Buffalo Bill: The First Gentlemanof Bourbon by David W. Brown “When I first got into this business,” says Bill Goldring, “my father said, ‘Bill, you never want to go into the bourbon business, because one day you’re gonna wake up and you’re going to own a lake full of bourbon, and you’re not gonna know what to do with it, because people’s taste changes.’” Today Goldring is chairman of the Sazerac Company, which owns the most award-winning bourbon whiskey distillery in the world: Buffalo Trace, which is spread across hundreds of acres in Frankfort, Kentucky, and which produces bourbon from five recipes, with the broadest range of aged whiskey in America. The distillery’s heritage reaches back two centuries, and Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery in the United States. It even survived Prohibition, when it was given special dispensation to produce “medicinal” whiskeys — and anyone who has tried any one of its labels can attest: Medicine it is, if not for the body, then for the soul. The advice Stephen Goldring gave his son all those years ago wasn’t wrong. The fortunes of all spirits rise and recede like the tides, but despite its longevity and distinctly American story, bourbon in particular proved prone to calamity. In the 20th century, after the Second World War, the illustrious liquor experienced a surge of popularity. Throughout the European and Pacific campaigns, GIs looking to ease their woes had to endure “ersatz whiskey” — what amounted to a blend of crude vodkas with a splash of whiskey for color. When soldiers came home, they were thirsty for the real thing, and no whiskey was more honest or American than bourbon. Tomeet the demand, themarket was floodedwith somuch bourbon that pairing animals and building arks wouldn’t have been the worst idea out there, and as a result, a spirit known for its craftsmanship became inexplicably associated with shoddiness — or worse, swill. Mark Brown, the president & CEO of the Sazerac Company, told me in an interview that it was like selling a Rolls-Royce for 25 grand. The magic was lost. The fate of the whiskey fell to master distillers like Elmer T. Lee and T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr., who took the wheel and guided bourbon through the rough waters of the 1950s, however torn aplenty the ship might have been. They restored the liquor’s luster and then some, but tastes change, and by the late ’70s, the bourbon market again collapsed — this time with little hope of recovery. The business problem was one of capital: Bourbon is expensive to make, and takes years to age before being ready for bottling and selling. An industry in dire straits cannot wait two, four, six or seven years before putting a product on shelves and in bars — especially not a product that might turn out disappointing when the time comes, for a market that might not be that interested. Thus the advice of Stephen Goldring, and a risky bet years later by his son Bill. VODKA RISING, BOURBON FALLING “By the time the ’80s came,” says Goldring, “vodka had taken over.” This wasn’t a bad state of affairs for the Sazerac Company. In the late ’50s, the company premiered Taaka Vodka (which today is the largest-selling beverage alcohol in the state of Louisiana). It was, at the time, one of just two vodka brands on the American market. Just as Bill’s bet on bourbon would be…risky at best, Stephen’s gambit to

release a vodka brand during the McCarthy era was either visionary or insane. With the country turning over every rock in the hunt for communists in American society, who but a commie would drink a Russian alcohol ? But tastes change. The beauty of bourbon is its age, its taste and its aroma, and drinkers expected and enjoyed that. Vodka, on the other hand, was a surefire failure in the alcohol business because it was bourbon’s opposite: It had no taste, no smell, no odor. Who would drink a product without the very things that drinkers wanted in the first place? As it turned out: everyone. The secret of Taaka’s success was, and remains, written on every bottle’s label: “Mixes easy…just add people.” Whatever you mix vodka with is what it tastes like. A Bloody Mary tastes like tomato juice. A screwdriver tastes like orange juice. An Arnold Palmer tastes like lemon juice and honey. “People could go out and have a vodka martini or a screwdriver, and could come back and [they] didn’t have alcohol on their breath,” says Goldring. His father’s plan proved prophetic, and as years elapsed, vodka’s mixability took it from zero percent of the market to about one-third. Bourbon, meanwhile, continued to suffer catastrophic losses in market share. Which is what made Bill Goldring’s move in 1991 so daring. He knew someone in Kentucky who owned a bourbon distillery that was about to go out of business entirely. “The distillery, after Prohibi- tion, had a reputation for making the best whiskey in America,” says Goldring. “His problem was that he had a lake full of bourbon — just like my father had predicted — and he said, look, you buy my inventory and I’ll give you the distillery.” It wasn’t much of an offer. The distillery by then was floundering, dilapidated and down to 40 employees on 113 acres. Goldring knew the quality was there, but had no idea at the time that bourbon would ever make a comeback. “Sometimes you’ve got to get lucky and you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time; and we bought the inventory, we got the distillery, and we started buying other brands from other major distillers.” Why would someone sell such revered brands as W.L. Weller, Old Charter or Benchmark to the Sazerac Company? Because bourbon was doomed, and distillers had lost interest in the category all together. So Goldring’s company spent seven years renovating its newly purchased distillery, modernizing it and renaming it for the migration path of buffalo headed westward from Kentucky. Buffalo Trace Distillery was born.




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