Buffalo Trace Distillery - KY Gov. Beshear, Osiris Johnson, Freddie Johnson, Damon Thayer, Mark Brown, Harlen Wheatley

Buffalo Trace Distillery along the Kentucky River in Frankfort, Kentucky has been rolling out whiskey barrels for nearly a quarter millennium. The distillery at this location has gone through several name changes over those years. Beginning in 1870 it was christened the O.F.C. Distillery, in 1904 it was renamed the George T. Stagg Distillery, followed by Ancient Age Distilling Company in 1969 and then most notably, the name the world has known since 1999, Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Buffalo Trace recently celebrated the barreling its 8 millionth barrel since Prohibition. If they were to begin counting with the whiskey made starting in the 1800s their total number would be much higher.

When people think of the brands made at Buffalo Trace today like E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, Pappy Van Winkle, and W.L. Weller bourbon and rye whiskeys, it’s hard to understand why they haven’t been cranking out higher volumes of whiskey for the last several decades. But, if we take a look at the timeline below that shows each millionth barrel milestone it reveals a story not only of this distillery but of the entire bourbon industry that has seen its ups and downs over the decades and now most recently its meteoric rise.

Related Story – The Complete Buffalo Trace Distillery Timeline – 1773 to Today

The Fall and Rise of Bourbon

A few interesting facts stood out as Buffalo Trace Distillery President and CEO described the ebb and flow of the distillery.

When Sazerac, parent company to Buffalo Trace, purchased the distillery in 1992 the facility was down to as few as 50 full time employees, annual barrel production was about 12,000 barrels and according to Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, the massive 84” column still was operating at a mere 6% capacity. You can trace this downfall at the time to the rise in popularity of white spirits like vodka, rum, and tequila.

That trajectory began to change as consumers tastes shifted and we started to see a return to brown spirits like bourbon and rye whiskey. Whiskey historians like Mike Veach trace the beginning of the re-birth of bourbon to Buffalo Trace’s (Ancient Age at the time) Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee. While the bourbon industry was in a slump Lee created the concept of single-barrel bourbon with the launch of Blanton’s. This introduced unique rich flavors, higher proofs and the concept of premiumization. About the same time another factor was occurring with the introduction of super-aged bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle, which has been made at Buffalo Trace since 2002. This along with other factors like the popularity of  bourbon in television shows like Mad Men, the return of cocktails like the Old Fashioned, the explosion of craft spirits distilleries, a newfound thirst among women, and the distillery tourism craze have all lead to the modern-day bourbon boom.

Take a look at the table and infographic below and you’ll see it took the distillery 9-years after Prohibition to make its first million barrels. When bourbon fell out of favor between 1981 and 2008 it took a whopping 27 years to craft a million barrels. Then 10 years for the next million as interest in bourbon began to return. And most recently based on the growth in popularity and due to the $1.2 billion expansion efforts in plant upgrades and expanded storage, it took only four years to distill the most recent million barrels. And looking ahead, with a second 84” column still expected to come online in January 2023 the production time required for the next million barrels is expected to be cut down dramatically as daily production will literally double in the new year.


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No. BarrelsFill DateYears Between MillionDistillery Name
1,000,000*July 2, 19429Ancient Age Distilling Co.
2,000,000 June 20, 195311Ancient Age Distilling Co.
3,000,000 May 29, 19618Ancient Age Distilling Co.
4,000,000 October 21, 197110Ancient Age Distilling Co.
5,000,000 March 4, 198110Ancient Age Distilling Co.
6,000,000 May 14, 200827Buffalo Trace Distillery
7,000,000 April 11, 201810Buffalo Trace Distillery
8,000,000 November 29, 20224Buffalo Trace Distillery
9,000,000**June 1, 20253Buffalo Trace Distillery
* Since Prohibition. ** Estimate for the next million barrels.

