This Whiskey Was Prescribed By Physicians For “Medicinal” Purposes - Buffalo Trace Distillery (Blanton's, Sazerac, Van Winkle's, Weller's Bourbon)
Distillery Spotlight: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Region: Frankfort, Kentucky, United States
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
This article is about an American distillery. For a fascinating overview of the American whiskey industry and various styles of American whiskey, check out our article on the Basics of American Whiskey.
WL Weller Bourbon, Paddy Van Winkle’s Bourbon, Blanton’s Straight Bourbon, E.H. Taylor Bourbon and Elmer T. Lee’s Bourbon are some of the many popular labels produced at Buffalo Trace Distillery (Image Source: Go Bourbon)
What has American whiskey got anything to do with buffalos?
The story begins long before European settlers appeared on the American continent, when ancient herds of migrating buffalo began carving paths through the wilderness for hundreds of years.
Early American frontiersmen came along and discovered a vast path carved by buffalo running through what are now the States of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Due to the large number of buffalo that migrated, the well-worn path was up to twenty feet wide. This was known as the Vincennes Trace, or in Kentucky, simply, the “Buffalo Trace”. The Buffalo Trace served as an important trail for explorers, farmers and other early Americans to travel from Vincennes city in Indiana to Louisville city in Kentucky.
Whiskey distillation began at the location of Buffalo Trace Distillery around 1775 by brothers Hancock and Willis Lee. Proper facilities were constructed in 1812 by the early owners, before being purchased by Colonel E.H. Taylor who gave the distillery its first name – the Old Fire Copper (OFC) Distillery.
The distillery was purchased by different buyers and further developed with more modern equipment. Eventually, it was renamed Buffalo Trace Distillery, intended as a reference to the geographical Buffalo Trace, and to honor the spirit of brave early American frontier explorers from the 1700s to 1800s without whom the distillery would not have been founded.
The Buffalo Trace Mashbills
Buffalo Trace Distillery produces 4 main styles of American whiskey: (1) traditional bourbon, (2) high-rye bourbon, (3) wheated bourbon and (4) rye whiskey. What is the difference between these styles? For all you need to know, look no further than our article on the Basics of American Whiskey. Suffice to say, they differ by the specie of grains for fermentation.
The distillery uses 4 different mashbills to produce these 4 styles of whiskey (“mashbill” is a fancy way to refer to the ingredient list in whiskey-making vernacular).
The following diagrams are an estimation of their contents although the exact ratio of ingredients used is a trade secret:
Mashbill #1 – traditional bourbon
Mashbill #1 is overwhelmingly filled with corn, with many commentators estimating that there is about 90% corn (with the remaining 10% a small portion of barley and rye). Because corn results in a high amount of fermentable sugars, this results in a traditional bourbon that is oily, sweet and lower in spiciness as compared to rye-heavy bourbons.
Mashbill #2 – high-rye bourbon
Mashbill #2 is also known as the “high-rye” mashbill. It contains about 70% corn and a higher proportion of rye at 12-15%. The higher amount of rye results in a bourbon that has a slightly more fruity with a lightly peppery kick. Many bourbon drinkers enjoy this slight heat and clove-like spiciness which compliments the sweetness of corn.
“Wheated” Mashbill – wheated bourbon
(Diagram credits: Buffalo Trace Distillery)
The “Wheated Mashbill” is thought to contain about 70% corn, about 15% wheat and absolutely no rye. This essentially replaces rye with wheat, and the result is a bourbon which is much smoother, sweeter and more gentle on the palate with elements of cereal and malt.
Rye Mashbill – rye whiskey
The “Rye Mashbill” is thought to contain 51% rye with the remainder being corn and barley. Essentially a flipside of bourbon (which has at least 51% corn), the large amount of rye meets American regulatory requirements for “rye whiskey” to be distilled from at least 51% rye alongside some barley and corn. The large amount of rye also proffers a highly spicy, grassy and fruity flavour profile with less cloying sweetness than bourbon.
Buffalo Trace Distillery is home to at least 17 different brands of American whiskey. The most popular brands include Buffalo Trace Bourbon, WL Weller Bourbon, Paddy Van Winkle’s Bourbon, Blanton’s Straight Bourbon, E.H. Taylor Bourbon and Sazerac Rye.
How does the distillery create enough variation from 4 mashbills to bottle so many different brands of American whiskey? The answer lies in what is done to the spirit after distillation.
