Bourbons of Buffalo Trace

Updated: Mar 5


Bourbons of Buffalo Trace whiskey distillery

Image by Buffalo Trace/ The Whisky Ardvark


The huge Buffalo Trace 400-acre compound in Frankfort, Kentucky, is home to many well-known and loved bourbon brands. Owned by one of the biggest beverage companies in the world - The Sazerac Company - the distillery currently produces at least 15 different bourbons (and rye) annually with multiple expressions. Many of the brands produced today at Buffalo Trace have been inspired by important figures in the distillery's past.


The estimated production capacity of Buffalo Trace has been around 10 million litres (2 650 000 gallons) per annum. Sazerac has recently invested $1.2 billion (£1.06 billion) in the hopes of doubling the annual production capacity, including 30 new warehouses, by December 2022. The expansion will put the distillery into the same production group as the biggest single malt producers, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, respectively. Expanding the distillery is not unfamiliar territory for Buffalo Trace - during the 1900s, the site was constantly under construction and expanded from housing 14 buildings to 114.


We wanted to look at some of the best-known brands produced at the newly expanded distillery and discover their history. It also might surprise some, but some of the bourbon brands produced at the facility are owned by someone other than Buffalo Trace.


Let's peek in!


Buffalo Trace Whiskey distillery compound

Image by Buffalo Trace


 

The People of the Buffalo Trace Distillery


The distillery, now known as Buffalo Trace, was established by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. in 1870. Even though the land had already been used for storing barrels starting from 1811, the first distillation is credited to Daniel Swigert in 1858, who ran a small operation on site. In 1870, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. built the "O. F. C." (Old-Fashioned Copper) distillery, but in 1872 rebuilt the foundation for the modern distillery with $70,000 ($1,590,820 in today's money - £1,308,220).


O.F.C. whiskey distillery Old-Fashioned Copper distillery image late 1800s

Image by Pre-Pro - O.F.C. Distillery


Taylor's reign was also short-lived. He ran into financial trouble soon after rebuilding the distillery. He was approached by another army veteran, Captain George T. Stagg, who had grown to appreciate the O.F.C.-made whiskey as a salesman and had befriended Taylor over the years. Stagg purchased the distillery in 1878, creating E.H. Taylor, Jr. & Co. (later George T. Stagg & Co.) and served as the company president until the two friends departed over conflicting ideas about the company's future.


George T. Stagg company logo

Image by Pre-Pro


In 1897, Albert B. Blanton was hired as a then-16-year-old office boy. In only 3 years, he would become the Still House, Warehouse, and Bottling Superintendent just before the O.F.C Distillery was renamed the Stagg Distillery in 1900. The name was quickly changed to the George T. Stagg distillery in 1904.


Colonel Blanton took over the position of distillery president in 1921 after the hardships caused by the start of the prohibition. Blanton managed to secure a medicinal whiskey license and was able to continue distilling throughout the hard times. Blanton stayed on even when the distillery changed ownership in 1929 when the Schenley Distillers Corporation purchased the site. In 1933, the new owners invested greatly in expanding the compound into a state-of-the-art facility that took them five years to finish. Blanton retired in 1952.


Owners and master distillers of George T. Stagg distillery

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



In 1949, Elmer T. Lee walked through the door and was told that the distillery wasn't currently hiring. The following week, Lee turned up to work anyway and was hired as a maintenance engineer. After years of service, Lee climbed up the ladder to Plant Manager and Master Blender by 1969. He eventually retired in 1985 but stayed on as Emeritus Master Distiller for Buffalo Trace until he died in 2013.


In the early 1980s, the former CEO and the President of Fleischmann’s Distilling, Ferdie Falk and Bob Baranaskas founded Age International Inc. and approached Schenley hoping to purchase the Old Charter Bourbon Brand. Old Charter wasn't for sale, but the pair walked out with the ownership of the George T. Stagg Distillery and the Ancient Age Brand. Age International took over in 1983 with Elmer T. Lee as the Master Distiller and commissioned him to create a new brand. Blanton's was launched in 1984 to honour the man who once turned Lee away at the gates and to target a growing whiskey market in Japan.


