The story of bourbon is partly the story of the USA itself. You find amazing characters from both the old and new worlds. Take the beloved Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, producing not just its eponymous spirit, but also the towering Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, coveted worldwide. Set in gentle hills around Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, the distillery has a very cool past (and a visionary corporate culture) that delight bourbon elites.
Buffalo Trace traces back to banker E.H. Taylor, called “colonel” in the antebellum fashion though he wasn’t a soldier. He was, on the other hand, related to two U.S. presidents (James Madison and Zachary Taylor), and by 1870 his considerable acumen had turned to distilling bourbon. He arranged financing for several Kentucky distilleries, but his really big ideas—copper fermentation tanks, column stills and new mash mixtures—were pioneered for what would one day become Buffalo Trace. He called his innovation “Old-Fashioned Copper” distillation. Today, that “O.F.C.” classification is for Buffalo Trace’s most collectible vintages.
“Colonel” Taylor also played a vital role in passing “Bottled in Bond” regulations governing the making of legit Kentucky bourbon. That vision of a countryside sipping the purest of America’s native spirit lasted about 50 years until Prohibition hit in 1920. But all was not lost. Buffalo Trace was one of just four U.S. distilleries licensed to produce “medicinal” whiskey during Prohibition. A post WWII bourbon bounce bombed as the vodka craze exploded in the 1950s and 60s. So, the historic distillery was knocked down, cemented over, and a new facility built right on top.
Fast-forward to 1997, when Mark Brown took over a distillery in disrepair. But Brown (now CEO of parent company Sazerac) knew he was sitting on a liquid goldmine. He totally rehabbed the distillery complex into a bourbon lover’s nirvana, then went shopping for other premium brands, landing the venerated Pappy Van Winkle. The Frankfort site draws discerning drinkers year-round, especially after an excavation unearthed the historic distillery founded by E.H. Taylor. It’s now a fascinating interactive exhibit that has been called “Bourbon Pompei.”
The bourbon bounce-back is a quintessential American success story. The Great Bourbon Shortage has been an actual thing for the past several years as demand outstrips supply. Brown has said he’s looking as far ahead as 2047 to insure ample amounts of America’s native spirit.