Although the ingredients in the 4 mashbills contribute to the flavor, Buffalo Trace can make significant differentiation in flavours across brands by using different casks, aging whiskey in different locations and releasing them at varying proofs. If you take a tour at the Buffalo Trace Visitor’s Centre, you would be given an explanation of how the char level of the barrel, the placement of the barrel within the warehouse, and duration of aging have an impact on the finished spirit.
American regulations require all bourbons to be aged in a “charred” barrel. Charring causes structural elements within the oak- hemicellulose (a type of complex sugar occupying the spaces between plant cell walls) and lignin (a material that forms cell walls), to break down into simple sugars. These sugars are subsequently caramelised by the heat (via the Maillard reaction), resulting in a toasted caramel note.
The char level (and amount of time spent burning the barrel) determines the and the amount of wood sugars, vanillin and tannins that would be ultimately transferred to the bourbon. A barrel with a high char level could impart dark roast coffee flavours. For more on barrels and charring, read our basics series article All About Casks.
According to Buffalo Trace, another important factor that affects the spirit is the placement of the barrel, which influences the rate of temperature fluctuations. Temperature changes cause the barrel wood to repeatedly absorb and release the spirit, giving the resulting whiskey its characteristic oak notes and amber color.
Barrels stored on the bottom floors of warehouses are apparently exposed to little to no temperature changes, thus aging into sweeter and smoother whiskey that is gentler to the palate. Barrels stored on the upper floors of warehouses are exposed to more rapid temperature fluctuations, causing the barrels to “breathe” more, and the whiskey to absorb dryer flavours from the wood.
The distillery often makes a song and dance about how its Blanton’s Bourbon is specially aged in the distillery’s famous Warehouse H – the only all-metal building. What’s special about this building is the thin metal walls. External temperature changes- Kentucky’s mercurial weather and four seasons - are immediately felt inside. Because of the high fluctuation in temperature, bourbon aged in Warehouse H ages faster and absorbs more complex notes from the wood. This led Albert B. Blanton, the distillery’s president from 1921 to 1952 to put his favourite batches of bourbon in Warehouse H. And yes, this is how the Blanton’s brand eventually received its name.
The prominent people and brands of Buffalo Trace
The various historic brands of whiskey at Buffalo Trace were developed by a list of prominent persons in the field of bourbon or in the distillery’s history. Many of these brands are named after these figures.
The father of the bourbon industry
Colonel E.H. Taylor is credited as the spiritual founder of the distillery, and also as the father of the modern bourbon industry. Taylor purchased the distillery in 1870 and introduced a systematic and scientific method to the production of bourbon. Taylor introduced modern equipment such as copper fermentation tanks, state-of-the-art grain equipment, column stills, modern buildings, an efficient technique to mash grains and a first-of-its-kind steam heating system. This set standards of production that became ubiquitous for quality bourbon production in America for the next 100 years. Incidentally, the man is also a descendant of the 4th and 12th United States Presidents- James Madison and Zachary Taylor. The award-winning Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch Bourbon was launched by the distillery in 2013 and named after him.
The pioneer of the “wheated” bourbon
Records are mixed, but many sources claim that William Larue (W.L.) Weller is the pioneer of using wheat (instead of rye) to produce Kentucky bourbon. Using this recipe, the “wheated bourbon” was created, which provided a much softer and smoother taste than bourbon that contained rye. Introduced in 2005 by Buffalo Trace Distillery – and immediately receiving top accolades- the WL Weller Bourbon is an uncut, unfiltered bourbon made with wheat using the process pioneered by WL Weller the man.
A man obsessed with quality bourbon
The 23 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is considered by many to be the best bourbon in the world. One bottle of this is retails at around US$270, but is sold on the secondary market for more than US$3,000. Every other year, this label receives the highest acclaim in the industry for quality.
This label is named after Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle who ran the Stitzel-Weller Distillery
and focused on making high quality whiskey, rather than being the biggest or most profitable distillery.
The Stitzel-Weller Distillery was eventually sold by Pappy’s son, Julian III, to Buffalo Trace Distillery. Julian III continues to run operations of the Van Winkle brand at Buffalo Trace Distillery, where Van Winkle bourbon continues to be made following the old recipe.
In 2011, the late food and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain tweeted this:
Soon after, demand for Van Winkle exploded while supply continued at a craft distillery scale at only 84,000 a year (compared to roughly 84 million bottles of Jim Beam).
The man who saved the distillery many times over
Finally, there is Albert B. Blanton, a president who helped the distillery survive and even thrive through World War I, the Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. During the Prohibition, Blanton managed to secure a rare license for the distillery to remain in operation to make whiskey for “medicinal purposes”.
