If you ask your average American whiskey geek to name you the “most popular” bourbon distillery in Kentucky, there’s a very good chance they’re going to be replying with the name Buffalo Trace. Despite the fact that the Bluegrass State is flush with classic whiskey distilleries in a variety of cities and regions, Buffalo Trace has managed to achieve a special degree of hype, elevating the company’s product lineup—even when it comes to its basic, flagship bourbon—into uniquely sought-after and allocated territory. It’s a self-replicating hype cycle—the more demand there is, the more BT whiskeys (especially limited releases) fetch on the open market as status symbols, and the higher their ratings rise as a result. This has been happening for the better part of a decade now, starting with the craze for Pappy Van Winkle, and shows no signs of stopping.
It might surprise you to learn, then, that Buffalo Trace lacks one distinction you would expect to be a given: The company isn’t represented in any way on the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Not only that, but another one of Kentucky’s most iconic distillers, the Barton 1792 Distillery, is also missing from all Bourbon Trail advertising and marketing materials. Which raises an obvious question: Why are these two companies separate from almost the entire rest of the Kentucky whiskey industry?
The answer comes down to ownership and legal proceedings that go back a decade, to the beginning of the 2010s. But first, you should understand what the “Bourbon Trail” really entails.
Tourists have an idea of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as a loose concept/vacation destination that simply includes all the prominent whiskey distilleries in Kentucky, but in reality it’s a much more organized program that is owned and operated by the nonprofit Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), which owns the trademark and phrase “Kentucky Bourbon Trail”—something that will be key to this story down the line. The program was launched in 1999 to coincide with the beginning of American whiskey’s resurgence, and proved extremely successful, as tourists visit cities such as Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort and Bardstown to have their Bourbon Trail “passports” stamped. It’s a classic “rising tide lifts all ships” scenario, as the more visitors come to Kentucky for whiskey tourism, the better off all the distilleries are.
By the time the 2000s were drawing to a close, American whiskey was on the upswing, but the roster of distilleries on the Bourbon Trail was still relatively small. They included 8 big, recognizable names—Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Barton 1792 and Buffalo Trace—and participation in the Bourbon Trail promotional materials meant that each of those distilleries was an official member of the KDA. In the next decade, the Trail would grow immensely, currently standing with 18 destinations on the “main” trail, and another 20 on the “craft” tour, but with a few notable subtractions: Barton and Buffalo Trace are no longer part of the group.
So what happened?
Only official members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association are featured on the official Bourbon Trail.
Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States, and has unsurprisingly had several different names since it was built in 1792, including the George T. Stagg Distillery and the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery. The “Buffalo Trace” name was introduced by current owners Sazerac Co., the industry giants who acquired the distillery in 1992. Meanwhile, Sazerac also acquired the Barton 1792 Distillery (formerly known as the Tom Moore Distillery) in 2009, meaning that today the two are essentially siblings with the same ultimate ownership. And it was that ownership that led to both companies leaving their official roles in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
In 2009, Sazerac applied for trademarks and copyright on two phrases that ultimately drew the ire of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association: “Buffalo Trace Distillery on the Bourbon Trail,” and “Tom Moore Distillery on the Bourbon Trail.” The KDA, meanwhile, countered that it maintained exclusive rights to the “Bourbon Trail” trademark, as it operates and creates the promotional materials for the program. Unable to reach a compromise, Sazerac withdrew both Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 from the KDA in late 2009, effectively ending their official association with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Today, Sazerac owns both Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 distilleries.
That could have been the end of the story, but the KDA eventually filed a lawsuit against Sazerac in May of 2010, alleging that Buffalo Trace and Barton 1782 had continued to use the phrase “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” (and similar language), even after withdrawing from the KDA. Sazerac, meanwhile, countersued, claiming that the KDA’s trademark on “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” should be canceled because “the group abandoned legal claims by not seeking to protect it.” Ultimately, the suits were resolved via a confidential agreement between the two entities in 2011, just weeks before the case was set for trial in Louisville’s U.S. District Court. We can only assume that the KDA successfully defended their trademark, given that they continue to be the sole users of the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” name to this day.
That outcome has left Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 in something of a weird position: They’re two of the best-known bourbon producers in Kentucky, but their name isn’t mentioned on any Kentucky Bourbon Trail materials, or at any of the various stops on the Trail. It’s a bit like they’ve been erased from the organization’s history at all, even when you visit a stop like Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, which functions as the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. From a consumer standpoint, it feels odd that such prominent companies aren’t part of the organization, making the official Bourbon Trail materials feel incomplete. The KDA, meanwhile, seems to focus on promoting an ever-growing number of small, craft whiskey producers that have opened in Kentucky during this whiskey boom period.
For Buffalo Trace, it’s safe to say that the loss of the ability to promote themselves via the Kentucky Bourbon Trail hasn’t exactly been damaging. As previously mentioned, most whiskey fans would consider them to be the most sought-after major distillery in the U.S. right now, with a product lineup that is heavily allocated and often substantially marked up above MSRP. They’re fortunate in this way—whiskey geeks already seek out their product with ravenous demand, so they hardly need external marketing. Likewise, Buffalo Trace operates its own, independent tour—one that doesn’t charge a fee, which feels a bit like a carefully calculated rebuke of all the other Bourbon Trail distilleries that do. It certainly invites comparison, that’s for sure.
If anything, it’s Barton 1792 that perhaps would have been hurt more over the years by missing out on the increased exposure that the Bourbon Trail would provide. They’re undeniably a quality distillery—they won our blind tasting of 13 bottom shelf bourbons, actually—but have occasionally been labeled by writers as the forgotten member of the grand old Kentucky bourbon houses. However, with accolades like their 1792 Full Proof Bourbon being chosen as influential whiskey writer Jim Murray’s 2020 World Whisky of the Year, this may be the dawn of a Barton 1792 renaissance as well.
Just don’t look for either of them when it comes to stamping that Bourbon Trail passport, and know that your vacation brochure may not exactly tell the entire story of the Kentucky whiskey landscape as it exists today.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.