One day the pandemic will be part of our legacy. It has been comforting in these difficult times to look to the Kentucky Bourbon industry, which has had staying power through all kinds of adversity. The history of this storied sector holds clues not only for how to survive, but also for how to use the lessons learned in difficult times to prepare for a thriving future. Buffalo Trace Distillery has been through fires, floods and more and has become one of the powerhouses of the industry.
“I wish that I could be one of these folks who got a chance for time not to be a factor in my life,” says world-renowned Buffalo Trace tour guide Freddie Johnson. “When I look at Granddad I think about Colonel Blanton, when I look at Dad I think about Elmer T. Lee and Ronnie Eddens and Leonard Riddle, who recently passed away. And then I think about me today, and I think about Harlen Wheatley, and I’m a hybrid of Elmer, Gary Geyhart, and Harlen Wheatley. I’ve been so blessed to have actually been at Buffalo Trace with three different living master distillers.”
Buffalo Trace Distillery has been named Visitor Attraction of the Year by Icons of Whisky multiple times, and Freddie himself was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2018. Freddie’s family has worked at the distillery for three generations, going back to his grandfather, Jimmy Johnson, who worked with Colonel Albert Blanton. A lot has happened at the distillery over the decades, and the Johnsons have had a front-row seat for most of it. The pandemic is just the latest in a series of challenges the distilling industry has faced.
“EH Taylor’s distillery burned down in the late 1800s and he had to rebuild the whole thing,” says Buffalo Trace senior marketing director Kris Comstock. “Prohibition came and Colonel Blanton had to survive that and then World War One and World War Two, when we were swinging deals with the government to make whiskey one month and make alcohol the next month for munitions. Then of course there was the flood of 1937 when half of the distillery was underwater. We’ve persevered through all this stuff. The 40s, 50s, and 60s were great times for the distillery, but then Bourbon became less popular in the 70s. We went from 1,000 employees and making 200,000 barrels a year, to when Harlen joined the distillery in 1995 and we were down to 50 people and making 12,000 barrels a year – some Ancient Age and a little bit of Blanton’s and not much else. People in the 1970s were drinking other things. In the 1990s, it was a desolate, sad place to see. We’d bottle maybe one day a week. Those were dark days. It has been in the last 25 years there has really been a rebirth in the American whiskey industry, particularly at Buffalo Trace.”
The road back has been spurred by a vision of greatness and quality.
“Mark Brown is the one who had the vision that American whiskey should be just as respected as single malt Scotch,” Kris says. “Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam had started to make a name for American whiskey around the world, but Bourbon in particular just hadn’t put a stake in the ground yet declaring we were just as good as everyone else. When Elmer showed Mark Brown how good the whiskey was Mark saw this was a diamond in the rough and we just needed to polish it up. Then we renamed the distillery in 1999 and John Hansel named us Distillery of the Year.”
From there, Buffalo Trace grew year after year, until its whiskeys became some of the most highly sought-after on the market. From W.L. Weller to Eagle Rare to George T. Stagg to Pappy Van Winkle, almost everything Buffalo Trace makes has become a household name.
One of the happy accidents of all this success has been shortages of products that are so popular they can’t be kept in stock. As Bourbon slowly regained popularity, production was inched up at first and then full-throttled later.
However, it takes six to 10 years to age a Bourbon for the market, so the sudden boom in popularity caught many Kentucky distilleries off guard. Across the Commonwealth distilleries are expanding as quickly as construction schedules will allow, and Buffalo Trace is no exception after five years of non-stop expansion.
“We are stair-stepping the expansion,” says Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley. “If you look back 25 years ago, we were running partial fermenters just a few days a week. In the past five years we’ve had to grow exponentially by adding more equipment. We’ve always had more capacity at this distillery than we needed up until about three years ago, when we started by adding more boiler capacity. Once we started that project it just continued to progress, so we added more cooking capacity first. We added enough to handle doubling our still capacity, and then we have to double drying capacity because that’s your by-product. So it’s an evolution. There is a capacity at this site because eventually you can’t bring in any more trucks or add any more equipment.”
“We’re five years into the expansion and I don’t see an end in sight,” Kris says. “We’re going to double our capacity, cooking twice as much grain. It’s a huge project within a National Historic Landmark. It’s not as easy as building on new land. We have to fit it in within the historic distillery setting. We want to install cookers that are going to cook our grain in the same fashion they have already done. These cookers are unlike any in the industry because they are based on how they were pressure cooking the grains before, but on a much bigger scale. They are huge steel fermenter tanks – we had 12 and now we have 24. There’s a new boiler. Our column still can make over 200,000 barrels of whiskey a year, but it’s not going to be enough. We’re going to be adding a second still to double the capacity in the still house in the next two years.”
In addition to production capacity, Buffalo Trace is expanding warehouses and visitor centre and retail spaces, as well. While tours were temporarily suspended during the first surge of the pandemic, Buffalo Trace took the opportunity to fast-forward construction progress in the visitor’s centre. Before the pandemic struck 300,000 visitors a year were streaming through the distillery, meaning not only was the site maxing production capacity but also tourism capacity.
