Buffalo Trace Distillery - VIP Visitor Lead Freddie Johnson and Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley

Commercial distilling has been taking place at the Buffalo Trace Distillery site in Frankfort, Kentucky since the 1800s. As recently as 1992 during the downturn in brown spirits the distillery was making as few as 12,000 barrels of whiskey per year and the staff was down to a mere 50 employees. Fast forward to the 2000s and those fortunes have changed — dramatically. They are now making more than 200,000 barrels a year and that number is now set to more than double after this latest ribbon cutting celebrating the commissioning of their new column still.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Journey Goes Boom to Gloom to Ba-Boom

Buffalo Trace Distillery - Barrel Inventory 1972 to 2026
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Source: 8 Millionth Barrel Celebration.

As bourbon whiskeys popularity and premiumization has soared over the last decade phrases like bourbon shortage, limited-supply, and the dreaded ‘allocated distribution’ have taken over the distilled spirits industry lexicon. There is likely no other distillery more often connected to the phrase ‘allocated’ than Buffalo Trace.

Back in 2013 the folks at Buffalo Trace Distillery recognized they had a problem – they could not keep up with current demand let alone future demand. It was about that time they started working on a long-term plan. What came out of that realization was the beginning of a $1.2 billion 10+ year investment plan. Unlike some spirits like vodka or gin that can be distilled, bottled and shipped almost in real-time, bourbon takes time, lots of time to make and mature.

To help put this in perspective, let’s consider a couple of Buffalo Trace’s fan favorites like the elusive 23-Year-Old Pappy Van Winkle Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey or the 18-Year-Old Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. Unlike the country furniture maker with the roadside sign that reads “Antique Tables Made Daily” making and releasing high quality bourbon and rye whiskies in a few days is simply not possible. Buffalo Trace is one of the few companies that has a regular release of a 23-year-old bourbon whiskey. Just think, the bourbon whiskey that they are making in 2023 won’t hit the 23-year-old mark and be bottled for distribution until 2046. Forecasting how many bottles you’ll sell in 2046 falls somewhere between great planning and gazing into a crystal ball.

In 2016, Buffalo Trace announced it would be investing $200 million to expand production at its National Historic Landmark distillery. At the time, details said the investment would have several phases covering seven years. In the meantime, Bourbon sales continued to grow in the United States by 5% annually and by mid-2018 the distillery announced its investment plans grew to $1.2 billion (that’s billion with a ‘B’ as in Bourbon) and the scope expanded to cover the next decade. The investment included acquiring more land, expanded production facilities that would include milling, cooking, fermenting, cooling, distilling, water purification, distillers spent grain (DSG) processing, warehousing, bottling and expanded tourism facilities.


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To the chagrin of bourbon fans when the plans came together it seems like a backward process. Buffalo Trace would start with the end game in mind and work their way backwards from bottling to distillation. In other words, they started with improved bottling processing and capacity in 2015 and 2019 and just this week wrapped up the latest phase with increased production capacity with the ribbon cutting for their new 84 inch (that’s 7’ feet) by 40-foot-tall beer still.

Buffalo Trace Cuts the Ribbon on Massive New Still, Doubling Whiskey Capacity

After nearly a decade of planning the doubling of distillation capacity is now a reality as Buffalo Trace Distillery officially commissioned their new still. Whether you call it science or superstition Buffalo Trace took their existing 84” wide by 40’ tall Vendome Copper & Brass Works column still and duplicated it. You see, the new column is a mirror image of the 67-year-old beer still that was put into production in 1956. As Thermaltech Engineering Principle Kyle Leahman pointed out at the ribbon cutting, the still is basically the same except the old one had about 10 to 15 sensors vs. the new one that has 100+ sensors to monitor its progress during distillation.
Buffalo Trace Distillery - Ribbon Cutting
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Watch the ceremony and ribbon cutting video here.
“It was March of 2019 that we had our first meeting about the still house,” explained Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley. “The still house is really important of course because the equipment that we put it, has to make whiskey like we know how to make it. We want it to be consistent, we don’t want any change because we are happy with the whiskey. So, the hard part is to make the same whiskey. We went off and figured out a way to do that. We’ve been running the new still for a couple months now, on and off testing things and now its in full production. We have a few loose ends to tie up, but we are in full production. “We are making over 60,000 gallons a day, it’s a 7’ diameter still. It’s an exact match of our old still that was put in in 1956. And that still, I always say, it’s like driving a 1956 Chevy. You start it up in Frankfort to drive to California. You gas it up and turn around and drive it back to Frankfort. You gas it up and drive it back to California. This 1956 is running every single day and it needed some help. So, now we have the 2022 version up and running side by side and we are going to make a lot of really great whiskey for our fans. We have no plans of slowing down. “We also have another phase. This is just phase 2. We have another phase to continue to expand. Phase 4 is to actually build a whole new distillery somewhere else.” Now that the new still is online whiskey making at Buffalo Trace is entering a new era with double the capacity. The two stills combined can produce 120,000 gallons of whiskey a day of fan favorites such as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Weller, Blanton’s, E.H. Taylor Jr., and the rest of the whiskies in its portfolio. Buffalo Trace Distillery President and CEO Mark Brown provided a timeline to help put all this in perspective. Brown said, “And I think this is important, the journey we’ve been on since the highs of 1974 when we made 204,000 barrels… 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. “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.” The distillery now employs more than 650 people at the Frankfort location.


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When Will the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Shortage End?

Today, Buffalo Trace is operating their stills 24×7 and is now on their way to making 550,000 barrels of whiskey per year. Keep in mind that the bourbon made today will need to age in a rickhouse for 4+ years but there is light at the end of the rickhouse. Stay tuned!

Buffalo Trace Distillery - A View Inside Warehouse D Built in 1907, Watch Out for the Ghost
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A look inside Warehouse D. Rumor has it this 1907 warehouse is home to a ghost.

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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