In attendance to mark the occasion was Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, Kentucky Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer and Buffalo Trace Distillery officials and employees including third generation team member Distillery VIP Visitor Lead Freddie Johnson and his grandson Osiris, whose family has been involved in every millionth barrel since 1942.

Honoring Tradition and Embracing Change

The celebration was kicked off with comments by Buffalo Trace Distillery President and CEO Mark Brown.

Buffalo Trace Distillery - 8 Millionth Barrel, Filled November 29, 2022, Freddie Johnson, Mark Brown and Harlen Wheatley
Watch the 8 Millionth Barrel Ceremony here.

“Today, we are actually celebrating 249 years of existence, and this is the 25th year of our re-birth,” said Brown. “And I think this is important, the journey we’ve been on since the highs of 1974 when we made 204,000 barrels. We have people here that worked for us at that time, to the crash, by the time we got to 1992 where we only made 12,000 barrels. To the incredible rebirth, today, this year, we’ll make 200,000 barrels again. And by the time we get another four years out we are going to make 550,000 barrels in a single year.

“And so, you can see, honoring tradition and embracing change, and I remember saying to Harlen when I came back here in 1997, I asked, “What percentage of capacity are we working at?” He said, “Six percent.” And I said, ‘Six, so we are never going to have to worry about expanding here, right?’ He said, ‘No, we are never going to have to worry about it, my golf handicap is going to remain seven.’ What’s your golf handicap now? He said, ‘40’. Makes me very happy actually. Great people, making great whiskey.”


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Bourbon Brings People Together

“These barrels bring people together in a way that I’ve never experienced in my life. And I can speak from personal experience. The 6 millionth barrel brought Jimmy Johnson and I together.

“When I met Jimmy, we were at 5.4 million. And Jimmy told me the story about how he had rolled away every millionth barrel that we had ever made. And then I said, ‘Then you’re going to do the 6 millionth, right?’ And he said, ‘When’s that?’. I said, ‘Seven years’ time.’ He said, ‘I’m 87 years of age.’ I said, ‘Not my problem.’ He said, ‘Alright, but is there anything my son could do here?’ And I said, ‘Well, we are getting into the tourism business, and so that might work.’ Jimmy looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to be any good at that.’

“Well, I got to meet Freddie and we formed a connection. And Freddie’s gone on to touch thousands and thousands of lives through his work here. And through the documentary Neat: The Story of Bourbon which I continue to hear from people about. And so, these barrels do touch people.

“I’ve been amazed, the 6 millionth, the one that Jimmy indeed rolled away, raised $1.5 million for charity. That 7 millionth barrel, that we just rolled out, is going to raise $2 million for charity when its ready. And this barrel today that we will put away will raise $2.5 million for charity somewhere. That is just an incredible amount of things we didn’t think was possible with a barrel of bourbon.”

“What we make, brings people together and provides bonding experiences. When I think about honoring tradition and embracing change there is no doubt that what we make here is the true spirit of our great country. This whiskey has an amazing power to bring people together and this is indeed a great deal to celebrate.”

Brown added, “Reflecting back on the history of this distillery, the progress we’ve made over the past few decades is astounding, but even more impressive is the dedication and longevity of so many of our team members. We have many second and third generation team members here, and several members of our workforce who have been here 20, 30, some even closing in on 40 years with us. It’s this commitment to their craft that not only sets us apart but positions us perfectly for future growth as we continue our focus on producing more award-winning bourbon for future generations to enjoy.”

Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley Says Next Millionth Barrel Will Arrive Much Sooner

“This is a great day to reflect,” commented Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley. “Our predecessors settled here in 1773. We built our first warehouse in 1811, right on the riverbank. And we are still using that today and really things haven’t changed since then; we are continuing to build. Our predecessors faced things like the depression, wars, world wars, floods, recessions, we just faced the pandemic, and we stared it down.

