Treaty Oak – Full of firsts

The fourth Texas distillery that’s leading the way 

Written by: Maggie Kimberl

Having a home like this helps to bring you into the fold of other distilleries,” says Treaty Oak Distilling founder, Daniel Barnes. “It gives it that realness. That, and actually making good Bourbon.”

Back in 2006, Barnes opened the first iteration of Treaty Oak in an industrial area of North Austin, Texas. His father-in-law built his first still, which was open-fired like a turkey fryer.

“We only caught it on fire twice,” he laughs.

Today there are Vendome copper pot stills, and a column still on the way, in addition to brewery equipment. While the primary focus of Treaty Oak today is Bourbon and rye, they also make several gins, beer, and more.

IMGP5010 Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Barnes had been drinking Bourbon since the 90s, and his favorite back then was Basil Hayden’s. He had been in charge of food and beverage for a large hotel chain starting when he was in his early twenties, and had a great appreciation for foodways and food and beverage education. Then he began to realize there was a way to tie his love of food and beverage into a distillery.

“I see our economy as being upside down – food and education makes the least and it should really be the other way around,” says Barnes. “I saw the distillery as the perfect agricultural opportunity.”

Getting in on the ground floor of post-Prohibition spirits in Texas

Treaty Oak was the fourth distillery in Texas since Prohibition, but they were full of firsts. They were the first to ferment and distil, first using molasses and later using grains. They were the first distillery in Texas to distil rum and gin and the first distillery in Austin to distill whiskey, though Barnes points out they were not the first to sell their whiskey because he didn’t see those early batches fit to sell, an admirable and rare thing to see among craft distillers.

There were two locations in industrial areas of North Austin before Barnes bought the current ranch property in nearby Dripping Springs in 2013. The distillery building was built first, followed by the rick house and then the restaurant. Today there are buildings dotting the property, from the food truck to the cocktail bar, to the cocktail lab. Weekends are particularly busy at the distillery because there is live music and they bring in nearby vendors, like Smoky’s Mobile Cigar Lounge. The distillery becomes a weekend destination for the young professionals living in Austin and in fact the locals have nicknamed Dripping Springs ‘Drinking Springs’ for the mass of distilleries and breweries that have popped up in the area. Alice’s, the on-site restaurant named for the founder’s mother, is a culinary destination in its own right.

IMGP4994 courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Today this one time one man operation has grown to include over a dozen employees, including his business partner and longtime friend Nate Powell. Powell’s current title is VP of Sales, but as with many folks who work in small businesses he wears many hats.

I wanted to get back into a hands-on artisnal crafting job working with a team

“I wanted to get back into a hands-on artisanal crafting job working with a team that was passionate about what they do,” says Powell. “It took 12 years to finally have all the pieces in place, that was phase one. Phase two is going to be harder, but it’s going to be a lot more rewarding. The next three to five years it’s going to be about, how do I get every single person I meet to walk away with the same feeling about our product and story that I have.”

Powell’s job takes him on the road opening up new markets to Treaty Oak’s products.

Many of the spirits selling under Treaty Oak’s labels are sourced, but the team has always done their best to be transparent about that. The Red-Handed line of products are sourced, but the Ghost Hill line of products are made right there at Treaty Oak. There’s always room for experimentation, and there’s even an upcoming series called the Graveyard Series that has been buried underground to age for a couple of years in an attempt to learn how underground aging is different.

Entering the next phase of growth, no looking back

Because of the emphasis on foodways and agriculture, Barnes has made some good friends and allies within the local community. One such ally is James Brown, who Barnes and Powell lovingly refer to as the “Godfather of Corn.” Brown runs the local mill and is heavily involved in farming within the community. He recently brought back Oaxacan Green corn from the brink of extinction by purchasing the last few pounds of seed available and planting it in the middle of a large plot, so as to keep open pollination at bay. 

Next, he’s going to be opening a gristmill on Treaty Oak’s property to ensure a steady supply of ground grains for the distillery.

IMGP4978 Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Production kinks are running smoothly, and there’s now a steady supply of aged whiskey to sell, which means Treaty Oak is moving into its next growth phase. 

