As part of the Bourbon Classic 2020 festival last week, media visited four of the leading distilleries in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Barton 1792 and Michter’s.
At each stop we caught up in with the distillery teams. This included the state (or lack thereof) of each company’s barrel-pick programs. Below is a rundown of each distillery.
Buffalo Trace Expands Massively
With market-defining brands, Buffalo Trace is arguably ground zero for American craft whiskey. This sprawling, historic distillery in Franklin County is one part Disneyworld, one part Parthenon. Flocks of fans tour the grounds every day, pouring through newly erected warehouses and also buildings that date back to the 1800s.
The history of Buffalo Trace is deep and fascinating. But what caught our attention was the future. With so many rare brands on allocation, the distillery is amidst a $1.2-billion expansion that will greatly increase its whiskey output. (Fantasize about this: easily finding Blanton’s or Weller.)
As part of its 10-year buildup plan, Buffalo Trace will assemble 30 new barrel warehouses. The current pace of construction is one new warehouse for every four months, according to the distillery’s legendary tour guide Freddie Johnson. Each of these buildings fills up with 58,400 barrels. Altogether, every structure with their contents carry a $27-million price tag. Buffalo Trace clearly believes that the whiskey boom is nowhere near over.
Should consumers suddenly lose their taste for brown spirits, however, Johnson says that the 10-year plan is designed in a way that can halt, and reduce scale. Just in case.
Other innovations include an insulated warehouse, launched last year under the project title “The Last Drop.” Here, Buffalo Trace explores how refrigeration — which slows aging — can affect the final product. “We think that you can make older whiskey even better,” says Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.
Also, Buffalo Trace has about 29,000 barrels of experimental whiskey aging, Johnson says: a collection of trial casks as large as the inventories of many craft producers.
Bulleit Eyes Continued Growth
After moving from its old site at the former Stitzel–Weller Distillery, Bulleit in 2017 opened a new, $117-million distillery and visitor center in Shelbyville, KY.
Do the math and you know that juice made and aged here is not yet in Bulleit bottles. That’s two-to-three years out, according to distillery staff. And the plan right now remains for bourbon only at Shelbyville. The whiskey in Bulleit Rye — the top selling rye globally — will continue to be sourced from MGP.
Bulleit has big plans for the bourbon produced at its huge new facility — and beyond. This Diageo brand has found such consumer demand that the company is already constructing another distilling site. Located in Lebanon, KY, this additional facility will be two-and-a-half times larger than the one in Shelbyville.
Currently Bulleit counts 660,000 barrels aging in its new warehouses. Retailers interested in visiting for single-barrel picks should know that there is a one-to-two month waiting list already. And the purchase cap is six barrels per group.
Cannot make the trip to Kentucky? Bulleit offers remote ordering for single-barrel picks. The brand does not send samples, however; this service is by blender’s choice.
Barton 1792 Under New Leadership
Barton 1792 is fresh off Full Proof winning best whiskey in the world in Jim Murray’s 2020 Whiskey Bible. For anyone who cannot find Full Proof, or any of the brand’s other popular, rare bottles (like the 12 Year Old, or Sweet Wheat), Master Distiller Danny Kahn has this to say:
“We’re not holding back to create scarcity. Unfortunately, many years ago when we first made this, we didn’t know that we would want so much more of it.”
Kahn is relatively newer to the brand. He took his post in June of 2018. Before, he filled senior production roles at Sierra Nevada and Anheuser-Busch. “I feel like my whole career has been leading here to distilling,” he says.
Fans should not expect a great deal of deviation from this classic brand. “I’m not here to change 1792, but I am here to make it consistent and right,” Kahn says.
With all its recent success, Barton 1792 is inundated these days by requests for single-barrel picks. “Our demand for barrel picks far exceeds our supply,” Kahn says.
The distillery currently contains about 500,000 barrels in warehouses. “I like to say that we’re on the small size of big,” Kahn says.
Michter’s Settles Into a New Location
Michter’s recently became the latest distillery to open a production and tourism site in Louisville’s downtown Whiskey Row. After eight years of renovating (and saving from collapse) the city’s historic Fort Nelson Building, Michter’s began welcoming visitors in February.
As for single-barrel picks, Michter’s currently does not have plans for a program. The distillery’s production remains too low for retail picks, says Kyle Lloyd, Michter’s director of research and development.
Nor will the distillery release a large slate of experimental whiskeys. “We’re experimenting all the time, but obviously we want to monitor the quality and consistency of Michter’s,” Lloyd says. “We want to find things that really resonate with the rest of our line.”
Fans of Michter’s who want something a little different can hunt down bottles of Shenk’s and Bomberger’s. These annual special releases — named after the brand’s original company — will continue to showcase different production and barrel-aging techniques. “We’re going to continue to change the wood and the recipe every year,” Lloyd says.
Kyle Swartz is Editor of StateWays.