“The one thing that was constant throughout these things was we continued to make whiskey, we never stopped. If you draw a line from here and you look out for the next 8 million barrels, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace, we are investing… over a billion dollars to expand our operation. We are building warehouses literally as fast as we can, one every two months. We put in a new still house, new dry house, new waste treatment. All these things are designed to make sure that we can continue to make a lot of whiskey.

“I think if you look back on the history, two hundred and forty plus years, they faced on these obstacles and adversity. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ll face the same type of adversity moving forward. But again, we are investing all this money to make sure that we will continue to make whiskey. But, the biggest difference, from this point forward, is the fact that these million barrels are going to roll around a lot sooner. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised in less than three years we get to 9 million.”

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear added, “I am thrilled to celebrate this incredible milestone with Buffalo Trace Distillery. This company has more than 200 years of history in our state, providing quality jobs for Kentuckians and producing our world-famous bourbon. Thank you to the leaders at Buffalo Trace for their continued commitment to the commonwealth and our people. Here’s to 200 more years of success in our state.”

Freddie Johnson’s Family Has Touched Every Millionth Barrel Since Prohibition

Starting with Distillery VIP Visitor Lead Freddie Johnson’s grandfather and then father, a Johnson family member has touched every millionth barrel at this distillery since the counting began. And carrying the tradition forward Freddie invited his grandson, Osiris Johnson, back in 2018, to assist in rolling the 7 millionth barrel and now the 8 millionth barrel. Take a look at the photos below and you’ll see how he’s grown up in the last four years.

Freddie shared many thoughts at the ceremony. Here are a few key highlights.

Freddie Johnson’s 3 Unspoken Rules about Drinking Bourbon

When do you break out the “good bottle of bourbon”? Freddie shared his answer with his three unspoken rules of bourbon.

“There are three unspoken rules about good bottles of bourbon, good bottles of wine, good bottles of whiskey,” according to Johnson.

Number OneUnspoken Rule No. 1

“You will never bring those bottles out with people you don’t like. It just doesn’t happen. So, if I don’t like you, you are not going to know I have this good bourbon tucked away.”

TwoUnspoken Rule No. 2

“If I do like you enough to bring it out, you are obligated to listen to what I went through to get that bottle before I pour you a drink.”

ThreeUnspoken Rule No. 3

“If I do like you enough to bring it out, and I have to tell my story, it’s also an indication that we are going to be spending some time together. You never bring out a good bottle when you are in a hurry to go do something else. So, it becomes a conduit, it’s when you are about to spend some time with someone you truly enjoy being with. And that’s when the memory gets created.”

“It’s about life’s journey, and Osiris (Freddie’s Grandson) is with me now, carrying on a legacy that started with Mark Brown and my dad. All I’ll have to do is say this to you, ‘It’s the people that you meet along the way that make life’s journey worthwhile.’

“I look around out here today and I look at all the folks that at one point or another I probably encountered you or your family members or something like that, and on behalf of Buffalo Trace Distillery I would just like to personally say thank you for all that you’ve done. Buffalo Trace has had 440,000 visitors to come through just this site alone in the past year. We are on the midst of something that is really kind of cool.

“On behalf of Buffalo Trace, thank you very much for coming out.”

What Happens to Each Millionth Barrel?

Buffalo Trace’s seventh millionth barrel of bourbon, barreled in April of 2018, has been removed from Warehouse V and put away to continue aging in one of Buffalo Trace’s larger warehouses. After a few more years, it will be ready to bottle and will be offered to various nonprofit organizations for fundraising efforts. Information about how to apply for a bottle will be announced at that time.

Buffalo Trace Distillery is an American family-owned company based in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky. The distillery’s rich tradition dates back to 1773 and includes such legends as E.H. Taylor, Jr., George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp, and Elmer T. Lee. Buffalo Trace Distillery is a fully operational Distillery producing bourbon, rye and vodka on site and is a National Historic Landmark as well as is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Buffalo Trace Distillery Millionth Barrel Timeline

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