“Being in a place where we know we have a grain to glass Bourbon and having a steady supply, that’s really nice to see coming to fruition,” says Barnes.

“We talk about Kentucky Bourbon and we drink Kentucky Bourbon. That’s what got us started,” says Powell. “I want people to understand that Treaty Oak has a tremendous amount of respect for what Bourbon is. We want people to have that in mind when they are drinking our products. It’s a tribute to that heritage. This is our expression of Bourbon, but it’s a Bourbon with its own nuances and personality.”

Treaty Oak recently launched its gins in seven new states.

“We strive to strike the perfect balance between heritage and innovation,” said Barnes in a press release. “Our willingness to be different based on knowledge and expertise is what sets us apart.”

There’s collaboration in the future, with a partnership with Mahalo spirits, which also partners with Bardstown Bourbon Company.

Treaty Oak is certainly a distillery to keep your eye on.

History Reborn

The opening of Castle & Key Distillery gives a glimpse into golden age of distilling

American distillers owe a huge debt of gratitude to Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor, but not just for his pioneering use of copper fermentation tanks, perfection of sour mash fermentation or helping push the Bottled-In-Bond Act through Congress in 1897. Taylor deserves adoration for envisioning whiskey tourism more than a century before most drinkers dared dip a finger into a fermenter.

CastleAndKey Sunken Garden 2

His creation of Old Taylor Distillery in 1887 brought grandeur to a historically gritty industry. His distillery was fronted by a magnificent limestone castle of medieval design, featuring towers at all four corners. Behind the distillery he built a key-shaped peristyle supported by Roman columns that surrounded the campus’s aquifer. On the distillery’s opposite side, he built a sunken garden that would stir envy among royalty.

His death in 1923 at age 90 spared him an impossibly long-enough life to witness the eventual decline into dereliction of his castle and distillery. Had God granted him the chance to outlive Moses, he may have prayed for a hastened demise had he seen its condition 81 years later.

“Are you guys nuts?”

In 2014, the only thing Will Arvin and Wes Murry knew about distilling was that they liked liquor. Burdened by the idea of what to do with the second half of their working years, Arvin, a real estate investor, and Murry, a lawyer, thought making whiskey would jazz up their lives. Their plans for a distillery were initially modest: a plant that made a barrel or two of boutique whiskey each day, liquor they could sell at a premium to the growing hoard of high-end buyers.

“We didn’t have a clue what we were getting into,” Murry says with a grin. “We were figuring it out as we went.”

CastleAndKey Entrance and Castle

As if their plan wasn’t naïve already, the men wanted to set up shop at the site of the Old Taylor Distilling Co., a distillery that hadn’t rectified even a handful of corn into whiskey in 42 years. Shortly after Prohibition ended, National Distillers bought the plant from the American Medicinal Spirts Co., expanded it and made whiskey there until 1972. At its peak, the distillery made 1,000 barrels of whiskey per day. 

Bottling and aging continued at the site until a 1987 merger with Jim Beam idled the once-glorious distillery. 

In 1990, a quarter century before Murry’s and Arvin’s first visit, Joe Magliocco came to Old Taylor to sample some of the whiskey still aging there. The whole place, he says, spooked him.

“You’d walk into rooms where people and been working, and there on desks were pencils and coffee cups lying in such a way that you thought they had only gotten up to go to the bathroom,” says Magliocco, president of Michter’s Distillery. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so eerie.”

Still, Arvin and Murry believed the Taylor site had promise as a micro-distillery with an historical tourism play: the castle, its grounds, its bucolic setting next to Glenns Creek, its rural location in Millville. Problem was the site was a hell hole far worse than the place that unnerved Magliocco. The grounds were better suited for use as a set for a post-apocalyptic movie than a distillery: varmints and vandals knew the grounds better than humans. Simply clearing out the overgrowth was a daunting proposition.

“Every time we told people that’s what we wanted to do, they’d look at us and say, ‘Are you guys nuts?’” Arvin says.

