Buffalo Trace: a brand history
One of the oldest continuously operating distilleries in the US, Buffalo Trace has survived Prohibition and the cyclical lows of the whisk(e)y industry. The Spirits Business explores the evolution of this Bourbon pioneer.
*This feature was originally published in the August 2019 issue of The Spirits Business
“The buffalo is a strong, massive animal. It is not going to be pushed around,” says Buffalo Trace Distillery brand manager Kris Comstock. Given that he stands at a towering 6ft 8in tall, he may well feel the same way. He explains: “The buffalo on the label represents the independence and spirit of those early Americans who wanted to find a new life for themselves, and who weren’t afraid to explore unchartered territory.”
As every cowboy, and country and western singer, knows, the colonists and frontiersmen who first crossed the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1700s followed the migrating herds of buffalo westwards. Their exploits were brought to life by Buffalo Bill, the man who gave the ‘Wild West’ its name and who once shot 4,000 of these magnificent beasts during an eight‐month killing spree to provide meat for railroad workers. He would probably have drunk Buffalo Trace too had it been available.
At this point we need to separate the distillery that has been around since 1858, albeit under a variety of names such as George T Stagg and Albert B Blanton, and the modern brand, which is much more recent. “The distillery was renamed, and we began bottling Buffalo Trace in 1999,” Comstock explains, adding that before then: “Buffalo Trace has been part of our oral history for a long time.”
Like the demon drink itself, distilleries were not meant to survive US Prohibition, but this one did. “It was a very good time for the Buffalo Trace distillery because we had a licence to make whiskey for medicinal purposes, and a lot of people were sick back then,” says Comstock, with a grin. “We have records that show we were selling a million pints of our whiskey every month.”
The distillery also survived the 1980s – a grim decade for the entire American whiskey industry – although its workforce was halved and a number of its warehouses were sold off. Production levels were pretty low by the time it was bought by its present owner, Sazerac, in 1992. “Buffalo Trace whiskey ages in an oak barrel for eight years, so in 1999 we didn’t have very much of it, and we sold it only in Kentucky,” says Comstock, who joined the firm in 2003. Since then the domestic market for American whiskey has gone from 13.4 million cases to 24.5m in 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
“About five years ago, the popularity of Buffalo Trace began to spike in the US and we still don’t have enough Bourbon to supply the demand,” Comstock says. “Over the next decade we are expanding our distillery to double our whiskey‐making capacity. It’s quite a leap of faith that 10 years from now consumers will still be very thirsty for our Bourbons.” There are 16 whiskeys, besides Buffalo Trace, produced at the distillery, including Sazerac Rye, Eagle Rare and Pappy Van Winkle, whose older bottlings are among the rarest and most sought‐after Bourbons at auction.
“We like to think that if someone enjoys American whiskey they can find something we make here that they will love,” says Comstock. From the packaging it is not obvious that they are related, though you will find mention of the Buffalo Trace Distillery on every label. “We do things our own way,” he says. “We don’t follow the crowd. We do a lot of experimenting and we’re adamant about our quality. Whiskey drinkers want to make their own choices, and not be told what to like or marketed to, and we’re all for that. That spirit of independence and trying new things is inherent in the Buffalo Trace brand.”
Being family‐owned under Sazerac, which belongs to drinks tycoon William Goldring, means “we’re not going to be asked or forced to compromise our values when it comes to the quality of our Bourbon,” says Comstock. The insistence on ageing the spirit for so long hardly makes forecasting easier, or does much for the bottom line given the amount that evaporates in the sticky heat of Kentucky. “The first year the whiskey’s in barrel we lose about 10%,” he says. “Every year thereafter we lose 3%‐4%, so after eight years the barrels are nearly half empty.”
Under Sazerac, production has been stepped up since 1999 allowing the Buffalo Trace brand to expand beyond Kentucky. “Now, two decades on, we’re in every state in the US, as well as over 40 countries,” Comstock says. Domestic sales account for 85% of the brand’s volumes, with the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada being key export markets. In Europe the category has been hit hard by the 25% tariffs imposed last June, but Comstock is not overly concerned. “I think the brand is still very small in scale,” he says. “The bigger challenge is not about taxes and pricing. It’s about creating more awareness for the brand.”
In America, “Buffalo Trace is always a few dollars more than Jack Daniel’s, which usually lands it around the Maker’s Mark price”, he says. According to Impact Databank, its US sales were up 8% to 186,000 cases in 2018, and among super‐premium Bourbons (priced at more than US$28 a bottle) it was in eighth place behind the leader, Maker’s Mark, on 1.6m cases. While the brand’s consumers wait for supplies to catch up with demand, he says: “We haven’t been raising prices because we want to be fair to our fans.”
The distillery’s owner has been busy building three warehouses a year, each of which holds 58,800 barrels. The decision to double production in 10 years is a bold one, and involves an investment of around US$1.2 billion, claims Comstock. He adds: “The industry has its ups and downs, and the big question is how long the current boom will last, and does it then plateau or go into a downturn? But we’re building brands that should stand the test of time, and we’re hopeful that we will be able to grow our share in the category.”
In the US, sales of the country’s super‐ premium whiskeys have grown by 131% in the past five years, says the Distilled Spirits Council, compared with just under 30% for the rest of the category. If this trading up continues, the brand should reap the rewards – yet the real opportunity lies overseas. “Buffalo Trace is still relatively new or unknown outside of the US,” admits Comstock. “We hope whisk(e)y drinkers around the world will realise there are other American whiskeys beyond the brands they’ve heard of.”
Coming from one of the oldest continuously operating distilleries in the US, Buffalo Trace whiskey may seem a mature brand. But Comstock sees it differently: “It’s still in adolescence and we’ve a long way to go.” And he is not short of ambition: “Ultimately, we hope it can be the premium American whiskey all around the world.”
Click though the following pages to see a timeline of Buffalo Trace’s history.