Saturday, July 1, 2017

Falk and Baranaskas, Saviors of Buffalo Trace, Belong in the Hall of Fame

Imagine a world without the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

If you think that prospect is too horrible to contemplate, say a quiet word of thanks to Ferdie Falk and Robert Baranaskas, without whom that great distillery might be a state office complex today.

In 1983, veteran spirits execs Falk and Baranaskas bought the nearly-idle Albert Blanton Distillery in Frankfort from Schenley and formed a new company called Age International. They ran it successfully during some of the worst years for the American whiskey business since Prohibition itself. They enjoyed a nice payday when they sold it to their Japanese partners, who immediately sold the distillery to Sazerac, itself one of the few companies in those days making money selling American whiskey. Sazerac renamed it Buffalo Trace and the rest is bourbon history.

Ancient Age kept the brands it made there: Blanton's, Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, and others. Buffalo Trace still makes them, under contract.

For the whole story, including the likely reason they aren't in the Hall, you need to read the new issue of The Bourbon Country Reader.

The Sazerac Company figures in this issue's other story too, as the company has submitted a patent application for its Old Fashioned Sour Mash process, which differs from conventional sour mash in that it does not use backset (i.e., stillage).

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Billy said...

I remember watching an interview with Elmer T Lee where he was asked about the lean years and how they got by. He did mention something about " those two guys" who had bought AA at the time and seemed evasive about what he thought of them, indicating that not much investment was going into the distillery at the time and that time were definitely rough. I got the impression he did not think much of them but was too much of a gentleman to come out and say it. They, the two men, and I'm assuming Falk and Baranakas were instrumental with Lee in starting Blantons. You may have addressed some of this Chuck but I have yet to receive my Reader yet...

Erik Fish said...

I can't wait to get my copy and read more. I love Buffalo Trace and that early 20th century steam-punk atmosphere of an old-fashioned industrial distillery with red-brick warehouses and black pipes; best tours in the business, too, together with their "sister" distillery Barton in Bardstown; they made me fall in love with "Big Ethanol" :). In terms of different great bourbon labels supported by one distillery, I think only Heaven Hill's Bernheim and Beam's Clermont operations are contenders (and MGP, but thats different).

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'll be interested to know what everyone thinks after they have read the article.

Brian B said...

I just subscribed. Will my first issue contain this article?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Yes. All new subscriptions start with the current issue until a new one comes out, in August (or thereabouts).

Billy said...

Great article Chuck, as always I love your incites mingled with your knowledge of Bourbon History. Why do you think Elmer made it to the Hall of Fame but not Falk and Baranaskas? Was Elmer inducted prior to the fallout between Sazerac and KDA? It still seems to me that Falk and Baranaskas were more businessmen and bottomline type guys rather than Elmer himself who had a great respect for Bourbon and the Industry. But again, as you wrote, times were tough and their business model of contract distilling, creating premium bourbons and selling into Japan helped keep AI alive and turn into the Buffalo Trace that we all love today.Try watching this interview with Elmer ( and get a little bit of the story from his side . I'd watch the whole interview but the part about Falk and Baranaskas starts about the 17th minute mark.

Unknown said...

Man, this has got to be one of the best Readers I've read so far. Spent some time with Chuck a few years back on a 20 person private tour as we learned first hand about the history of bourbon. We even stopped for a private tour at Buffalo Trace, and neither Chuck nor our guide spoke of Falk and Baranaskas that I remember. They did speak of AI and that BT does production distilling, maturation, and bottling for AI. Excellent information on the history of AI.
Sacerac's patent application was also interesting read. Stuff like this is why I've been a reader of Chuck's Reader for the past several years. Good work, as always, Chuck.
And Thanks to Billy Reis for the link to the Elmer video. I some how missed that one.

Chuck Cowdery said...

To Billy's question, in its use of the Hall of Fame, the KDA isn't interested in heritage per se. It is interested in using heritage to sell its members' products. Master Distillers are better for that than business types.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Watching the interview with Elmer (, he appears to credit Falk and Baranaskas with originating the idea, among U.S. producers, of using the 'master distiller' as the 'face' of the distillery and its products, an innovation the other producers soon adopted.

Billy said...

A private history lesson with Chuck at Buffalo Trace and Frankfort area(Old Taylor and Old Crow)..sign me up! You haven't had one in a while Chuck and it might be time for one.

Erik Fish said...

Great article, Chuck. Fascinating story. Quite apart from the KDA policy issue, these crucial but unglamorous business types just aren't nearly as photogenic for the public face of bourbon as master distillers are. Besides, keeping Elmer T. Lee out of the Hall of Fame, regardless of whom he worked for, would be a bit like keeping the pyramids out of an Egyptian history book.

I was a bit into warbirds and remember Bob Baranaskas' crash with his Warhawk in 2009; he was quite well-known. But I had no idea of the connection; he was always just referred to as being in real estate.