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Distilled Spirits: Buffalo Trace Oldest Distillery in the United States

As the mighty buffalo thundered across the land, they carved paths in the wilderness and a destiny for our ancestors. These paths, known as traces, were soon marked with the footprints of adventurers, explorers and pioneers as they made their journey to the west. One such trace, called the Great Buffalo Trace, led to the rugged banks of what is now called the Kentucky River. It was here in Franklin County, just a short distance from Kentucky’s state capitol of today, that millions of buffalo found passage across the river in their move toward the Great Plains.

The migration of these herds left a rough, wide clearing that would become a gateway to a new frontier that invited renowned explorers and pioneers such as George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone and countless settlers who pushed America westward more than 230 years ago.

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The McAfee brothers made the first survey of the crossing site and the surrounding area in 1773. A settlement was founded at the crossing in 1775, when brothers Hancock and Willis Lee established their camp with a small company of men. The group fought for survival in the unforgiving conditions of a fierce wilderness, but by 1789 the area held a thriving population.

Those who settled there were quick to take advantage of the abundant limestone spring water and fertile bottom loam—found to be perfect for growing exceptional grain. Distillation soon followed, and what would become the area’s distinguished bourbon heritage took root.

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The tradition of fine bourbon making has been a part of this site’s heritage for more than two centuries. In fact, there has been a working distillery on the grounds since 1787.

The first modern distillery was built on this site in 1857 and was the first to incorporate the use of steam power—a major advance in producing high-quality bourbon. The distillery was later purchased by E.H. Taylor Jr., one of Kentucky’s original bourbon aristocrats. Astute and innovative, Taylor brought advancements to the facility as well as to the entire whiskey industry. By 1886, the distillery had introduced the nation’s first climate-controlled warehousing for aging whiskey and had earned a worldwide reputation for producing America’s finest bourbons.

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During the Prohibition era, the distillery’s existence was spared by the allowance of a permit–one of only four issued in the country–to continue distillation for medicinal purposes. After repeal, Albert Blanton took over the operation of the distillery and added many quality control enhancements. An innovator in his own right, Blanton enjoyed producing single-barrel bourbon for himself and his friends. This tradition was honored in 1984 when the distillery became the first to commercially market a single-barrel bourbon.

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Today the Buffalo Trace Distillery site encompasses 119 acres and 114 buildings. The George T. Stagg distillery was renamed Buffalo Trace in June 1999 and introduced its flagship bourbon, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, in August 1999. In addition to Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the distillery has a history of other finely crafted, award-winning spirits, including Blanton’s, W.L Weller, Old Charter and Eagle Rare. The American family owned distillery has won more international awards since 1990 than any other North American distillery, earning more than 160 distinctions in national and international competitions, including seven “Distillery of the Year” awards, since 2000.

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