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Buffalo Trace: flying the flag for Bourbon

Bourbon is riding high on a wave of popularity and the UK is reaping the benefit, as Buffalo Trace highlights.

Buffalo Trace: ‘Honor Tradition, Embrace Change’

Prohibition in the US, world wars, economic crashes and the increasing popularity of Scotch whisky has meant that over the last century, Bourbon has been on a rollercoaster of a ride.

However, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (Discus), global sales of American whiskey, including Bourbon, accelerated in the last decade to reach US$5.1 billion in 2023, and the global Bourbon category is expected to continue to outpace the growth of most other whiskey types, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. Are we now in the category’s biggest boom of all time? It sure seems so.

One of the producers leading the category’s upwards trajectory is Buffalo Trace Distillery, the longest continuously operating distillery in the US boasting a long history of Bourbon innovation.

Beginning in 1870 with E.H. Taylor Jr opening what was then known as the O.F.C Distillery, Buffalo Trace Distillery has survived and thrived as one of the pre-eminent makers of American whiskey, including in its portfolio some of the most coveted Bourbon in the world such as Eagle Rare, W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, and more. E.H. Taylor – widely known as the father of the modern Bourbon industry – brought a relentless focus on quality and innovation that has been carried on with succeeding distillers George T. Stagg, Albert Blanton, Elmer T. Lee, and Harlen Wheatley.

As the third-oldest distillery in the world and the oldest continuously operating distillery in the US, Buffalo Trace Distillery is the birthplace of the storied lineage of Bourbon, and viewed by many as an icon of American whiskey.

The journey has not been without its challenges. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Bourbon category was facing a slump brought on by the rise in popularity of vodka and other categories. It was during this period that Buffalo Trace Distillery’s then-master distiller, Elmer T. Lee, had a vision to create a premium Bourbon that could stand up to any aged spirit.

His method was to take the most superior barrels from the distillery’s metal warehouse and create the world’s first single-barrel Bourbon, a bottle in which all the contained Bourbon comes from a single barrel – no blending and no batching. Known as Blanton’s, it was first sold to the public in 1984 and named for the eponymous mid-20th-century distiller. He then took the spirit on a global tour to introduce the world to what premium Bourbon could be. This sparked the globalisation of the category and ignited the category’s latest boom, which we are still revelling in today.

In 2022, IWSR Drinks Market Analysis reported US whiskey retail sales in the UK grew to US$933 million. And the catalyst for this growth? Word of mouth, sparked by the on-trade. It all starts with cocktails, and with bartenders now considered to be the front-line influencers of the spirits world, more people are trying Bourbon in bars than ever before. Both the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan – legendary Bourbon-based serves – are in the top 10 most-ordered in the UK.

Meanwhile, classic spirit-and-mixer serves, such as whiskey and ginger ale, are rapidly displacing gin and tonic. Buffalo Trace, with its signature Buffalo & Ginger serve, is becoming an increasingly popular option for those looking for a refreshing, simple serve with whiskey.

Rapid growth

It is not just Buffalo Trace that is expanding. The UK imported almost twice as much American whiskey than its Irish counterpart in 2022. How, with an ever-growing line-up of Bourbons landing on back bars and retail shelves, has Buffalo Trace managed to stand out and experience rapid double-digit growth across the country?

Back in Kentucky, the Bourbons coming out of the world’s most award-winning distillery are among collectors’ most coveted, and benefit from the distillery’s commitment to meticulous distilling and ageing, including the exceptional quality of the virgin oak casks it has sourced from Sazerac’s wholly-owned cooperage. As Buffalo Trace Distillery global brand director Andrew Duncan notes: “Our brands have been fortunate to find many raving fans across the globe, and it is our relentless commitment to quality distilling and ageing that has set us apart. ‘Honor Tradition, Embrace Change’ is our motto, and we see it come through in everything we do at Buffalo Trace.”

Full of promise: Buffalo Trace is on a mission to make the world’s best whiskey

Indeed, Duncan confirms that the methods pioneered by E.H. Taylor, Jr set the foundation for the modern industry and are still in use today. “As far back as the mid-1800s, E.H. Taylor realised that Kentucky’s climate extremes – very hot and humid in the summer – speed the maturation process as the whiskey moves through the wood more frequently and deeply than it does in colder climates like Scotland. E.H. Taylor’s famous Warehouse C was the first to pump steam into the warehouse to regulate temperature in winter. Since that time, we have continued to evolve the process and have even found ways to temper the hot extremes in certain warehouses, the effects of which can certainly be tasted in the whiskey.”

A final factor that sets Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Bourbons apart from many others in the category is the age. Buffalo Trace ages its products substantially longer than the industry requires because, according to Duncan, “there is no substitute for age and the impact it has on whiskey – we don’t cut corners and we don’t bottle the whiskey until it’s truly ready”.

All of the above contributes to the creation of outstanding American whiskey. Specifically, Buffalo Trace Distillery’s flagship Bourbon – Buffalo Trace – boasts a complex aroma of vanilla, mint and molasses, with tasting notes of brown sugar and spice that give way to oak, toffee, dark fruit and anise, and a quality that Bourbon drinkers agree surpasses anything else at its price point.

So, with all the continued success for the Bourbon category over the years, what comes next? “As part of our commitment to honouring tradition and embracing change, we maintain a belief that the world’s best whiskey has not yet been created and, at Buffalo Trace Distillery, we will continue our quest to make it, one bottle at a time,” said Duncan.

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