Classics: Bourbon/American

Other Bourbon/American Classics:
George Dickel | George Washington

Bourbon Company, Bourbon Man
Buffalo Trace Distillery & Mark Brown
by Lew Bryson

Blanton’s. O.F.C. George T. Stagg. William Larue Weller. Ancient Age. Elmer T. Lee.

Names to conjure with, in bourbon country. Maybe not to the casual bourbon aficionado, the one who’s only come to bourbon in the past couple years, or who can’t imagine drinking it without a heavy dose of Coke in the glass, but —let’s be honest — if you’re reading this article, in this magazine … that ain’t you.

You know these names, and you know where they come from: Frankfort, the home of the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace. Buffalo Trace is best-known for innovation these days—their Experimental Collection whiskeys, their Antique Collection of premium aged whiskeys, a growing cask strength portfolio—but it stands firmly on the kind of history, tradition, and pedigree that means so much in bourbon country. To look at the one, you have to start with the other.

Take that name, for instance: Buffalo Trace. It’s a fairly new name for this distillery, one which you may think has had a number of them. The truth is, according to Sazerac president Mark Brown, it’s only the third name the distillery has had.

Trace the Roots
“In 1870, the famous—or infamous if you want—E.H. Taylor showed up and bought the place,” Brown said. “He gave the distillery its first name—it’s only had three—O.F.C. Distillery. There’s some debate as to what that means: Old Fire Copper or Old Fashioned Copper. I fancy the first one. But he caught the economy in the wrong direction and by 1878 he was gone. George T. Stagg, who had been a wholesaler, bought the distillery. Much later, they renamed the distillery for him. And though the distillery was later owned by the Ancient Age Distilling Company, it was never actually called the Ancient Age Distillery. It was called the George T. Stagg Distillery up until we changed the name.”

In just that one statement, you can get a sudden glimpse of the history of the place. It’s obviously old: Taylor bought it in 1870. It’s got some roots: Stagg was a real whiskey man, like Pappy Van Winkle (whose grandson is working with Buffalo Trace…another story, another time). But take a closer look at what Mark Brown and his crew have found, and you’ll be amazed.

Sazerac bought the Ancient Age Distilling Company in 1992. Brown was the vice-president of sales and marketing at Sazerac at the time. “I remember Peter Bordeaux, my predecessor, telling me,” he said, “that he was primarily interested in Ancient Age as a large brand. It was half a million cases at the time, so he was looking at a brand acquisition that just happened to have a distillery attached.”

Brown left Sazerac shortly afterwards and went to Brown-Forman for five years. He returned in 1997 as president and CEO of Sazerac, and really took a look at what they’d bought in Frankfort. “The new management team came in,” he said, “and about a half dozen of us started renovating the distillery. It started with a history project. The more we learned about the history and pedigree, the more fascinated and infatuated we became.

“I’d liken it to finding a picture at a yard sale,” he mused, “and buying it because we like the frame. Then when we get it home, and start to take the picture out of the frame, we discover that under the crappy painting on top is a Rembrandt. We bought Ancient Age for the brand and never really gave the distillery a thought. When we did our research, we discovered that it was the distillery, stupid! That was the real gem.”

Paint the Picture
The distillery history goes back a long way: to 1773. One of the earliest Kentucky settlers was Hancock Lee, as in Leestown, who settled on the site in 1769. “There are written accounts of the place, known as the Great Crossing, in 1773, which talk of Lee drinking home-made whiskey,” Brown said. “I don’t think it was a grand affair, but they certainly had the resources—spring water and the river—to distill with. The oldest building still standing on the property dates to 1792. Then Harrison Blanton, a predecessor of Albert, built a proper distillery on the site in 1812.”

The history continues. The first steam-powered distillery in the U.S. was built here by the Swigert family, Taylor came along as noted and spent a grand sum on modernizing, Stagg made the distillery profitable and took it into the 20th century. “Stagg built more of the buildings we still have today, magnificent Gilded Age buildings,” Brown noted. “They didn’t just slap them up, either, they had limestone bases and beautiful brickwork.”

Stagg also installed steam heating in the warehouses in 1886; “to the best of our knowledge, the first to use steam to heat the warehouses,” Brown said. “We still do that today; in fact, I think we have the same damned system!”

The distillery got through the tough times of the 20th century by the skillful management of “Colonel” Albert Blanton, who took over in 1917. “He had crappy timing, but great results,” said Brown, chuckling. Blanton produced industrial alcohol through both world wars, got a dispensation to legally distill ‘medicinal’ whiskey during Prohibition, and built sales during the 1930s. “I have no idea what they were doing during the Great Depression,” Brown said, “but apparently people were drinking.”

