One of the more popular spirits to introduce a newbie to the world of whiskey is Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Affordable and consistent, I can absolutely see why it’s a logical or default place for many to start exploring lesser-known brands in the world of whiskey. As someone who has been somewhat immersed in this world, though, I wondered… popular or not, is it actually a good place for newbies to start?
Founded in 1792, the Buffalo Trace distillery claims to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States (with Burk’s distillery, current producers of Maker’s Mark, taking the title of oldest continuously operating bourbon distillery).
Distilling first started on the property in 1775 by the Hancock and Willis Lee brothers, and the first permanent distillery was constructed in 1812 by Harrison Blanton. The distillery remained open during prohibition to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes,” one of the only facilities permitted to do so.
The distillery was given its first name by then owner Edmund H. Taylor as the “Old Fire Copper Distillery” or OFC.
In 1992 the distillery was sold to the Sazerac company, a privately held New Orleans based distillery conglomerate that is one of the major spirits producers in the United States (mostly through discount spirit brands). It was re-branded in 1999 to the Buffalo Trace Distillery which is the name it retains to this day.
The change of ownership has done the distillery well, with a recent $200 million investment in the plant happening in 2016.
Buffalo Trace isn’t an old brand. In fact, the Buffalo Trace bourbon is a direct result of the rebranding that the distillery went through in 1999. Visitors were expecting a Buffalo Trace branded spirit to be available from the Buffalo Trace distillery, and as a result of that demand the distillers went crawling through the oldest section of the rickhouse and pulled some older barrels that, in their mind, exemplified what an older distinguished bourbon should taste like. That concept of production remains to this day.
The exact grain bill for the Buffalo Trace bourbon is undisclosed, but the distillery states that it includes corn, rye, and malted barley. With the “straight bourbon whiskey” statement we can assume that at least 51% of the mash bill is corn, but given the flavor I’d say that it probably runs closer to 90%.
Those grains are turned into a fermented mash and distilled into the “white dog” whiskey, some of which is bottled and sold as a separate product. The majority, however, is placed into new charred oak barrels for an undisclosed period of time — at least 8 years according to the distillery, but rumor has it the average is about nine and a half years.
The bottle looks pretty good. There’s a flared base that quickly comes in as you move up the rounded body of the bottle and tapers back out to the rounded shoulder. The medium length neck has a nice bulge in the middle to allow for easy pouring, and the whole thing is topped with a wood and cork stopper.
The label is a neat design. One section is a pencil sketch of a buffalo on what appears to be a torn sheet of paper, the namesake of the bourbon distillery. Below that is the brand name and some information about the spirit in white lettering on a transparent background.
I appreciate the approach for this label, letting the bourbon shine through and obstructing it as little as possible. It’s definitely a different look and feel from some of the other bourbons on the market and in my opinion does a great job of looking refined yet approachable.
The typical vanilla and caramel flavors are present in the nose, but I feel like there’s bit of licorice that is in there as well, which threatens to overpower the whole package. Others have likened it to an orange flavor but I don’t get that personally.
The flavor of the spirit itself delivers on the promise of the nose, with some good toffee caramel flavors. There’s not much vanilla in there that I can detect, but there is a good oak-y flavor.
Overall the experience is smooth and delicious. There’s a bit of alcohol bite on the front but the liquid has a good weight to it to balance it out. And on the finish is a bit of peppery spice as if it were mixed with a bit of rye.
Usually the more subtle flavors fade into the background when a little ice is added, but in this case the bolder flavors are the ones that disappear. What’s left is, in my opinion, some very fruity flavors — specifically orange and apple, with a bit of brown sugar.
It’s absolutely delicious.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The traditional formula for an Old Fashioned starts with muddled sugar and bitters. In this case, though, you can skip the sugar.
On its own, the whiskey already has a very sweet taste, with some brown sugar notes, so in my opinion the sugar might actually make it too sweet. Just add bitters and roll with it.
For me, this is a fantastic cocktail. The orange and bitters balance well with the sweetness of the spirits, and the pepper finish we talked about before comes through in the end.
Fizz (Kentucky Mule)
Even though there’s a lot of power in the ginger beer, the pepper in the bourbon comes through. The sweetness of the bourbon also does a great job balancing some of the bitterness of the ginger. It’s a winner in my book.
There’s a reason why this is one of the most popular recommendations for affordable bourbon choices. It’s a delicious and consistent bourbon that is widely available enough to be in most bars. Given the choice, I’d say that Buffalo Trace edges out Bulleit Bourbon as the winner between the two, but just barely.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Sazerac Company, New Orleans, LA
Production: Frankfort, KY
Classification: Kentucky straight bourbon
Grain bill: Corn, rye, malted barley
Aging: ~8 years
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $30/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
A new classic.