When invited to a single bourbon barrel selection for the Frankfort Bourbon Society at Buffalo Trace Distillery, one expected to spend maybe thirty to forty-five minutes sniffing and tasting a couple of barrels of preselected bourbons. Right? WRONG!
On a cold Kentucky day, 8 members of the newly minted (August 2017) Frankfort Bourbon Society met at the Buffalo Trace Visitors Center. The group was minus its President and local bourbon collector, Charlie Jones, but was lead by Omar Marshall and Rachael Peake, owner of Capital Cellars in downtown Frankfort. We met up with Susannah, a sweet young lady with a whole lot of knowledge about bourbon.
Susannah led the group through the distillery on a tour. Part “Hard-hat Tour”, part “Old Taylor Tour”, and part “Distillery Tour”. This intimate tour was designed cater to some of us who have never taken the tour (and who shall remain nameless but whose initials are J.H.), and who had never been to Buffalo Trace. I found that this time of “emersion” tour is beneficial when going to pick out a barrel of bourbon. You want to know more about who is making your bourbon. The history. The integrity of the company. The legacy and standards they strive to continue to uphold. You should know how their processes work in creating your bourbon. What mash bill is used? What warehouse is the bourbon usually stored? How long is it stored? All are questions that are answered. It’s good to see nearly all of the processes that either have already taken place or will take place, like bottling and hand labeling of the final product. From the corn and rye coming in on trucks, to the mixing of the mash, to the distillate process and hand labeling, all levels of production are important in creating the “perfect bourbon”.
Today’s pick was a Buffalo Trace bourbon. After the tour, you already know that that particular bourbon has been aging for at least 8 years. The group is taken to Warehouse K for the tasting. There, four barrels of Buffalo Trace are lined up on the floor. Savannah proceeds to enlighten us even more on the process. We use a thief (a tool used to draw the liquid from its cask) to pull bourbon out of each barrel and add to two each. One glass of each barrel is tested for barrel strength. Each came in at at least 125 proof, one even coming in at about 129 proof. To the second glass, distilled water was added to bring the alcohol down to its botting level of 90 proof (45% ABV). The group sniffed, swirled, and sipped both glasses of each of the four barrels – noting to themselves the differences in barrel and the bottling strengths of each. They took a vote. For their own reasons, no one liked #2. They blind tasted the last three again. In the end, the first barrel of the four was the ultimate prize. Their barrel was marked and a photo op was taken. From there, the group proceeded to the Elmer T Lee Clubhouse, for lunch and a chat about bourbon and the Buffalo Trace experience.
In a few months, that barrel from Warehouse K will be cut with distilled water, bottled, and hand labeled with their own Frankfort Bourbon Society seal. The bottles will be delivered to Capital Cellars and are already pre-sold to members of the club. I’m sure if the yield is higher than expected on this select barrel, that Capital Cellars will release them for sale to the public.
A barrel of bourbon is a huge investment. Barrels can run somewhere between $4,000 to $15,000, depending on the brand, the taxes incurred, the retail markup and the yield. Each barrel can yield on average of 130 to 220 .750 liter bottles. The individual cask strength is around 125 proof. Remember, upon bottling, the alcohol level is brought down to 90 proof.
Not anyone can walk into a distillery and pick out a barrel of bourbon and take it home. But it is a niche industry that has exploded in recent years with the current popularity of the bourbon industry. These types of barrel tastings are reserved bourbon clubs and those holding commercial liquor licenses. Buffalo Trace takes barrel orders months in advance and usually is filled within hours of opening up that eligibility.