“With the expansion of our visitor’s centre we can probably accommodate a half million people a year,” says Kris. “We have a number of tours – The Old Taylor Tour, The Barrel Tour, The Ghost Tour, the standard Trace Tour, The Hard Hat Tour. But some of those we only do once a day, so as we go forward we will be able to offer some more frequently. There’s also a lot more to show people as we expand up on Whiskey Farm.”
While these are certainly difficult times there have also been opportunities to learn lessons that will be helpful in the future. During the pandemic, the tour crew had the opportunity to experiment with new tour options in order to maintain safety protocols for guests and employees alike. The lessons learned will help them configure new tour options and protocols in the post-pandemic world.
“We shut down in March and opened back up the first of July,” recalls Freddie. “We had walked multiple tour configurations to figure out how to meet the requirement while still providing a quality tour for customers and also keeping safety in mind for the employees and the gift shop folks and the consumers. We updated our systems to be able to track where we have been, have we sanitised, are we monitoring where people go. We used to be very loose on the tours where you could go pretty much wherever you wanted. Now we’ve got folks who have been before and they want to go where they’ve always gone and we have to use our interpersonal skills to help them understand the world has changed.”
The downtime not only gave the construction crews an opportunity to push their schedule up without having to worry about inconveniencing visitors, but it also gave the tour guides a chance to think about how to reconfigure tours. “We went to a group of eight on a tour and if you go upstairs in the visitor’s centre we’ve tied the Bourbon industry with the thoroughbred horse industry, so the main area is set up with the Giants of Bourbon with pictures of Stagg, Blanton, Weller, and Pappy with stories around each one,” says Freddie. “Then for tastings we’re going to be scanning wrist bands to ensure people are with the right group, whether they are supposed to be doing a tasting, whether they are over 21, things like that. Sometimes people are doing two or more tours, so we are holding their tasting until they are finished with their tours for the day.
“If I’m a visitor coming to your site, the first thing that I am looking for is what is my experience going to be like at your site? Next I’m looking for my risk versus my reward; do I feel comfortable? Third, can I do a virtual tour of your site before I do an actual tour of your site, because a virtual tour is really an appetiser that makes me want to come to your site. Fourth, do I get a personal experience versus an impersonal experience – am I part of it or am I just another number? The last piece is when I visit, do you treat me as someone coming into your home or do you treat me as a retail sale?”
Even if you have been on a Buffalo Trace tour many times in the past, it’s not going to be the same place by the time you make it back.
Buffalo Trace has been looking to the future for years already, thanks in part to the research at its Warehouse X.
“What we call that experiment is the future of ageing,” Harlen explains. “It’s a 20-year experiment. We are putting these barrels in different chambers and experimenting with different atmospheric conditions, from air flow to temperature and humidity to sunlight and surface temperature. We are trying to learn why this whiskey is ageing the way it is, which will allow us to explain in our existing warehouses why this barrel in this warehouse tastes the way it does. We’ve got more than six million data points... looking at all aspects and how the whiskey tests.”
The leadership of Buffalo Trace made good use of downtime...
Between experimentation, expansion of production, and expansion of visitor experiences, the future of Buffalo Trace will be bustling.
“When things get back to some semblance of normalcy and we can be sure people can be safe, I expect over time to get back to the same levels of tourism as before,” Kris predicts. “It might not be back to those levels a year from now, but I think in a few years it will be... It has been nice that some people are starting to come back and we can see the smiles on people’s faces.”
“Our consumers and fans continue to give us feedback that they don’t like going into a store and not being able to find our products, so we want people to understand we are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand our operations and making more whiskey just so we can get more out there on the market to fill the demand that is out there,” Harlen explains. “We are working really hard every day to make that happen. We never shut down, we run every day, and there are no plans to stop. The plan is to continue to expand. We’ve got that planned out until 2034. That plan changes about every six months. We look at how many warehouses do we need, how many barrels do we need to make, and so on. It’s continued growth. We’re hopeful the pandemic will show improvement in 2021 with vaccine results and whatnot.”
“At last count we were over 700,000 barrels ageing at the distillery,” says Freddie. “Of those, more than 30,000 barrels are experimental. We are already making products that could be the Bourbons of the future...”
The leadership of Buffalo Trace made good use of downtime in 2020 to prepare for the future by expanding visitor capacity and continuing to make whiskey that won’t see the inside of a bottle for at least six years.
“The pandemic is just another one of those things we are persevering through,” Kris says. “We’re not going to stop. This year we are making more barrels than we have before. We’re making things now to sell in 2028.”
By planning for the future instead of putting things on hold, Buffalo Trace Distillery has secured its legacy for the next generation.
“My heart beats faster because I look at Josh Wheatley and Dillon Livers and Kevin Newaczyk, our fermentation guru, and it just gets me excited to see the next legacy at Buffalo Trace,” Freddie says. “They are producing things at the distillery today that I will have to accept, just like Elmer and Ronnie and Leonard and Dad and Granddad and all the folks who have gone before us, that I may never live to taste the final fruits of this next generation of whiskey that is being produced at Buffalo Trace Distillery. It’s humbling to think that you are a part of something that, years from now, will be receiving double gold medals at the international level.”