The Schenley company bought the distillery in 1929, and poured money into it coming out of Prohibition. “Schenley rapidly became the largest distiller in the world,” said Brown, “and George T. Stagg was the jewel in the crown. Eventually 27 distilleries were combined at this site. There were 21 full-time engineers on staff. They built capacity up to 6 million cases a year, which we could still make today if we had the demand. At peak, there were a thousand employees here.

“Then we get to the late 1970s and the shit hit the fan,” Brown said. “Bourbon went out of style and Schenley collapsed in a big heap. When we bought the place, there were 50 employees.”

In many industries, going from 1,000 employees to 50 while experiencing a total collapse of consumer interest in your product would be considered an intelligence test, to see if you were smart enough to give up. Happily, there have been a number of people in the drinks business who were either too stupid or too stubborn to roll over, who just kept plugging.

Make the Whiskey
Mark Brown and Sazerac saw the silver lining in the cloud of owning a bourbon distillery. “This darned place has been distilling since 1773, without any break at all,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of practice at making whiskey. The more we find out about it, the more fascinating it is. The best part is when we start asking about the quality of the whiskey. There was a tremendous reputation to the whiskey.”

Ancient Age did have a very good reputation, with special bottlings like Hancock’s Reserve, Ancient Ancient Age, Blanton’s, and master distiller Elmer T. Lee’s signature brand. Sazerac would first make their mark in a different way, with the explosive Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye. Why rye, Mark?

“We had a history of rye here, going back to Cream of Kentucky Rye,” he said. “Then when we did the inventory in 1997, our warehouse manager Ronnie Eddins said to me, ‘How do you want to count this rye? We never put it on the books, but we’ve got 27 barrels of rye whiskey.’ We pulled it out to the lab and had a taste, and it was, ‘Oh. My. God.’ We bottled it on a lark, but I also told [master distiller] Harlan [Wheatley] to get to work making rye, post-haste. And here we are.”

“Here” is firmly sitting on the high end of a small niche that is taking off like a rocket. Sazerac now has three premium rye whiskeys: the Sazerac 18, last year’s introduction of the Sazerac 6 Year Old, and the newest addition, Thomas H. Handy Rye, an unfiltered, cask strength bottling, named for the man who owned the Sazerac Coffeehouse and first substituted rye whiskey for brandy in the Sazerac cocktail.

Listen to the Customer
Brown laughed as the Handy comes up. It’s another example of how they’re not really driven by thinking about the market, according to him. “That’s from a consumer writing in and saying, ‘I can’t believe you’ve done a barrel-proof bourbon and a barrel-proof wheated bourbon, but you haven’t done a barrel-proof rye whiskey!’ You know, we said to each other, he’s right. Let’s do that. It’s the same thing that happened with the George T. Stagg; some fellow wrote us and said, ‘Why not do a barrel-proof bourbon?’ Well, we did, and he’s got Bottle #1.

“We’ve never really sat down and thought very much about the market,” Brown claimed. “We always wanted to have a Sazerac Rye, a flagship brand, because there used to be a Sazerac Rye at the Sazerac Coffeehouse in New Orleans. We didn’t really look at consumer demand; we wanted to do it, and it’s a Sazerac thing, so we did it. It’s been a purely internal passion about rye whiskey.”

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been successful. “The Handy looks like it’s only going to take one e-mail to one wholesaler to sell the entire output,” Brown noted with obvious pleasure. But Buffalo Trace is not going to become a rye distillery. “We don’t know where rye whiskey’s going to go. You can’t afford to lay down unlimited supplies of it, so you have to go cautiously.”

That’s the thinking on the huge experimental program at Buffalo Trace, a massive program of trying all kinds of different ways to make bourbon and other whiskeys. “We’ve got 1,600 barrels,” Brown said. “Credit to the warehouse team: some of it was being done before we even got here: not very extensive, but what they had was great.”

Press the Envelope
What kinds of things do they have? We’ve all heard about the first releases from the Collection: the French Oak, Fire Pot, and Twice Barreled. With 1,600 barrels, there’s obviously more. On a recent trip, we tasted bourbons finished in different wine casks that might just be the next releases. Brown claimed to be in the dark about that, as whiskey director Kris Comstock was “being rather cagey about it. I’m not a big fan of the finishes. Well, I’ll say that I wasn’t a big fan in the beginning. We don’t have any plans to make more.”

