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Kentucky Storytellers: Bourbon

Freddie Johnson’s family has played a key role in the history of Buffalo Trace Distillery, as well as the broader story of Kentucky’s signature spirit.

Johnson’s grandfather, Jimmy Johnson Sr., was a personal friend to Col. Albert Blanton, who, in 1921, became president of the George T. Stagg Bourbon Distillery, the precursor to Buffalo Trace. The two worked side by side at the Frankfort distillery for more than five decades, with Johnson eventually becoming the first African American warehouse manager in the industry.

In 1936, Freddie Johnson’s father, Jimmy Johnson Jr., solidified the family’s central stature in Buffalo Trace’s history by assuming the role of warehouse supervisor, a position he held until the late 1970s.

Though Freddie Johnson had moved and started a career in Georgia, fate called him home to Kentucky and to the same sweet smell of simmering mash that had greeted his family for generations.

“I moved back to Kentucky to take care of my dad,” Johnson said. “He asked me to promise him that I’d go to work for the distillery. He was so proud of the idea of having three generations of Johnsons working there.”

These days, Freddie Johnson makes good on his promise as a tour guide at Buffalo Trace, where he works on the front lines of the Kentucky bourbon industry, educating visitors from across the globe about the craftsmanship that goes into every bottle.

On his tours, Johnson makes sure to point out the engineering and history behind the buildings — he likes to point out that timbers from the 1800s are supporting over 6,000 tons of whiskey in one of the distillery’s oldest warehouses — as well as the science and art behind the distilling process itself.

“All of a sudden they realize, it’s not just a bottle of bourbon they’re drinking,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it than just liquid in that bottle.”

Above all, Johnson hopes his tours help visitors make a connection to Buffalo Trace and the broader bourbon industry and to the Kentuckians like his own family that have shaped its past and are shaping its future.

“On my tours, people get a chance to talk face-to-face with the people who are making the bourbon, rolling the barrels and filling the bottles,” he said. “They’re taking pictures with them and chatting with them, and all of a sudden, because of that human contact, they leave with an emotional tie to what we’re doing here.”

Maker’s Mark

In addition to producing one of Kentucky’s most recognized bourbon brands, thanks to bottles hand dipped in signature red wax, Maker’s Mark also boasts beautiful grounds and a stunning overhead art glass installation by famed creator Dale Chihuly in its historic barrel room. The one-hour General Distillery Tour offers an overview of the entire distillation process, including a chance to see the hand dipping area. For those wanting more insight into the distillery’s early days, the two-hour Heritage Tour promises a deep dive into the heritage of the brand. While on-site, make time to dine at Star Hill Provisions restaurant, where chef Newman Miller and team serve seasonally inspired, locally sourced farm-to-table fare.

Woodford Reserve

Marked by stately stone barrelhouses, three iconic copper-pot stills and a 500-foot-long gravity-fed barrel run, Woodford Reserve sits on the grounds of Kentucky’s oldest distilling site, founded in 1812. The distillery is home to one of the only heat-cycled barrelhouses in the world, meaning the temperature in the storage facility is intentionally raised or lowered by staff periodically, rather than depending on the cycles of external temperatures alone, to facilitate the aging process. The one-hour distillery tour offers an overview into the process behind Woodford’s award-winning bourbons and whiskeys; the two-hour Bourbon Legacy Tour offers a detailed history of the distillery from 1812 to today.

Willett Distillery

Independent and family-owned, Willett Distillery is in Bardstown, known as the Bourbon Capitol of the World. The distillery traces its heritage to 1936 and produces brands that include Johnny Drum, Rowan’s Creek and Willett Family Estate. The standard, guided walking tour includes a look at the main distillery room, the cistern room, the aging warehouses and more. For added insight into the craft of bourbon making, the Seasoned to Perfection Tour offers an introduction into the sensory process of aging and flavor selection.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

On historic “Whiskey Row” in downtown Louisville, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience offers an immersive introduction to the Evan Williams brand, one of Heaven Hill Distillery’s flagship bourbons. The attraction is a museum and a retail store rather than a large-scale production facility, but visitors can still learn about the distillation process here thanks to a small-scale, artisanal distillery on-site, as well as educational bourbon tastings.

Four Roses

Striking for its distinctive Spanish Mission-style architecture as well as its picturesque location on the Salt River in Lawrenceburg, Four Roses Distillery is also noteworthy for using five proprietary yeast strains with two separate mashbills, or grain recipes, in its distillation process. The variety yields 10 distinct bourbon recipes that are blended by hand to create Four Roses’ small-batch, select and single-barrel bourbons. Tours of the separate warehouse and bottling facility in Cox’s Creek are also available.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace offers five distinct tours of its award-winning Frankfort distillery, from standard visits to its warehouses and bottling facilities to a behind-the-scenes “hard hat” tour and a “Bourbon Pompeii” experience, which takes guests to the remnants of the 1870s-era E.H. Taylor distillery on-site. All tours are free and conclude with the opportunity to taste a sampling of the distillery’s products, which include brands such as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee and Weller. For those not yet 21, the distillery offers tastings of its Freddie’s Root Beer, named in honor of tour guide Freddie Johnson. While there, consider grabbing a bite at the distillery’s Firehouse Sandwich Stop, routinely voted to have some of the best burgoo in Kentucky.