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Why Buffalo Trace's New Almost-Whiskey Signals a New Era for the Brand

The fabled Kentucky whiskey makers have tried their hand at a Baijiu-style spirit — and tipped off where bourbon might go next.

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The latest in Buffalo Trace Distillery's annually released Experimental Collection is a baijiu-style spirit made, for the most part, like bourbon. It's the product of fermented grains and it's matured for 11 years in white oak barrels (new, charred and toasted). But instead of a corn-based mashbill it makes due with sorghum and peas, and instead of representing further innovation at one of Kentucky's most beloved distilleries, we might read between the lines: bourbon's coming for China.

Baijiu is the most popular spirit in the world — largely because it's the most popular spirit in China, the most populous nation in the world. A day before Buffalo Trace announced the 24th Experimental Collection expression, its parent company, Sazerac, announced it had signed an agreement with Budweiser China to bring "Fireball Whisky and other premium alcoholic offerings from Sazerac such as Goldschlager, Southern Comfort, Seignette, Buffalo Trace and Seagram's V.O. in the Chinese mainland."

This isn't a huge shock, as China's consumer market has exploded, particularly in high-end categories. Scotch whisky — which, for now, is comfortably more popular than bourbon — rules the super-premium whisky market there to the extent that companies like Pernod Ricard are willing to drop $150 million on a distillery to produce malt whisky in-country.

Buffalo Trace Distillery's lineup plays well with this. Nearly all of its bourbons fall into the super-premium category, and its collection represents some of the most sought-after bottles in America. Popular price-tracking site Wine-Searcher reported 9 of the 10 most-searched bourbons on its site are Buffalo Trace products, while brands like Blanton's and Weller regularly top the search charts on alcohol delivery platforms like Drizly.

Beyond the distillery's clout, there's also its ongoing $1.2 billion distillery project, the largest such endeavor in the bourbon world, aimed at dramatically expanding production capacity through investment in production infrastructure like aging warehouses, cookers, fermenters, bottling halls and so on. As U.S.-based consumers who struggle to find the brand's bourbons will know, the expansion hasn't yet bore fruit five years on. It doesn't take a whiskey market analyst to assume the company felt safe in its investment knowing it would be cracking into a new, massive market like China.

What does this mean for you? Wait and see. Buffalo Trace has repeatedly stated that it knows it's not making enough whiskey to meet demand domestically, so it's unlikely we'll see less Buffalo Trace products. For now, we can all take part in the time-honored tradition of looking, but not finding, the new juice. Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Baijiu-Style Spirit is rolling out late April and early May in extremely limited quantities. The suggested retail price is $47.

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