The disbelief wouldn’t die down for years, and for good reason. When making an appointment to tour the site, Arvin and Murry were warned to wear snake boots. When famed landscape designer, Jon Carloftis joined them for a peek at the site, he recalls saying, “You’ll need a machete to get in there!” Murry says the safest way to navigate the 83-acre jungle-scape was to follow narrow paths trodden by deer.

CastleAndKey Springhouse 2

“Everything else was covered up,” Murry recalls. “When we got off those paths, you really wondered what you’d step into since you couldn’t see the ground clearly below you. That’s how we found the sunken garden. You couldn’t see it because it was covered with every plant imaginable.”

Bigger plans require more action

It didn’t take long before the men realized their vision would require far more revenue from spirits sales than a micro-distillery would generate. Now named Castle & Key Distillery, 2015 saw them make bolder moves: ordering a 24-inch-column still and doubler set, plus a still and a pair of botanicals baskets for vodka and gin production. They also hired Marianne Eaves as their master distiller. Though Eaves had never held the title, her résumé was more than promising: she was then Brown-Forman’s master taster and first in line to succeed her boss, Chris Morris, as master distiller.


To generate cash, they began renting out their vast warehousing capacity to other brands lacking barrel space. Once its stills were running, they solicited clients for contract spirits production. That portion of the business grew so quickly, they added a 32-inch column still beside the original in 2018.

All the while, the cleanup of the grounds continued. As Carloftis transformed the greenery by trading gangly invaders for tidier shrubbery and perennials, he suggested parts of the grounds be converted to nature paths visitors could walk.

At a pre-opening press event in September, when Carloftis was asked to comment on the overhaul, the typically loquacious landscaper struggled for descriptors.

“You can’t oversell this place when you tell people about it,” he says. “It gives me the shivers to look at it…  to see what’s been done here. The courage it took for you guys to do this… everything here is the best.”

Carloftis isn’t just crowing over his and others’ work. Remaking the neglected Old Taylor distillery into the stunning Castle & Key was akin to transforming Medusa into Meaghan Markle. Amazingly, other than the new concrete and paver footpaths and thoroughly modern distilling and bottling systems, the painstaking restoration and reparations left it looking much as it did in 1937, when ND owned it. All 15 fermenters from the late 1930s are back in use, as is its grain milling machinery, and its warehouses are fully functional. The rusting remnants of its two massive water towers and aged water storage tanks remain as historic markers, as do the hulking brick and cast-iron guts of a coal fired boiler system that now serves as the centerpiece of its visitors center.

CastleAndKey Fermentation Tanks

“We wanted to do everything we could to honor its past,” says Donna Winfield, who oversaw interior design duties. “We wanted to preserve its rougher industrial look as much as possible, which I think is beautiful.”

Eaves is equally smitten with her spirits, especially her first releases of gin and vodka. Both are made from the distillery’s rye whiskey mashbill. The former is exceptionally fragrant and soft even at 106 proof; the latter is, unlike most vodkas, lovely sipped neat. Her rye bourbon and wheat bourbon liquids are about 18 months old and not expected to be bottled until at least 2021. “If then,” Eaves interjects. “We’re not rushing it. We’ve taken our time with everything else, so why rush the most important things?”

Balcones’ decade of Distilling

Our man heads to Texas for a celebration

When we meet at the World Whiskies Awards in New York, brand ambassador, Winston Edwards is coy. Perhaps the armload of plaques Balcones has won distracts him. Or maybe he simply wants to heighten the tension. Balcones has just bottled two 100 per cent rye whiskies to commemorate their decade of distilling, and darn it, I want a taste. “Jared has some in his room,” Winston teases, but that sample keeps eluding me. 

Two weeks later we meet again in Waco, Texas. Waco is the home of Dr. Pepper soda, some rare Tex-Mex treats, and Balcones Distillery. We are here to mark Balcones’ tenth anniversary. Hundreds of fans are driving in from all over the state for the celebration, and it’s going to be a full house. People are keen to grab a few special bottles before they sell out. Texans sure do support Texas. 

Waco native and whiskey connoisseur Chris Hix, has a strategy. He has purchased $15.00 entry tickets for several of his family and friends. His kin don’t share Chris’s passion for whiskey. They are there to help him beat a Texas law that limits distillery sales to two bottles per visitor. 

