By Richard Thomas
Buffalo Trace has built up an impressive reputation for crafting a wide, deep line of premium American whiskeys, as well as for its willingness to experiment with new whiskey-making techniques. That reputation has made the distillery’s Frankfort, Kentucky facility a fixture on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a must-see for any serious fan of Kentucky bourbon.
The distillery offers not one, but three tours. The option that best matches the usual expectation of a distillery tour is the Hard Hat Tour, which goes through the guts of the whiskey-making process at Buffalo Trace. This is the tour I went on, and therefore my observations reflect it. The other two formats are the Trace Tour, focused more on the history of Buffalo Trace and bourbon generally, and the Post-Prohibition Tour, which examines the architecture of the distillery and its comeback in the post-Prohibition era.
The Hard Hat Tour follows typical lines, providing a show-and-tell experience for the basics of whiskey-making. Visitors get to see huge fermenting vats, cookers, the plant’s main still, and in a nice touch the tour also visits Buffalo Trace’s in-house micro-distillery, where most of the limited editions are made. Another nice touch is that if the still is running (and it usually is), visitors are offered hot white dog straight fresh from distilling. Try rinsing your hands with it, and see how fast the high-proof spirits evaporate away. After a stroll in a barrel warehouse and a peek at the bottling plant, the tour ends back at its starting point in the gift shop with a tasting of two whiskeys.
My experience with distillery tours is that they fall into two categories: big factories and small, pretty places. Buffalo Trace is certainly a big industrial distillery, and it feels like one. The fermenting vats are many, huge and made of stainless steel; on the inside, the facility sometimes seems to be all pipes and machinery.
Yet the place is also old and eclectic. Most of the buildings date to the 1930s, with some going back as far as the late 19th Century. The machinery has a wonderful cobbled-together feel, as repairs are often done using parts made by the distillery’s in-house machine shop, and this combined with the age adds a romantic flair to the factory atmosphere. Finally, there is the natural beauty of distillery’s leafy green perch on the banks of the Kentucky River. Buffalo Trace might be a big factory in some respects, but it never, ever feels like one, and therefore combines the best of both the big industrial experience with the small, pretty place bourbon tour.
Tours are offered Monday through Saturday, start with every hour, and are always complimentary. If you want a tour other than the Hard Hat Tour (if I ever find the time to stop by again, I’m going on Post-Prohibition), you might want to call or e-mail ahead about the schedule, since most outings are of the Hard Hat variety.