Due to his invaluable contributions, in 1984 Buffalo Trace introduced the first ever single-barrel bourbon (at that time, there were only “single cask” scotches) and named in Blanton’s honour.
Mashbill matching chart
Check out the chalkboard below which describes the differences between the four mashbills and how they relate to the major brands.
The flavour profile of whiskies from Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace Distillery’s whiskies come in a very diverse range of styles. On the smoothest and sweetest end of the spectrum are the ‘wheated’ bourbons, the likes Van Winkle. On the other side of the spectrum are the rye whiskies, the most famous of which is Sazerac straight rye.
Typical Van Winkle expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
- Dark copper
- Gentle and sweet
- Heavy but well-integrated vanilla, caramel and cream notes
- Overripe bananas
- Light grassiness with fresh cut mint
- Very lightly smoked character of roasted ham and mild cheese
- Very rich, velvety and smooth
- Generous vanilla, caramel and cereal notes
- Candied hawthorn
- Mild smokiness of roasted ham
- Long with fading peppery spiciness and lasting sweet plums
Typical Blanton’s expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
- Deep amber or Garnet-coloured
- Gentle and well-balanced
- Very toasty, with cinnamon, vanilla pods, charred oak and campfire marshmallow
- Subtle notes of rum and raisin ice cream
- Slight acidity with green apple and orange peels
- Sweet with moderate heat
- Medium-bodied with some oiliness
- Substantial notes of honey, hotcakes, butter pastry and sticky caramelised apples – reminiscent of apple pie
- Significant vanilla and toasted oak notes
- Assortment of baking spices with nutmeg, cinnamon and ground ginger
- Long with substantial and lasting heat, ending on a mixture of vanilla and spearmint
Typical batches of Sazerac Rye Whiskey has the following taste profile:
- Very deep copper / burnished copper
- Lively, but comfortable spice
- Clear notes of menthol and spearmint
- Mixture of vanilla, roasted walnuts and ginger bread
- Slight tartness with lemon peel and apple cider
- Notes of peeled orange
- Delicate and balanced spice
- Medium-bodied with some oiliness
- Moderate notes of pepper and spearmint, well balanced with sweet orchard fruits
- Moderate notes of ripe apples and pear, with growing note of sweet citrus notes of pomelo and grapefruit
- Subtle toasted oak notes
- Moderate duration with some pears and lasting but subdued heat with a profile of spearmint chewing gum
There is perhaps no American whiskey maker more respected than Buffalo Trace Distillery, which has reached near-mythic status amongst American whiskey drinkers- what with its long lineage of American whiskey royalty and pioneers of industry. The distillery enjoys a cult following amongst its enthusiasts, who research intensively to try to determine the precise proportions of the distillery’s mashbills, discuss which warehouse was used to age the whiskey and the specific batches of whiskey that taste the best. There are websites and forums dedicated to understanding what goes into each mashbill at the distillery.
We respect Buffalo Trace’s quality and dedication to craft. The distillery continues to be motivated to produce good quality bourbon even at such a large scale.
We think that Buffalo Trace Distillery should be admired not just for its whiskey-making legacy, but also for its hard work at developing new and high-quality products in the recent years. In spite of all the song and dance about its history and tradition, the distillery’s continued success in modern day America is really the result of constant innovation in its product lines and a sophisticated marketing strategy in the recent decades.
Don’t let the grubby old-fashioned bottle labels fool you. Many of the popular “old” brands from Buffalo Trace were actually conceived rather recently. Just consider this: EH Taylor and WL Weller were industry pioneers active in the late 1800s. However, make no mistake that their namesake whiskies- EH Taylor Bourbon and WL Weller Bourbon- were only released by Buffalo Trace in 2013 and 2005 respectively as new product lines.
Albert B Blanton died in the 1950s, but his namesake Blanton’s Bourbon was only released in 1984 in a savvy marketing effort to save the sinking bourbon business. In the 1980’s, Japanese demand for bourbon was so overwhelming that the small archipelago was consuming more than half of all exported bourbon. Rather than being an all-American product, Blanton’s Bourbon was thus conceived by the distillery to be marketed to the growing Japanese demand for American bourbon.
The only thing unsatisfactory about Buffalo Trace Distillery is the fact that certain labels of whiskey are nearly impossible to procure outside America, and are priced at an astronomical price on the secondary market. Although the distillery is large and well-equipped to scale up production, the Van Winkle family retains control on how their whiskey is made and how much is made each year. To protect the family name and association with high-quality, the Van Winkles deliberately keep production low. Unfortunately, this leaves very little juice for whiskey lovers outside America!
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