Teaching an old distillery new tricks

Teaching an old distillery new tricks

Buffalo Trace takes its name from the great pioneering days when Kentucky marked the new frontier.Today, it's still blazing a trail for whiskey. Charles K. Cowdery reports

Production | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Charles Cowdery

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American straight whiskey is now taken seriously throughout the drinking world. This phenomenon is no longer new. Maker’s Mark, the first craft bourbon, has been on the market for close to 45 years. Blanton’s, Booker’s and Knob Creek are closing in on 20.Even in the glacially slow world of whiskey, these connoisseur bourbons have become established products.Now virtually every major drinks company has at least one American whiskey in its portfolio that is made for the drinker who wants to savour the full range of sensory pleasures that a finely crafted spirit can offer.This growing range of Kentucky bourbons, Tennessee whiskies and straight ryes provides a variety of taste experiences.While it is now beyond argument that the American whiskey industry has offerings that are truly worthy of discriminating palates, there has long been a cloud over this happy scene. Depending on how you count them, all of the straight whiskey the United States produces comes from only about a dozen distilleries.When it is possible to taste the output of every whiskey producer in one or two sittings, how much long term attention can the industry expect from adventurous aficionados who are always looking for something new to try?Not a problem, says Mark Brown, president and chief executive of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. He and his team believe even a single distillery can produce an endless diversity of whiskies.“Our goal is to provide different experiences for the consumer through age and recipe,” says Brown.One revelation as to how this could be done occurred when barrel rotation, a traditional practice, was abandoned due to its high cost. Rotation began because barrels of whiskey stored in low, cool, airless parts of a rackhouse age differently than barrels in the hot, upper reaches. Different locations and different types of rackhouses produce different characteristics in ageing whiskey. Rotation – periodically changing the location of barrels throughout their ageing life – evens out those differences so the final product is consistent from batch to batch.Although distilleries still talk about it, no one rotates barrels today because it is costly and unnecessary.Instead, mature whiskey is dumped into massive holding tanks where it is effectively ‘rotated’ in liquid form.This is a cost-effective way to achieve consistency, if that is what you seek, but leaving barrels alone also has an unintended consequence. It produces many different whiskies, which permits the release of unusual, idiosyncratic products for the enthusiast market.Buffalo Trace is a particular beneficiary of this because it has three different kinds of rackhouse on its sprawling, 110 acre campus in Frankfort, Kentucky: steel-clad, brick, and poured concrete.Whiskey ages differently in each. The fact that this is occurring is not so much the point as that Buffalo Trace recognised and found a way to exploit it. When Brown says Buffalo Trace wants to provide different experiences for the consumer through age and recipe, it is with recognition that recipe is not just mash bill and yeast.It is distillation proof, entry proof, and other ways to make whiskey taste different and better.Creating interesting new experiences for the world’s whiskey drinkers is the mission of Brown and his team.“I think there is a whole world out there with everything to play for and, thankfully, I don’t think the consumer at large will ever get to the place where ‘A or B’ will be a satisfactory choice,” says Brown. “There is always going to be room for players that specialise in real whiskey.”Buffalo Trace has an unusual platform for this mission due to its large portfolio, including mass market Ancient Age, regional favourites Old Charter and Virginia Gentleman, respected premium labels W.L. Weller and Benchmark, single barrel Blanton’s and Eagle Rare, and reserve styles Van Winkle, Sazerac and George T. Stagg. A Buffalo Trace brand bourbon is beginning to appear in limited markets.“I believe that our business is all about patience, dedication, and focus over a long period of time,” says Brown, “and that brand building is done very slowly, very carefully, over that period.”Although the name Buffalo Trace is just five years old, the distillery is 135. When Brown and company began to research its history, they learned it is located where buffalo herds once crossed the Kentucky River. The ford was part of a well established buffalo trail, also known as a
‘trace,’ hence the name.The distillery, once owned by Schenley, a predecessor company to Diageo, is America’s largest with a capacity of 10 million proof gallons per year.Sazerac has invested more than $20 million dollars in improvements.Buffalo Trace is the only American whiskey company that has all of its operations – distilling, ageing, processing, bottling, sales, and marketing – in one location. Having the entire team at the distillery has led to a unique appreciation of both its heritage and potential.In its quest to create the perfect bourbon, the company has looked at some of the more arcane aspects of the craft. It has learned, for instance, that the best barrels come from slow-growing oaks, with no fewer than nine growth rings per inch.It has also learned that air drying the staves and then toasting the barrel before charring also produces a better result.In addition to looking for ‘best practices,’ Buffalo Trace is experimenting to find new and better flavours. It isn’t looking for short cuts or ways around the rules, nor is it interested in copying, so it is leaving sherry butts and other ‘finishes’ to the Scots.It presently has about 1,500 different experimental barrels quietly ageing in its rackhouses. It is trying different grains (its nine-year-old, unmalted, unsmoked barley whiskey was an early failure), different woods (French Oak seems promising), and different aging strategies such as double-barreling (also promising).Mark Brown has been with Sazerac for nearly 20 years, interrupted by a five year stint at Brown-Forman (no relation). He started his drinks career in the early 1970s when his parents bought a run down free house 35 miles outside of London.“I watched my parents build it up,” says Brown. “We launched a concept called ‘beer of the week.’ We actually drove to breweries ourselves to get barrels and bring them back to the pub.”The opportunity to try something different drew patrons from miles round and taught Brown a valuable lesson about giving consumers choices.Brown listens carefully to consumers. When a West Virginia whiskey drinker wrote to suggest that the company offer an uncut and unfiltered bourbon, Brown asked one of his distillers to find something suitable in the rackhouse, put it in a small bottle, and sent it to the man to try.The consumer was thrilled by both the attention and the product. Buffalo Trace had already established a range it called the Antique Collection so it added that whiskey to the set.Called George T. Stagg Bourbon, it is 15 years old, barrel proof and unfiltered. The first Stagg release, in autumn of 2002, sold out in four months. The second release last autumn sold out in a day.Buffalo Trace is succeeding by taking whiskey enthusiasts seriously and staying ahead of their unquenchable thirst for something new and different, all the while recognising that in the quest for a perfect whiskey, getting there is all the fun.
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