There’s bourbon, and then there’s privately-selected barrels of bourbon, specially bottled for discerning fans of the only spirit that Congress declared fifty years ago to be “a distinctive product of the United States.”
The Whiskey Barrel Society – founded in Columbus and spreading throughout the nation – recently traveled to the heart of bourbon country to help the experts at Cork ‘N Bottle, the first store to bring fine wines & spirits to the greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area back in 1964, select eight barrels of Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey, four barrels of Eagle Rare Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and one barrel each of W.L. Weller Special Reserve, Old Weller Antique, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon (the single barrel whiskey first released in 1984 that many people say began the current bourbon renaissance).
A trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bucket-list item for any fan of American history or bourbon. The Buffalo Trace Distillery, in particular, is at the heart of bourbon history and legends, going back to the early 1800’s with bourbon pioneers, and expanding during the late 1800’s under bourbon industrialists Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. and George T. Stagg. The Whiskey Barrel Society went behind the scenes to meet the Master Distiller, and track the process of creating bourbon from barreling and aging to dumping and bottling.
After a barbecue lunch at Buffalo Trace’s on-site restaurant (in a former firehouse), our tour guide, Fred reminded us what it takes for whiskey to be called “bourbon.” It must be distilled from at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, be barreled at no more than 125 proof without any coloring or flavoring added, aged in new charred oak barrels, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Fred walked us through the distillery property, which has been expanding ever since the first distillation on the banks of the Kentucky River as early as 1811. Expansion really took off in 1870 after the “O.F.C.” as it was known then (“Old Fire Copper”), was purchased by Col. Taylor. Col. Taylor eventually partnered with Stagg and they built a second distillery on the same site, known as The Carlisle Distillery. Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually-operating distillery in the United States, where even during Prohibition, it enjoyed a license to make “medicinal” whiskey.
We went inside Warehouse C, dating back to 1881, which still bears the “O.F.C.” name, and which ages some of the world’s most sought-after bourbon. In April 2006 tornados ripped through Central Kentucky, hitting Warehouse C, andtearing off part of the roof and the top of the north brick wall. Fortunately, none of the 53-gallon barrels on the top rows were lifted away or damaged, but they were exposed to the elements as the wall and roof were repaired over the hot Kentucky summer. When the 93 affected barrels were tasted in 2011, they were remarkable, and were released as the highly-acclaimed “Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon.”
But the best part of the day was sampling thirty-nine bourbons straight from the barrel in Warehouse H, which was built in 1934 by then-Master Distiller Col. Albert B. Blanton, and where the majority of his namesake single barrel bourbon is aged.
We started with the brand named after the Distillery – Buffalo Trace – which since its release in 1999 has quickly become one of the most popular bourbons around, so Cork ‘N Bottle knew that it needed a hefty supply. We sampled eighteen barrels of Buffalo Trace and selected four that will be blended together before bottling, and another four that will be sold as a unique Buffalo Trace Single Barrel. The standard Buffalo Trace is a blend of many barrels of eight-to-nine-year-old bourbon, selected by the Master Distiller to match a particular profile, so tasting the distinct variations between different single barrels was a special treat.
Next, we tasted nine barrels of Eagle Rare, which is typically a ten-year-old single barrel bourbon. As with the Buffalo Trace, the aging process brought out distinct characteristics in each barrel. Cork ‘N Bottle selected the best four barrels for its private bottling.
Then we moved on to an incredibly popular recipe from Buffalo trace that replaces the standard rye grain with wheat, for what many people regard as a smoother, sweeter bourbon. The most famous brand of this bourbon at Buffalo Trace is the Pappy Van Winkle line, which for some versions is aged up to twenty-three years. We sampled six barrels of this wheated seven year-old bourbon, which is used for W.L. Weller Special Reserve and its high-proofed brother, Old Weller Antique. Barrel number 15 really stood out from the rest, so we selected that barrel to become Old Weller Antique (107 proof) and another excellent barrel to become the 90-proof W.L. Weller Special Reserve. Neither of these brands is normally available as single barrel bourbon.
Finally, we sampled two brands that use Buffalo Trace’s third bourbon recipe for its line of bourbons that were made by “Ancient Age,” a former owner of the distillery: Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s. These bourbons are already bottled as single barrels, and they’re noted for their sweet corn, vanilla and caramel flavors, with a balance of rye spiciness and long warm finishes. Elmer T. Lee, which is named after the distillery’s famous Master Distiller who retired in 1985, in particular has become somewhat of a rarity on store shelves, particularly after Elmer died at the age of 93 last year. We sampled three barrels of each, and were able to select one of each. Both of these private barrels are guaranteed to be a hot commodity when they hit the shelves at Cork ‘N Bottle.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day and experience at Buffalo Trace, and we look forward to more trips to Bourbon Country.