Then there’s Tracy from Houston. He points gleefully to his two bottles before confessing he already has too much Bourbon at home. He and his wife Shari, (holding two more bottles), must have left early for the three and a half hour drive to Waco, because they were waiting eagerly on Saturday morning before the gates opened. Why? “You keep it in the state if you can,” says Tracy as I nibble away on Tex-Mex Frito pie. Skipping the food trucks, the pair first headed straight over to stock up on whiskey. Good thing. All 350 bottles of the cask strength rye were gone in an hour and a half. 


The evening before, I had been admiring a tiny copper pot still on display in Balcones’ visitor centre. It’s a beauty, but so small. “Everyone thinks we made our first stills ourselves,” says head distiller, Jared Himstedt, coming up behind me, “But we actually bought our first ones in Portugal and had them shipped over.” Growing up in Brazil means Jared is fluent in Portuguese, so he did all the negotiating himself. He was not prepared for the final exchange though.

On the still’s inaugural run, liquid sprayed from every seam. Disaster! Running to his e-mail, Jared fired off a terse note. “You didn’t just put a fermented mash into it did you?” came the reply. “We did,” Jared responded. “First you have to seal the joints,” his suppliers told him. “Fill it up with unfermented mash and let it boil. The paste seals all the cracks.” Old world technology at its best. Once sealed the still did the yeoman’s labor until the distillery finally outgrew it. That was when they built their own. Now, two massive pots from Forsyths, have replaced that second, home-made iteration. They just couldn’t keep up the pace either. Balcones is booming right now.

Jared enthuses about a new warehousing complex they have just completed. Two large rickhouses will each hold 5,500 barrels. He plans to have them both filled in two years.


At roughly ten times the size of Scotland, with five times the population and about 100 distilleries, Texas is gradually finding its place on the global whiskey landscape. 

Balcones’ distillery is already big news in the US though. Its two new all-rye whiskeys take the distillery in a richly flavorful, new direction. When finally, I get my taste, it’s chocolate, lemon, prune juice; this doesn’t sound like rye. Yet, the basic floral, ripe fruit earthiness of rye makes it clear what I am sipping. Gorgeous.

Five or six years ago, all the distilleries in America together made an annual total of about 70,000 cases of rye whiskey, and most people thought it all tasted like Rittenhouse 100. As demand pushed production beyond 900,000 cases in 2017, enticing new flavors began to emerge. Many of these new ryes come from distilleries like Balcones, that did not exist a decade ago. If this continues, the range of flavor in rye whiskey will soon be as diverse as that of single malt Scotch. 

Balcones had already built a strong cult following by making Texas single malt whiskey. Several years ago though, Jared decided to branch out. He was intrigued to learn that farmers were growing rye as a cover crop in west Texas. Rye doesn’t sound like something that would thrive in the brutally hot Texan summers. However, sub-freezing temperatures for a few weeks each winter are enough to sustain the local Elbon rye variety. 

As a cover crop, rye fields are not allowed to mature. Instead, cattle graze on the young rye plants, and then before they go to seed, the plants are plowed back into the soil as “green manure,” returning the nutrients they have absorbed and adding organic matter. 

There is an enigma in using rye grain to make whiskey. The more starch it contains, the more alcohol it produces. At first thought this sounds like a good thing. However, the big deal about rye is not alcohol, it is flavor, and all that flavor comes from the outer seed coat of the grain. More starch means proportionally less seed coat, and so less flavor. Fortunately, hybrid seed for the plump, starch-rich ryes favored by bakers is too expensive to use as cover. It turns out that Elbon rye is an old non-hybrid variety. 

Initially, farmers in west Texas were doubtful that anyone was serious about buying mature rye grain from them. After a bit of finagling though, Himstedt and production manager, Thomas Mote finally convinced a few to let their rye set seed. “We’ll buy the grain,” they assured them, “and make it into whiskey.” The result is a stunning success. Two local rye whiskies, including 7,000 bottles of a 15-months-old, 100-proof version, and 350 bottles of 30-months-old cask strength whiskey at 124.6-proof.


