When it comes to bourbon (and pretty much all spirits), the treatment of the distilled liquids are just as important as how and with what the spirit is made up of in the first place. Buffalo Trace has been on the forefront of bourbon tinkering with their Experimental Collection. Since 2006 they’ve been releasing bottles with either various non-traditional mashes (rice, for instance) or strange treatments of reasonably normal mashes. The scale of this experimental work is huge.
In 1987 Buffalo Trace Distillery began experimenting. Since then Buffalo Trace has produced over 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey now aging in its warehouses. Each of the barrels has unique characteristics making each one different from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, types of wood, barrel toasts, and more.
Buffalo Trace periodically bottles a few of these experimental barrels and makes them available to consumers. Each experiment that is released is very limited and rare.
After reading about Cincinnati Rock Bottom’s great success at this year’s World Beer Cup, I got a chance to swing by a couple weeks ago to sample Mitch Dougherty’s gold medal winning Sarah’s Two-Headed Buffalo. The name of this beer comes from both the base beer, Buffalo Gold golden ale, and the Buffalo Trace barrels which it is aged in for four months.
Similar to Josh, I have recently become more intrigued by bourbon. When the chance came up to participate in the bourbon trail with some friends, I jumped at the opportunity. Below is a rundown of the tour we took. I recommend a similar path to anyone thinking about the bourbon trail themselves
Friday – Lexington, KY
Stop 1 – Four Roses
It was a good thing Four Roses was the first stop on the tour because we would have been extremely underwhelmed had it in been at any other time. The tour consisted of a 15 minute video, and then the same information on the video was regurgitated on a 15 minute walking tour of the facility. The facility was by far the smallest of the distilleries, and it was also shut down for the summer (it does not produce bourbon in the summer because of the heat).
On a brighter note, the bourbon here was phenomenal. There were 3 tastings offered: the standard yellow label, the small batch, and the single barrel. The small batch at Four Roses may have been my favorite bourbon of the trip.
Stop 2 – Wild Turkey
We didn’t actually take a tour here, but from the looks of the gift shop and building, I don’t regret this. The set up was by far the most “gimmicky” of all the stops. I’d love to hear someone who has been on the tour chime in, but it seemed like a good place to get a quick sample and move on.
Stop 3 – Woodford Reserve
One of the funniest things I noticed on the tour is that the customers at each distillery matched the brands persona to a T. This was particularly the case with Woodford Reserve, where the average patron had on khaki pants and a sport coat.
The grounds that Woodford is on are absolutely gorgeous. The tour was also a very good and comprehensive one. You got to see the end to end bourbon making process from start to finish, as well as see a barrel aging room and the bottling line. This was the only tour that charged for attending ($5), and the sampling was the most underwhelming of any distillery – a single serving of Woodford Reserve served in a plastic shot glass. Our tour guide was also a bit of a stick in the mud, and I could see the tour being even better with a different guide.
Stop 4 – Buffalo Trace
We did the “Hard Hat Tour” at Buffalo Trace which requires advance reservations. If you do the bourbon trail, this is the number one must stop on the trail and I cannot recommend this tour enough. It was the most comprehensive, real view of the distilleries we saw all weekend. Plus, Buffalo Trace just looks like the type of place bourbon should be made at. Many of the buildings are from the 1800’s, and the facility itself is a bit of a multi-story maze that seems like the bourbon equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory. We got to taste fermenting wort at several stages of fermentation, as well as uncut bourbon before it went into the barrel. Our tour guide was also hilarious and a straight shooter, at one point telling us he didn’t understand all the fuss over Pappy Van Winkle and saying there was not a single experimental batch of Buffalo Trace that he cared for much.
The tasting here consisted of Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, White Dog, Rain Vodka, and a bourbon cream. I preferred the standard Buffalo Trace to Eagle Rare. They also had tasting glasses signed by Pappy Van Winkle’s grandson who runs the company now, which was a cool surprise. Also, technically Buffalo Trace is not part of the official “bourbon trail” anymore, but that is just semantics.
Stop 1 – Maker’s Mark
Maker’s Mark was my second favorite tour of the weekend, but I must warn you that it is an absolute haul to get to. It is at least 40 minutes further than any other distillery on the trail and a solid hour and a half from Louisville. However, it is still worth seeing. The tasting here consisted of Maker’s Mark and Maker’s Mark 46, and they probably have the coolest gift shop of any stop on the bourbon trail. You can also dip your own bottle of Maker’s Mark in the gift shop.
Stop 2 – Heaven Hill
There are three tours offered here; a 30 minute one, a 60 minute one, and an hour and a half one. They don’t distill the bourbon on site here, so the more comprehensive tours just consist of videos and seeing the aging rooms. We opted for the 30 minute tour and were glad that we did. This was probably the most boring stop on the trail, but the bourbon was fairly good. We got to taste Evan Williams Single Barrel.
Stop 3 – Jim Beam
This was the 7th stop in two days, and since our entire group was hung over from the night before still, I was at the point of ready to be done by this stop. However, the tour was surprisingly very cool, and we got to see their barrel house and learn about their blending program. The tasting here was for Booker’s Single Barrel (135 proof) and Honey Tea Red Stag. The Booker’s was extremely tasty for how strong it was.
Ever been on the tour? Let me know if you agree or disagree! If you haven’t, it makes for a very fun weekend. And make sure to check out the Holy Grale when in Louisville!