These days it’s nearly impossible to discuss bourbon at large without mentioning Buffalo Trace. If not the brand name itself, then certainly any of their multiple bottlings. The Frankfort distillery’s more coveted expressions (Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Van Winkle) might be what some enthusiasts go nuts for, but even their more ordinary expressions have been subject to an ever-present halo effect. What inevitably follows is the big, oft-repeated question, often by bourbon-curious drinkers: what’s the deal?
Word on the street was that bottles of Weller 12-Year and Antique, being wheated bourbons produced by Buffalo Trace, were essentially Pappy reject barrels. This led to two inevitabilities. One, Weller got gobbled up like stuffing on Thanksgiving. Two, a “Poor Man’s Pappy” became a thing in lieu of the coveted bottles it supposedly emulated. Throw in Stagg Jr. riding the coattails of George T. Stagg and we can begin to see the effect trickle down into more and more Buffalo Trace shelfers. Even the standard Sazerac Rye remains elusive in my market. My most recent sighting of the $20 (or so) rye whiskey was a couple weeks ago at an independently run store. They were asking $70 for it and regular Buffalo Trace bourbon. Each.
Fortunately for me, the former was sitting on the shelf at a franchise store for a far more agreeable price: $23 after tax.
My initial method of bourbon exploration was ordinary in every sense of the word. I stuck with budget offerings from mostly established brands, limited to core bottlings and one or two limited releases that still came in under $30 (thank you, Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut). Buffalo Trace was among the bottles I chose to indulge in during those early days, and I even made one of my initial scoresheets for it. Now, after a couple years and a ton more whiskey under my belt, I believe it’s time to revisit this core staple that still manages to elude in certain markets.
Nose: Grapes, light brown sugar, and vanilla. Light cinnamon sugar and apple crisps with a dried orange undercurrent.
Palate: Appropriately thin and vanilla-forward. Vague, initial hit of bright fruit. Big time cream soda and a light but tangible woodiness. Sassafras and light brown sugar.
Finish: Light flavor and medium length. A whisper of vanilla cream and apple crisps offset by dry wood and pepper.
No-frills bourbon feels like an apt description for Buffalo Trace. Initial pours are on the hot, dry, and rough side, but after a couple weeks it settles right down. By then the more pleasantly sweet characteristics show, particularly on the nose. The overall experience remains light and somewhat uninspiring, however, bestowing but a small glimpse at what the distillery’s stronger expressions have to offer. For me there exist other, more interesting and appealing options for roughly the same cost. Yet for the proper sticker price of around $25, there’s little to fret over. Buffalo Trace is competent bourbon with little to help it stand out beyond being a balanced, versatile pour.