The anniversary events have been a smash success and though tired, everyone is keyed up. Winston invites us for a few celebratory drams at Barnett’s Pub, a few blocks away. It’s clear instantly that bar manager, Adam Springer knows his whiskeys. He ought to. He has 540 of them on pour. Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Bourbon, you name it. He also has enough Texas whiskeys to make up a decent flight, and soon four ample drams arrive.
A few blind sips later I have a favorite: Balcones single malt with honorable mention to Garrison Brothers Bourbon.

As we relax at Barnett’s, Brittany LaFollett from 903 brewery joins us. She’s drinking something that looks like a massive Bloody Mary. “Michelada,” she announces. “It’s similar; it’s a Mexican Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka.” It’s not on the bar menu and Adam is patient when I order one. All these whiskeys and I’m drinking what. But after several days of sipping whiskey I need something I can guzzle. The spicy, limey Michelada fits the bill perfectly. 

Heading home next morning, I’m carrying four souvenirs: a Lledo die-cast Dr. Pepper van, the web address of Ginny McMeans’ blog (apparently she has the best Michelada recipe) and a bottle each of two Balcones ryes. Score. 


Texas Rye Cask Strength

Vanilla, chocolate pudding, stewed prunes, lilacs, fragrant spring flowers. Dark fruits, peppery spices, black-tea tannins, savoury vegetal notes, molasses. Mouth coating.

Texas Rye 100 Proof

Dark fruits, chocolate, flowers, blue clay, spices and peppery heat. Vanilla, raisin pie, citrus fruit and a vaguely farmy earthiness.

Texas Single Malt

Full bodied, with cereal tones, grass, vanilla, black tea and sweet citrus. Long, woody finish.

Transatlantic Cousins

Distilleries change hands time and again. It happens all over the world 

Some Scottish distilleries are still in the hands of descendants from the original founding family. Alas, that cannot be said about American distilleries. Prohibition wreaked havoc on the American whiskey industry and many distilling dynasties were destroyed. Only a handful emerged from the ‘Noble Experiment’ as the government at the time dubbed it. Today only seven or eight pre-Prohibition distilleries survive, excluding the numerous micro-distilleries and recent revivals that have become en vogue. Among them they make 100s of different Bourbons and American whiskeys. In some cases however there are still slender ties with the original families and even between both whiskey-making nations. It is generally acknowledged that the Irish invented whiskey making and the Scots are credited for marketing the drink worldwide. European immigrants took their distilling habits with them when they crossed the Atlantic. In the last quarter of the 18th century many a Scottish, German, Irish or Dutch craftsman set sail to prove his luck in the Land of Unlimited Possibilities. One of them was a German named Johannes Jacob Bohm, who started distilling whiskey around 1785. For convenience he changed his name to Beam and unknowingly became the founding father of today’s best-selling Bourbon worldwide. The first whiskey he sold was known as Old Jake Beam Sour Mash. David Beam, the founder’s 10th child, took over the Beam family distillery, the farm and the gristmill in 1820, at the age of 18. At first the distillery was named Old Tub. In 1857 Old Tub Distillery was relocated just north of Bardstown in Nelson County, Kentucky by David M. Beam, grandson of Jacob Beam. He did this to take advantage of the (then) latest in transport: railroads. Old Tub whiskey, which sold for 25 cents a gallon in prewar-1860, could sell for up to $35 a gallon in wartime. No wonder David M. Beam continued to distil whiskey as long as possible during the Civil War.

When Jacob’s great-grandson Jim Beauregard Beam took over the company he changed the name to Clear Creek Distillery. He then purchased a second distillery to increase capacity. Around 1920 he had to close them both and sell Clear Creek, thanks to Prohibition. 

During those 13 long years, Jim Beam tried to run three different companies, all failures: the Sunlight Mining Company, the Sunbeam Quarries Company and a citrus grove in Florida. At the end of the Noble Experiment he said to his children and nephews ‘Boys, time for us to get back to work.’ The current Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky was built in 120 days in 1934. Do you think somebody was in a hurry to get re-started?

