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Three Historic Milestones of the Buffalo Trace Distillery

Images via Buffalo Trace Distillery

One of the oldest continuously working distilleries in the United States, Buffalo Trace claims an unmatched history stretching over 200 years, combining traditional production with fearless innovation. 

Located in Frankfurt, Kentucky the Buffalo Trace Distillery is home to many of America’s most famous bourbon whiskey brands, including Blanton’s Single Barrel, Pappy Van Winkle, and Eagle Rare

Exploring the origins, Prohibition-era survival, and an award-winning whiskey industry legacy – here are three historic milestones of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  

The Ancient Roots of Buffalo Trace 

The image of the bison (ironically) has become synonymous with the distillery. Credit: Buffalo Trace

The origins of Buffalo Trace begin in the late 18th century, long before the establishment of an official commercial distillery in 1858, significantly contributing to the emergence of Kentucky as America’s whiskey-making capital. 

Pioneer, Daniel Boone, is recorded as traveling the ‘Buffalo Trace’, the ancient buffalo trackway that crosses the Kentucky River in Franklin County, Kentucky in 1771. In 1773, the McAfee Company and Hancock Taylor conducted a land survey in the area for settlement. By 1775, settlers and brothers, Hancock and Willis Lee had established Leestown at the site, which expanded to become a well-known shipping port for tobacco, hemp, corn, and whiskey to New Orleans. Susan Reigler, author of Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide (2013), suggests that records indicate the Lee brothers were the first to start distilling at the future Buffalo Trace site.

In 1811, a three-story warehouse was built on the banks of the Kentucky River, for the storage of goods including whiskey to New Orleans – with Benjamin Harrison Blanton rumored to have been distilling at the site from 1812. The Leestown property (approximately 4 acres) was acquired by Daniel Swigert in 1857, who would convert the buildings, allegedly including the warehouse and a pork processing plant, to establish the first commercial distillery in 1858. 

In 1870, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. purchased the distillery, renaming the site as the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery – in reference to the belief that the finest whiskey was produced in old-fashioned wood-fired copper stills. 

The O.F.C. distillery was acquired by George T. Stagg in 1878, with Stagg subsequently rebuilding and modernizing the distillery throughout the 1880’s, expanding the mash and fermenting plant, and building warehouses equipped with a steam heating system to ensure climate-controlled barrel aging.       

Surviving Prohibition 

The Prohibition Collection. Credit: Buffalo Trace

On the 17th of January 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, widely known as American Prohibition, passed into US Federal law, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of ‘intoxicating beverages’ in the United States. A loophole in America’s Prohibition legislation permitted the use of alcohol for scientific or medicinal purposes. For centuries, alcohol had been used for medicinal purposes, and prescribed by doctors as a stimulant, preventative, or tonic for illness – doctors were still permitted to prescribe alcohol during Prohibition, but the law regulated the amount patients could receive.

Only six distilleries across the United States were granted licenses to produce medicinal whiskey, including the George T. Stagg distillery (as Buffalo Trace was named from 1904-1999). Between 1920, and Prohibition’s end in 1933, the George T. Stagg distillery was notable for producing the ‘Carlisle’ and ‘Three Feathers’ medicinal whiskey brands. 

In 1929, George T. Stagg was purchased by the Schenley Distillers Corporation and was one of only four distilleries in Kentucky capable of producing whiskey when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Schenley immediately began an expansion program to meet America’s post-Prohibition demand for whiskey in 1933, culminating in the construction of a modern distillery complex between 1935-37. By 1942, the George T. Stagg distillery had produced its one-millionth barrel of bourbon after Prohibition.

In October 2023, Buffalo Trace launched the Prohibition Collection, reintroducing whiskey brands produced at the George T. Stagg distillery during Prohibition. The collection includes four discontinued whiskey brands, Three Feathers, Old Stagg, Walnut Hill, and Golden Wedding, alongside a newly created expression reminiscent of medicinal whiskey named ‘Spritus Frumenti’ – the name commonly used during Prohibition to refer to medicinal whiskey in America.

Buffalo Trace’s Award-Winning Legacy   

Buffalo Trace Distillery on the banks of the Kentucky River. Credit: Buffalo Trace

The Buffalo Trace website proudly celebrates the distillery’s legacy as “the world’s most award-winning distillery”, which honors Buffalo Trace’s enduring commitment to the production of quality premium whiskey. In 1992, the George T. Stagg Distillery was purchased by the Sazerac Company, which would undertake seven years of renovations before rechristening the site as the Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1999. The Buffalo Trace Distillery would become the first American distillery to be awarded Whisky Advocate’s “Distillery of the Year”, a prestigious international award in 2000.

Since 2000, Buffalo Trace has won more than 40 distillery title awards, from publications including Whisky Magazine, Whisky Advocate, and judging panels including the International Wine & Spirits Competition. The multiple repeat awards include “Distiller of the Year from Whisky Magazine (2005) and the International Wine & Spirits Competition (2014). The distillery has also been repeatedly recognized as “Visitor Attraction of the Year” and “Brand Innovator of the Year” (Whisky Magazine, 2010, 2011). Buffalo Trace has also garnered over 500 awards for the distillery’s wide range of premium whiskey brands.

In 2013, the Buffalo Trace Distillery was designated a National Historic Landmark, evidence of the distillery’s historical significance to the American whiskey-making industry, whilst celebrating a legacy of over 200 years of distilling innovation and tradition.

Mark Bostock

Since joining Mark Littler LTD as a freelance article contributor in 2019, Mark Bostock has become an integral part of our UK content writing team. His enthusiasm for whisky, particularly independent bottlings, drives him to deepen his knowledge through frequent attendance at tasting events and the thoughtful expansion of his own whisky collection. This dedication not only fuels his passion but also enriches his contributions to our platform, blending expertise with a genuine love for the subject.

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