The Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky

by Stacy B. Williams

Photos by Virginia Maynard (3) and Beverly Buchanan (2) & Courtesy Buffalo Trace Archives

One of the remarkably well-preserved outbuildings still in use at Buffalo TraceAlthough horses and buffalo were some of the first scouts of this fertile and productive terrain, Hancock Lee established one of the earliest settlements, Lee’s Town, near the banks of the Kentucky River in the mid-1700s.

The interminable river and the strength and malleability of the limestone beneath their feet led the early pioneers of modern Franklin Country to begin their journey in the art of bourbon making. The legacy of Buffalo Trace Distillery has only grown stronger with time.  

Detail of the substantial dimensional stonework used in the maturing warehousesThe land has changed hands a few times (to say the least) over the centuries, but the founding fathers of the bourbon industry made no mistake in claiming over one hundred acres for the distillery site.

The combination of the meandering river and the rocky landscape of what is today Franklin County yielded the perfect equation for making quality bourbon.

Since establishing the first modern distillery in 1857, Buffalo Trace has multiple claims to fame, but there is one which they share with other distilleries located along the Bourbon Trail: Kentucky limestone. 

This archive photo shows a riverside view of Buffalo Trace Distillery, circa late 1800s. Visible on the left: the tall, brick sides of the three-story warehouses rise above the other buildingsBuffalo Trace is located in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, and on the outskirts of the Inner Bluegrass karst area.

According to the Kentucky Geological Survey produced by the University of Kentucky, Inner Bluegrass karst is a type of landscape unique to central Kentucky.

Karst, derived from the Slavic word meaning “stony or barren land,” occurs where soluble rock, such as limestone, near the ground surface is fractured so that the rock becomes enlarged as it dissolves.

This terrain is characterized by sinkholes and sinking streams. Known exclusively to the Bluegrass Region, “bird’s eye” limestone plays a major role throughout the bourbon production process. Lime is an important industrial chemical, and limestone acts as a ground water purifier.

Because bourbon production requires the purest form of water possible, more than limestone was needed to filter the groundwater used in the process. The crew at Buffalo Trace was the first to adopt the filtration method known as reverse osmosis in the 1980s. Today, reverse osmosis is still one of the most efficient filtering methods for extracting minerals, salts and other impurities from water.

“Because the streams, rivers and springs course through limestone, it provides a natural filtration system to remove iron and sulfur which imparts a bad taste to the bourbon,” says Beverly Buchanan, a native of the Bluegrass Region and bourbon enthusiast.

“We call it ‘limestone water’ and it is high in calcium carbonate, which helps neutralize the water and allows the yeast that ferments the mash to work better.”

Durable Kentucky limestone has been used for building and fences since the late 1700sThis water is used in multiple stages of the bourbon-making process. Initially, limestone water is heated and used to make mash. Corn, rye and barley are hand-selected and added to the water which creates a sweet mash.

Once the mash has cooled and distilled, yeast is added for the fermentation phase. Limestone water, again, is key to fermentation because it helps with yeast growth. After distillation, the bourbon is ready for aging and is placed in pure white oak barrels.

Barrels are then placed carefully on certain floors of certain warehouses which will later determine the flavor and finish for the customer. 

Aging bourbon is a meticulous process, and one of well-earned pride at Buffalo Trace. Throughout the centuries, its master distillers have devised numerous tricks for producing the highest quality products. 

The construction of their warehouses is an example of the careful consideration Buffalo Trace takes into every step of producing fine bourbon. Since 1886, the warehouses have been climate-controlled with a steam-heating system first patented by George T. Stagg, one of the early master distillers of Buffalo Trace. The buildings on the distillery site are constructed of many different materials, such as limestone, brick, ceramic block, wood, metal and glass block, among others, all of which play an important  role in the aging process. 

“Each warehouse was built for specific aging techniques, and within each warehouse, each floor gives us a myriad of flavor possibilities,” says Buffalo Trace spokeswoman Amy Preske. 

“We built some with brick, brick and limestone, and all metal, knowing each one would give us different aging finishes.” 

Every detail in the warehouses is thoughtfully engineered, down to the size and placement of each window and even its proximity to the river. River water is also used to cool down the fermenting tanks, although it does not come into direct contact with any products. Before the bourbon is bottled and sealed, it is reduced to 90 proof using the reverse-osmosis-filtered limestone water.

Rows upon rows of maturing barrels fill the warehousesLimestone is also used in the antique architecture found at Buffalo Trace. Several hundred-year-old homes still stand today on this land.

Riverside, the home of Colonel Richard Taylor, was built of stone veneer with lathe and plaster walls in 1792, according to Preske. Although it is not currently in use, Riverside is the oldest building in Franklin County.

The Stony Point Mansion, likely built with local limestone in 1934 by Colonel Albert Blanton, is a stunning stone building that overlooks the distillery site and is used as administrative space today. 

“Considering the age of the buildings,” says Preske, “I believe all materials are local.” 

In the 1800s, Irish stone masons made their mark in Kentucky by sharing the ancient, dry-stack method of building with limestoneThe distillery’s architecture is reminiscent of the dry-stacked limestone fences that are so prevalent in the Bluegrass Region; yet another long-lasting feature of the area’s prized stone. The early 1800s saw Irish immigrants come into the Bluegrass region.

Irish stone masons made their mark in Kentucky by sharing the dry-stack method of building with limestone. Each piece of stone is carefully selected and stacked without mortar. 

“The Irish first taught the slaves the skill in laying the stone fences,” says Buchanan. 

There has been renewed interest in the art of dry-stack construction, and masons in Kentucky continue the tradition today. Much like the stone structures on the Buffalo Trace Distillery, many of these fences have withstood the test of time. 

In the 1800s, Irish stone masons made their mark in Kentucky by sharing the ancient, dry-stack method of building with limestoneMany of the homes and warehouses have outlasted extreme weather; flooding in particular which is common in karst areas. However, Warehouse B was severely damaged in a storm several years ago, and its repair was carefully constructed with salvaged brick and windows, as well as the original mortar recipe to maintain historical integrity. 

“We always strive to use materials and methods that are consistent with the original construction,” says Preske, “If an outside contractor has to be called in, we use one with experience in historic preservation.” 

The Buffalo Trace Distillery has persevered through weather, industry competition and political changes. It even survived Prohibition by obtaining special permission to make and sell small prescription bottles of bourbon for “medicinal purposes.” 

If you’d like to learn more about the oldest continuously producing distillery in the nation, it would be best to take advantage of the free tours. Visitors can expect to learn the history of bourbon and the distillery, as well as a chance to sip the award-winning spirit.

For those who enjoy a good spook, there is also a Ghost Tour, which features walks through some of the older buildings. 

Whether your interest is limestone and architecture, bourbon and whiskey or the beautiful landscape of the Kentucky River, the Buffalo Trace Distillery is worth the trip. You can see and feel the legacy of the past on the land of the Buffalo Trace. If only those walls and barrels could talk... .