Jim Beam now began producing Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon since he had sold the brand Old Tub along with Clear Creek Distillery. By the late 1930s, the Bourbon was known as Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. 

Jim had also developed a new culture of yeast for his freshly built distillery. He was so protective of his Bourbon’s yeast strain, every Friday night (even after he retired in 1944) he took a sealed jar of it home, strapped into the passenger seat of his Cadillac. That car was his trademark and he owned a whole string of them over his lifetime. Jim Beam’s son, T. Jeremiah Beam once failed to make a reporter understand in technical terms the importance of the family yeast strain. After a lot of explaining he looked at the uncomprehending person who interviewed him and stated, ‘Let’s just say we think it makes a better Bourbon.’ The same yeast strain is used today.

When Jim Beam lent his name to the whiskey, the sales figures literally beamed off the page. To honor this legendary whiskey baron the well-known square bottle still bears his signature, blown in the glass. The sixth generation of descendants included Booker Noe, probably one of the greatest legends in the contemporary American whiskey industry. Booker travelled the world to spread the word about Jim Beam and its small batch Bourbons. He had the habit of taking a small number of barrels from the middle of his warehouses and bottling the whiskey directly, not diluted or filtered. It was his own private stock and he called it Booker’s Bourbon. This was the rise of four small batch Bourbons produced by Jim Beam. The other ones are Baker’s, Basil Hayden and Knob Creek. When Booker died on 24 February 2004, he was soon immortalized on the distillery grounds with a bronze statue. Every day, rain or shine, Booker looks over the distillery, sitting in his favourite rocking chair while a little statuette of his loyal dog, who only survived him a couple of weeks, keeps him company.

A closer look at Beam’s portfolio of drinks reveals the presence of another Bourbon, Maker’s Mark, and several Scottish cousins, among others the famous blend Teacher’s, the single malts Ardmore, Auchentoshan and Bowmore, as well as the latter’s close neighbour, the pungent, iodine-flavoured Islay single malt Laphroaig that has a large following world-wide.

Two brothers founded Laphroaig in the first quarter of the 19th Century: Donald and Alexander Johnston. The former one being the more entrepreneurial of the two bought his brother’s shares in 1836. Donald died in 1846 after having fallen in a vat of burnt ale, a residue from the pot still. He left the distillery to his son Dugald who had to go to court with his sisters. They disputed his heritage. Dugald won, but having no heir, left Laphroaig to his sister Isabella who happened to be married to her cousin, another Alexander Johnston.

For two more generations descendants of Donald Johnston owned the distillery. The last Johnston-related owner never married, died childless in 1954 and left the distillery to his secretary Bessie Williamson. Under this remarkable woman’s leadership – she was chosen Woman of The Year in the 1950’s in the UK – the USA and Scotland met for the first time regarding the history and ownership of Laphroaig. Between 1963 and 1972 Bessie sold her shares in three chunks to Long John International, owned by Seager and Evans, ultimately owned by the American Schenley Corporation, one of the whiskey companies that rose from the ashes of Prohibition. Bessie stayed on the Board and was an excellent live marketing tool in the USA to promote Scottish whisky. She made many transatlantic travels before retiring in 1973.

This American-Scottish marriage lasted until 1975 when UK brewer Whitbread acquired Long John and with it Laphroaig. The Islay whisky didn’t really prosper in their hands and they eventually decided to focus on their primary market and expertise: beer. Laphroaig was sold and changed hands again in 1989, becoming part of Allied Lyons, renamed Allied Domecq in 1994 after the merger with the Spanish drinks company. That merger coincided with the appointment of a new manager who would become a legend in his own right: Iain Henderson, aka Mr Laphroaig. Henderson retired in 2002, thus not witnessing a renewed marriage between Scotland and the USA. In 2006 Allied Domecq sold Laphroaig to Fortune Brands who added the single malt to its drinks portfolio. 

Finally, in 2014 the Japanese drinks company Suntory took over Fortune Brands’ drinks portfolio and has consolidated all its drinks companies under the name Beam Suntory. At the helm of Jim Beam stands Booker’s son Fred Noe, the seventh generation direct descendant of Jacob Bohm. With Jim Beam being the best selling Bourbon worldwide, you wouldn’t easily miss it behind any bar from Alaska to Zimbabwe. 

