The long and successful history of the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace is intertwined with the stories of some of the most famous names in American whiskey, including E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg, Albert Blanton and, of course, Elmer T. Lee.
All of these pioneering figures in the Bourbon industry played a part in the history of the distillery in Lee's Town in Frankfort, Kentucky and today their names are synonymous with the finest bourbons produced at Buffalo Trace. Elmer T. Lee himself, who revolutionised the industry by re-inventing single barrel bourbons in the 1980s, celebrated his 90th birthday in August 2009 yet still hand-picks the barrels to be bottled under his name.
Although it seems likely that distillation was being practised on the site as early as 1773, the first records of commercial production was not until the early years of the 19th century. By this time there were over 2000 licensed distillers in Kentucky, and the Leestown distillery (as some aficionados still call it) was run by Harrison Blanton, who slowly expanded the business.
The distillery changed hands a few times before the beginning of the Civil War, and again shortly afterwards in 1870, this time to Edmund Haynes Taylor, a man now regarded as one of the forefathers of modern American whiskey.
Although the property had been fully modernised just thirteen years earlier by previous owner Daniel Swigert, Taylor rapidly embarked on a very ambitious expansion plan, upgrading all the equipment and completely rebuilding the distillery, demolishing the old buildings in the process. The previously anonymous distillery also received its first name from Taylor, who christened it Old Fire Copper (OFC) in reference to the newly-installed copper fermentation vats and all-copper distillation system.
While revolutionary for the time, this development only heralded the beginning of a remarkable period of growth and success for OFC. In 1878, just eight years after buying the property, Taylor, having invested tens of thousands of dollars in OFC (including the purchase of the Old Oscar Pepper plant - now home of Woodford Reserve), sold the property to his top salesman, George T. Stagg.
It was under Stagg that OFC really took off. Riding the crest of the economic boom caused by the expanding railroads, Stagg sold the Old Oscar Pepper property to buy land in which to expand OFC still further. In 1880, Stagg oversaw the construction of a second distillery, Carlisle, on the property.
It was an eventful period - in 1882, the OFC distillery was struck by lightning, and much of the distillery was destroyed. By the time rebuilding was finished, the whiskey industry was in a major slump. OFC continued with its expansion plan, however, continuing to build large warehouses that stand to this day.
GEORGE T. STAGG DISTILLERY
Stagg saw the distillery through the hard times and his influence and salesmanship were such that OFC was re-named George T. Stagg Distillery in 1904, nearly ten years after he had sold it to W.B. Duffy. The Old Stagg bourbon brand was introduced in 1905, and by 1951 was selling over a million cases a year.
The George T. Stagg distillery was one of only four to receive a permit to produce medicinal whiskey during the disastrous decade of Prohibition in the USA in the 1920s. It was guided through this dark period by another famous bourbon name – Albert Bacon Blanton, who took over as President of the company in 1921, having worked his way up at the distillery since starting as an office boy in 1897.
Under Blanton’s stewardship, the distillery was bottling over a million bottles of ‘medicinal’ whiskey by the middle of the decade, and when Prohibition was finally repealed, the distillery was one of only six survivors in an industry that had boasted 157 distilleries in 1919.
The company had been sold to Canadian distillers Schenley by this time, and continued to grow, employing a mind-boggling 1000 people by 1939. In the post-war era, the distillery grew into the largest bourbon producer in Kentucky, and was renamed a couple of times. At some point after 1929 it was christened the Schenley distillery, then from 1953 to 1969 it was the Alfred Blanton distillery.
Confusingly, from the late 1960s many people referred to the distillery as the Ancient Age distillery after the company’s flagship brand (introduced in 1946) had its logo placed on the water tower outside, but it appears that this was never the official name.
In the 1970s, soon after Elmer T. Lee had become the manager, another of the industry’s periodic slumps began. Thankfully Lee was able to steady the ship and in 1984, with the distillery now in the hands of a private investor group, he introduced the first ever ultra-premium single barrel bourbon, named Blanton’s after Alfred Blanton, the company president who had inspired Elmer after he joined the distillery in 1949.
The introduction of Blanton’s revolutionised the bourbon industry and marked the tentative beginnings of a revival of the distillery’s fortunes. After a period of fragility in the late 1980s the company was sold in the early 1990s to the Goldring family and a Japanese company (and renamed again, this time to Leestown), and new brands such as Rock Hill Farms and Elmer T. Lee (the man himself had retired in 1985, but maintained a close connection to the distillery) were introduced with great success.
Newly renovated and rechristened once more in 1999 as Buffalo Trace by the Goldring family (who were now the sole owners) and introducing simultaneously a hugely successful flagship brand of the same name, the old distillery in Leestown was firmly back on track. The following year Buffalo Trace was named as ‘Distillery of the Year’ by Malt Advocate, the first of string of such accolades from the industry.
2000 also saw the introduction of the ‘Antique Collection’ – a series of long-aged, high-strength whiskies which have cemented the distillery’s reputation on the global stage. The world-renowned George T. Stagg cask strength bourbon has won countless awards from industry heavyweights including the author Jim Murray, who has named consistently named it as his Bourbon of the Year, and overall World Whiskey of the Year in 2004 and 2005.