During the reign of Age International, 3 more new single-barrel bourbons were launched: Elmer T. Lee (1986), Rock Hill Farms (1990), and Hancock’s Presidential Reserve (1991). In 1991, Age International sold a 22,5% stake to Japanese Takara Shuzo, who had been Age's importing partner since the launch of Blanton's. But in mid-1992, Age International entered a deal with Heublein Inc (underling of Grand Metropolitan - 1997 to become part of Diageo), allowing Takara Shuzo to intervene within 30 days. On the last day, Takara Shuzo announced their objection to the deal and purchased the distillery and brand itself (in a way).


Takara Shuzo had only wanted the rights to the bourbon brands and had used the given 30 days wisely. They had been plotting with the Sazerac Company. Sazerac would buy the distillery, and Takara Shuzo would keep the bourbon brands they wanted, with a long-time manufacturing deal with the distillery. All these actions were finalised in just one day.


So, in 1992, the distillery finally fell to the hands of its current owner, Sazerac Company. After yet another expansion, the distillery was christened Buffalo Trace in 1999. The first Master Distiller of Buffalo Trace, Gary Gayheart, started his career at the distillery in 1972 but retired in 2005 (MD 1999-2005), leaving Harlen Wheatley in charge.


Buffalo Trace whiskey distillery Gary Gayheart and Harlen Wheatley

Image by The Whisky Exchange

 

In a Nutshell


Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. 1830-1923 (career 1869-1880s)

Captain George T. Stagg 1835-1893 (career 1878-early 1890s)

Colonel Albert B. Blanton 1881- 1959 (career 1897-1952)

Elmer T. Lee 1919-2013 (career 1949-1985)

Gary Gayheart 1939- (career 1972-2005)

Harlen Wheatley 1969- (1995-present)

Owners and master distillers of George T. Stagg and Buffalo Trace whiskey distilleries timeline

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

Widening The Range


Over the years, the George T. Stagg, AKA Buffalo Trace Distillery, has acquired and launched several bourbon brands. We wanted to take a look at what happened and when and create a reverse Buffalo Trace family tree to visualise the mergers.


Buffalo Trace distillery bourbon brands introduced timeline

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Launched by the Distillery

Old Stagg 1933-1970s

Ancient Age 1938

*Blanton's Single Barrel 1984

*Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon 1986

*Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon 1990

*Hancock’s Presidential Reserve 1991

Buffalo Trace Bourbon 1999

Eagle Rare 17yo - Antique Collection 2000

George T. Stagg - Antique Collection 2002

William Larue Weller - Antique Collection 2009

E.H. Taylor Jr. Bourbon 2013

Stagg Jr. 2013

O.F.C. Vintage Bourbons 2016


*The Trademarks are still owned by Age International under Takara Shuzo


 

Seagram Purchase of 1989

Eagle Rare Bourbon (first introduced in 1975)

Benchmark (first introduced in 1968)


 

1999 Buffalo Trace name change

W. L. Weller (first introduced in 1846)

Old Charter (first introduced in 1874, made at George T. Stagg Distillery until 1983)


 

2002

*Pappy Van Winkle (first introduced in 1998)

*Old Rip Van Winkle (first introduced in 1972)


*The Trademark is still owned by the Van Winkle Family



 

What Makes The Whiskies Different


All Buffalo Trace whiskies are made by using 1 of 4 mash bills produced at the distillery, with some special mash bill exceptions.


Mash #1: a low-rye (10% or less) bourbon mash

Mash #2: a higher-rye (12-15%) bourbon mash

Wheated Mashbill: replaces rye content with wheat

Rye Mashbill: mash made with a little more than 50 % rye


The four mashbills of Buffalo Trace distillery whiskies

Image by Whisky Auctioneer


 

Special Warehouses

Around 1 million barrels are aged at the site of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, but some warehouses are considered to be more special than others.

Warehouse X - Experiment Warehouse

Warehouse H - Favored by Albert B. Blanton for the giving character

Warehouse V AKA No.43 - Smallest Bonded Warehouse in the world with only one barrel ageing at a time

Warehouse C - Located at the heart of the site


Details of Buffalo Trace whiskey distillery bourbon brands

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


To learn more about the distillery itself, please visit www.buffalotracedistillery.com

 

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