Today the Scottish heritage in the American whiskey industry is still firmly grounded. Beam distributes Laphroaig throughout the USA. Ninety percent of Laphroaig’s whisky is quietly maturing in ex-Bourbon casks, predominantly coming from Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam distilleries.



In the first year of maturation there will be a 10 percent loss, two to three years a 12-15 percent loss and at nine years up to 50 percent.


To track barrels, Beam is moving into using radio-frequency identification, known as RFID. This uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects.


Using an X pattern to choose barrels for blending, Knob Creek comes from the 4th
and 5th floor in the middle, Booker from the 5th and 6th floor on the outside, Bakers from the 6th and 7th floors on the outside. 


The black mold outside the warehouses on walls and trees is called ‘tattletale mold’ because it revealed hidden moonshiners.


When Heaven Hill’s Bardstown distillery was destroyed by fire in 1996, Beam loaned its stills until it could get up and running again. 


Buffalo Trace

What do a Kentucky Bourbon distillery built in 1857 and a Roman city from the 7th Century A.D. have in common? An interesting enigma, untangled by the Whisky Couple during their recent visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery

In the year 79 AD the city of Pompeii was covered under showers of ash, after the Vesuvius volcano viciously erupted and created an immense human disaster. It took until well into the 16th Century before remnants of this once mighty city would be uncovered. Since the 18th Century, archaeological research has been continuously conducted. A large portion, but not everything by far, of a once prosperous city in the Italian province of Naples has been uncovered. The ruins are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“What on earth does that have to do with a Bourbon distillery?” We questioned our tour guide Shelly, who gave us an exclusive peek in the underbelly of the distillery. Literally, since she took us to a site excavated under the floor of a former storage building at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, which, to quote our guide, ‘Compared to Pompeii, has only been on the list of National Historic Landmarks since 2013.’ Okay, no UNESCO, but still. After all, the USA isn’t even 250 years old yet.

Here’s some Bourbon history. Around 1857, in Leestown, also spelled Lee’s Town, a distillery was built at a location that used to be, according to local lore, a ford where bison crossed the Kentucky River. In 1870 buildings and grounds were purchased by Mr E. H. Taylor Jr, a respected whiskey broker who had the army as one of his important customers. Although not a military man, he was allowed to style himself with the title (Kentucky) Colonel. He christened his distillery OFC, an abbreviation for Old Fire Copper (or Old Fashioned Copper), the name referring to the copper stills and equipment he used. In one of the oldest buildings on the site these initials can still be seen, carved in a keystone.

Taylor was a man with a vision and an eye for quality. He was among the pioneers of steam distillation and his OFC Bourbon was so well appreciated that other distilleries added the name to their own products, a practice comparable with that of certain Scottish distillers who used the quality affix ‘Glenlivet’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. In both instances a court case ended the custom.

Around 1880 Taylor built a second distillery next to the first one and called it Carlisle. Both distilleries worked in tandem and were considered the largest and most modern in the world at that time. Shortly thereafter Col. Taylor sold lock, stock and barrel to his colleague George T. Stagg, who suffered a bad start. In 1882, as at Pompeii centuries before, a natural disaster took place: this time in the form of a lightening strike, causing the entire OFC Distillery to burn to the ground. Contrary to the disaster befallen on the ancient Roman city, whose ruins would go unnoticed to the general public for many centuries, Stagg resurrected his newly acquired distillery immediately, covering what was left of the old buildings. A picture taken around 1896, probably the first ever taken of the complex, shows the vastness of the operation. In 1904 OFC was re-baptised as George T. Stagg Distillery.

As one of a handful, the distillery managed to survive Prohibition (which came into effect on 19 January 1920) by acquiring a license to produce, distribute and sell whiskey for medicinal purposes. In 1929 the Schenley Corporation bought the company. 

The new owner would be instrumental in the resurrection of the American whiskey industry after Prohibition was repealed on 5 December 1933.

