Mark Brown, the CEO of Buffalo Trace, was in town last week, and I had a chance to sit down with him. Buffalo Trace has gotten a lot of grief recently for dropping age statements on several whiskeys, but Brown has a reputation for being transparent and open to inquiries, whether from the press, bloggers or just random fans — he even puts his personal email on the BT website.
Buffalo Trace helped ignite the current wave of articles about a looming whiskey shortage with a press release, issued on May 8, explaining that demand for many of its flagship brands — including Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee — was rising faster than expected, making these and other bourbons increasingly hard to find. At the same time, BT has quietly dropped the age statements on several of its lower-priced whiskeys, including Charter 8, Weller Special Reserve 7 and Very Old Barton 6* — so quietly, in fact, that many observers thought the company was trying to pull the wool over drinkers’ eyes.
My conversation with Brown covered a lot of ground, but I was particularly interested in the story behind recent changes to Eagle Rare, BT’s 10-year-old single-barrel workhorse. In recent months the distillery dropped the single-barrel designation, and it moved the age statement to the back of the label — a precursor, many worried, of a dropping of the age statement altogether.
Both changes, Brown said, had come as the result of a decision to expand production of Eagle Rare to a second bottling line. In the past, Eagle Rare was bottled exclusively in the Blanton Hall at Buffalo Trace, a relatively small facility where much of the work is done by hand. In the single-barrel bottling process, a barrel’s worth of whiskey goes from a bottling tank to the filler through a short length of pipe, and the whole process is small enough to ensure that each barrel’s worth goes through the run alone.
But the second bottling line, at a much larger hall (which doesn’t have a fancy name), has a much longer pipe between bottling tank and filler, so long that the whiskey from one barrel might unintentionally mix with the whiskey from another barrel. There’s no legal definition of single barrel, of course, but Brown said that the risk of such inter-mixing would violate the company’s internal definition of single barrel, so the designation was dropped.
As for the age statement, Brown said that the company has absolutely no intention of dropping it, and it has plans on the books to keep it at 10 years through 2047. He said the change in the labeling was also a result of the new production facility. The old bottles had the age statement on a neck wrap, which had to be placed by hand so that it was centered. The new facility has a machine do the neck wrap and plastic shrink-wrap that goes over it, and there’s no way to make the machine center the neck wrap on the bottle. There was nowhere else to put the age statement on the front, so they moved it to the back. Again, many bottles are still filled and labeled at the Blanton Hall, but now some aren’t, and consistency is key.
Now, hearing such an explanation from most folks, I’d find this a little suspicious. The whole distinction sounds a little Talmudic — what company drops a valuable brand qualifier like “single barrel” on the risk of violating an arbitrary internal rule? And, in any case, who’s to know? But Buffalo Trace, for all the brickbats thrown at it, is a pretty stand up company, and Brown is a straight shooter. So I buy it, until persuaded otherwise.
— Clay Risen
* I had originally, mistakenly, included Weller 12 in this list. Oops.