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Celebrating Buffalo Trace Distillery: Icons of Whisky's Distiller of the Year 2022

Distiller of the Year Buffalo Trace honours tradition but embraces change
The whiskies of Buffalo Trace Distillery
The whiskies of Buffalo Trace Distillery
It’s tough to keep a global icon down. Buffalo Trace Distillery, a National Historic Landmark in Frankfort, Kentucky, has been named Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky Distiller of the Year for 2022, marking the eighth time it’s earned the honour. This year, the distillery has once again demonstrated the skill, insight, creativity and resourcefulness it takes to strike a balance between tradition and innovation, all the while never shifting its gaze from its commitment to sustainability and limiting its environmental impact. All this happens as America’s heritage distilleries aggressively increase production to satisfy the ever-growing global fascination with American whiskey.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, which counts Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s Single Barrel, George T. Stagg, Van Winkle, W.L. Weller and E.H. Taylor, Jr. among the many bourbons in its illustrious portfolio, has committed US$1.2 billion to expansion projects, including additional ageing facilities, with further significant investment earmarked specifically to support sustainability initiatives and experimental programs. Buffalo Trace is in the process of installing a duplicate beer still, which is 40 feet tall and seven feet in diameter, in a new still house that will be online by end of 2022. Eight new 93,000-gallon (352,000-litre) fermenters also went in earlier this year. Today, a total of 24 fermenters are in use on site, including four built in 2019 and 12 dating from 1933. The equipment will ultimately double the site’s distillation capacity to an impressive 120,000 gallons (454,249 litres) of pure alcohol per day.

More distillation will, of course, require more maturation space, but that’s not a new need. Since 2015, the company has built a new ageing warehouse every three months, each with the capacity told hold 58,800 barrels (or roughly 11.76 million bulk litres of whiskey). To support ongoing rickhouse expansion requirements, the Buffalo Trace team plans to further expand the estate and hopes to close on more acreage in the years ahead.

The flagship bourbon Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey


Meanwhile, long-standing structures are being reimagined. Over the past year, the Buffalo Trace team has repurposed the oldest warehouse, Warehouse B, a brick structure that dates to 1884 and has stood vacant for 20 years. Today, Warehouse B is beginning a new life as a ‘dry house’, supplementing the current facility, which dates from around 1944. In the dry houses, spent grains (from mashing) and stillage (the liquid left over after distillation) are processed to remove excess water and create animal feed, which is sold to farmers.

Warehouse B has been kitted out with sophisticated technology to make this process as eco-friendly as possible, including a thermal oxidiser, which breaks down volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A new mill house is also under construction on the site of an old one that was torn down at some point in the 1880s.
By combining creative flair, razor-sharp planning, engineering know-how, and world-class whisky-making expertise in equal measure, Buffalo Trace’s team has found intelligent and responsible solutions that ultimately guarantee the distillery can maintain the quality of its finely tuned liquid.

Buffalo Trace Distillery"s Warehouse X


Of course, making the right choices doesn’t usually involve keeping the chequebook closed, and the additional equipment required to preserve the original vacuum-cooling process after cooking, for instance, ran up a multi-million-dollar bill alone. “When we started the expansion, it was really important to document and understand the original process so we could be sure not to lose or change any part of it along the way, even if it costs extra money,” says master distiller Harlen Wheatley. “Even though we’re building metal-clad warehouses, we’re spending $1 million to insulate and another million to heat to allow for consistency and preserve that original flavour.”

Increased production has impacts far beyond the distillery grounds. To eliminate the strain on Frankfort’s municipal water-management system, the distillery recently broke ground on a $40 million wastewater treatment facility as part of its $1.2 billion expansion investment. Once the treatment facility is complete, the distillery will be self-sufficient in achieving and maintaining strict quality standards for its wastewater, which is released into a tributary that eventually feeds into the Kentucky River.

Buffalo Trace"s Antique Collection, released each year in the fall


For all its pride in its heritage and firmly established place in American history, Buffalo Trace has built a reputation as a thought leader when it comes to innovation. No expense has been spared in the effort to explore a wide spectrum of factors and their impacts on bourbon’s character in pursuit of the world’s best bourbon.
Experimentation started back in 1995 and evolved into what’s known as the Holy Grail Project. Among the many facets of the program is Warehouse P, a circa-1942 rickhouse that was enhanced with a cold-storage unit in 2017, in order to mimic the temperature and maturation conditions of Scotland. Warehouse X, unveiled in 2013, is a revolutionary four-chamber structure designed for experiments that examine the isolated effects of light, heat, airflow and more on ageing barrels.
The Experimental Collection ‘Baijiu-style’ sorghum and pea mash bill


Perhaps the most epic part of the pursuit is the Single Oak Project, a Human Genome Project–level undertaking to isolate the precise effects of different ageing variables. The project involved 192 barrels, each isolating a unique combination of factors related to mash bills, wood types, char levels and more. The resulting bourbons were voted on by consumers and experts, and the winning choice was unveiled in 2015. In 2025, Single Oak Project bourbon will be released widely. It will join other bottlings that started as experiments before joining the permanent line-up, like E.H. Taylor, Jr’s Four Grain Bourbon, Old Charter Oak French Oak and a Baijiu-style bourbon, one of the latest successes of the prized Experimental Collection.

Between its commitment to authenticity, quality-control assurance, embrace of radical innovation and the infrastructure to plan out production and ageing through 2045, Buffalo Trace is widening its global footprint and leading the charge as the world’s demand for bourbon persists.

The Experimental Collection ‘Baijiu-style’ sorghum and pea mash bill