What else? “I don’t think you saw the baby barrels,” Brown laughed. “It’s like Goldilocks: small, medium, and large. We want to know what happens with different sized barrels.”

Pressed further, Brown talked about bourbon myths. “There are three myths about bourbon,” he said. “One is that you have to use American white oak. Not so: according to the regulations, it’s “New charred oak containers.” So when we did the French oak, we were okay. The second is that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky; you know that’s not so. The third is that bourbon requires some degree of aging. It can be bourbon as soon as it has gone into the cask. From zero to 1 year 364 days, it’s bourbon, but not straight bourbon. After two years, it’s like a kid, it’s kind of straightened itself out.

“That’s the actual regulations,” he said, “and that’s how we’ve interpreted them. And that should give you some clues on what’s coming. Different types of oak. You have to be careful; not all oak has the structure to make a tight barrel, but that’s well-documented. Some of the experiments we’ve got coming down the pike will literally blow the doors off. People will open their mouths and just say, Oh. My. Lord.”

But like the rye, you can’t shoot the moon on these whiskeys. “What’s the winner from the first batch of Experiment Collections we released?” Brown asked. “It appeared to be the French Oak, so we put away ten barrels of it.”

What about the other whiskeys? “Oh, if Hansell or Pacult or Regan gives us a 100 rating, or even something close to it, we’d take the risk and lay down some barrels,” he said cautiously. “But it’s about a half million dollars to lay down enough barrels over a series of years to start a brand.”

Deliver the Whiskey
That’s not really what it’s all about, though. “Our thought is that the Experimental Collection is in many respects like Formula 1 racing,” Brown explained. “We’re making great whiskeys, but what we’re really doing is learning how to make our regular whiskeys that much better. No one’s given an American whiskey a 100 rating yet. What would it take to do that? There’s a sense of wanting to press the envelope. We want to take all the heritage, and all the new technology, to press on without forgetting our roots.”

Part of that heritage, and part of the push behind the Experimental Collection, is Buffalo Trace’s mission. “We are a whiskey company,” said Brown, “and here at Buffalo Trace, we think of ourselves very much as a bourbon whiskey company. We don’t sit around thinking, oh my gosh, we don’t have a gin. You’ve got to place your bets and take your chances. I don’t think that we’re big enough in bourbon that we can’t grow in bourbon. We’ve been successful, too: employment is back up to 200 people.”

They can be a bourbon company because they have so many resources devoted to bourbon. Brown noted three factors that enable Buffalo Trace to deliver a broad spectrum of whiskeys.

“We market an age range of whiskeys,” he said. “It takes a long time to build that program up, and to get the stock to support it. Then there are the recipes. I don’t believe there are any other distillers who are making spirits to five different recipes. We have a willingness to screw up efficiencies—if you will—by changing the mash bill all the time. Then you take our warehouse system: some brick, one metal side, some of the rick warehouses have brick floors, some are straight up and down wood structures.

“You take those three factors and you can provide an opportunity to learn about the incredible diversity and taste of American whiskey,” he said. “We are all about delivering that. As a private company, we are uniquely positioned to deliver the aged products that we do. We literally just made whiskey that we won’t sell till 2029. That takes some forward thinking to manage that.”

Share the Credit
Brown was born to this, in a sense. “I grew up under a bar, figuratively and literally,” he said. “My parents had a free house in England, a big English craft beer pub. But I was always fascinated with those bottles hanging upside-down, with the optics. I came to America, I found Sazerac, and the rest was history. I suppose it was a quest for the spigot, the source; now that I’ve found it, I’m not letting go!”

He’s undoubtedly going to be uncomfortable with the way this article focuses on him. He’s a fiercely team-oriented player, always saying “we did this” and “we made the decision,” and obviously sincere in his choice of words. A big participant in the ‘we’ is the distillery herself, the agglomeration of buildings that hold the pedigree and history so prized by this passionate bourbon man.

“When people say, ‘You’ve done a great job,’ we have to laugh a bit,” Brown said. “All we did was brush off the rust and the dust and restore her to her former glory. If we had not had the pedigree and the history, we’d never be able to achieve what we have in such a short time. There’s an awful lot that was done by our ancestors. If there’s any credit to the modern crew, it’s for having the sense to restore it and let the original painting shine through.”

Mark Brown of Sazerac and Buffalo Trace. A bourbon man and a bourbon company.

Other Bourbon/American Classics:
Copper | Charcoal