Natural disasters seemed to haunt the distillery and in 1937, during the Great Flood when the Kentucky River stretched far beyond its natural borders, the consequences were enormous. The boiler room, heart of operations, was flooded six meters and the water reached above the second floor of Warehouse H, the one furthest removed from the river. Col. Albert Blanton, whose name would be used to launch the first single barrel Bourbon decades later, managed the distillery at the time. According to legend, it took him 24 hours to get things running again.

In 1958 Schenley reorganized the entire plant and poured concrete over the oldest part of the original OFC Distillery, the location of Col. E.H. Taylor’s old copper lined fermentation tanks, and hid another unique part of America’s distilling history. Schenley would be taken over a decade later and consequently dissolved into Guinness in 1987, which Irish beer had long been imported by Schenley into the USA.

The distillery complex that had survived various natural and human disasters (such as Prohibition) only acquired its current name Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1992, given by its new owner the Sazerac Company, which still owns the business. From then on the distillery would gradually be expanded and production capacity enlarged.

Such actions are often accompanied by the tearing down or renovation of older buildings. In 2012 a group of construction workers digging into the floor of an old storage building, with an eye to reinforcing its riverside wall, encountered old brick pillars and temporarily stopped their work. A Bourbon archaeologist by the name of Nicolas Laracuente was flown in. This expert is known for having found remnants of old distilleries that had not survived Prohibition and soon headed the excavations. A unique part of the old OFC Distillery was found, dating from before the great fire of 1882. The oldest part goes back to 1869 and complete walls from 1873 and fermentation tanks from 1882 have been found. The actual situation was matched with old lithographic images from those times and the comparisons are remarkable, which we could later validate in the beautiful visitor centre. 

Sazerac’s marketing department saw a unique opportunity and decided to create a new tourist attraction. Bourbon Pompeii was born and officially opened on 25 August 2017. Daily, only 15 people are allowed to visit the ruins and interest has been overwhelming. If you wish, you can follow a kind of catwalk and ogle a unique piece of distilling history in the USA that was hidden to the eye for more than a century. Not as long as Pompeii, not on such a grand scale and with less human drama involved, but a certain comparison may be made, if only for the guild of archaeologists and the hard-core Bourbon aficionados.

Buffalo Bites…


Long time master distiller Elmer T. Lee is considered the father of single barrel Bourbon, the American equivalent of single cask malt whisky from Scotland. Buffalo Trace honored him by launching a Bourbon with his name.


Factually, the animal that is depicted on Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey is a bison. There are no native buffalos in the USA. 


The yeast strain originated in 1932 and is being propagated by a Belgian company that exports their product to Kentucky company Red Star, who supplies Buffalo Trace. The old tanks that used to keep the yeast alive at the distillery are now used for experiments conducted by master distiller Harlen Wheatley. 

In the same room stands a hybrid Vendôme still, designed by Harlen. The results, various experimental whiskeys, maturing in Warehouse X, which contains approximately 15,000 barrels filled with aging whiskey.


Buffalo Trace is located at a site where whiskey has been distilled with a license since the mid-19th Century, which, legally, makes the company, in its different guises over time, the longest whiskey producing distillery in the USA.


Buffalo Trace uses three mash bills, from which 18 different Bourbons and rye whiskeys are being made, with brand names such as Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg and Col. Taylor.


Buffalo Trace supplies Julian P. Van Winkle III with Bourbon for his famous Pappy van Winkle bottlings, ever since its old, original stocks from Stitzel Weller were depleted, as Julian told us when we were jointly conducting a Bourbon tasting in Charleston, S.C. some years ago, during the annual Food & Wine Festival. 

Although Col. Blanton changed Buffalo Trace’s primary flavour grain to rye, Pappy at Stitzel Weller stuck to wheat, and that is used for Pappy’s current mash bill.


On 31 August 2016 Buffalo Trace welcomed its 1,000,000th visitor since it opened the grounds for tours in 1999. That’s a lot, but the figure dwarfs compared to the visitors at Pompeii. In the last decade the number of people who visited the ancient Roman site has grown from 1.5 million to 2.5 million. Annually, that is!