Patience produces the perfect bourbon

By Katheran Wasson Published:

For the nearly 48 years that Ronnie Eddins has worked at Buffalo Trace, he has sought the perfect bourbon.

Its taste would call for a complex blend of sugar, fruit and spice. Its creation requires that he balance the right barrel with an ideal warehouse, and patience in aging.

Ronnie, 67, understands the challenge - it’s what has motivated him to come to work for thousands of mornings.

He’s worked in the Buffalo Trace warehouse since 1967 and served as its manager the last 10 years. He oversees 300,000 barrels of bourbon, tracks it and dispatches leak hunters to safeguard the golden liquid.

“Every one of the barrels is like a baby,” he said. “You’ve got to watch over them, and make certain that everything is going right. You can’t have a relaxed week.”

Also responsible for the distillery’s experimental whiskeys, Ronnie has hiked mountains to find the best trees for building barrels.

He has tested the quality of char burned on the wood the trees yield.  And he has aged bourbon for six to 16 years in hopes of striking the right harmony.

“That’s always been my goal: to put out that very perfect bourbon before I leave from here,” said Ronnie, sitting in his desk chair with his legs crossed.

“Of course, I know my time is getting shorter here.”

A Henry County native, Ronnie worked on a farm with his father until 1961, when his brother-in-law asked him to apply for a job with him at the distillery.

Ronnie had planned to become a farmer - after marrying, he bought land and raised tobacco, cattle and hogs - but the distillery beckoned.

“I wasn’t really looking for a job,” he said. “And now I’m still here - almost 48 years later I’m still here.”

At 19, Ronnie started on the night shift at the bottling house. He moved to shipping a few years later, and then worked as an office clerk.

“That was too boring - I had to get out,” he said. “So then I went out to the warehouses, and I worked on every job. I said, ‘I want to do every job there is in the warehouses.’”

He left the warehouse a few years later to work in maintenance and other departments, but the warehouse always drew him back.

“Every morning, coming in here is, for me, was like walking into a candy store,” he said. “It’s so enjoyable, just being involved in this and all the stuff that goes on around me.”

When Ronnie started working, barrels and other supplies came by rail. He kept records with pencil and paper, and he calculated figures in his head.

He had between 25 and 30 coworkers - the distillery employs 300 now, including his son, Mark, who has worked for 20 years in the plant’s boiler and chiller system.

Even with all those years under his belt, Ronnie says he doesn’t know everything about his job. There’s no such thing, he says.

“There’s so much to learn, and every day is a kind of challenge,” he said. 

A lot more than mash goes into a bourbon barrel, and Ronnie is responsible for dozens of details that most bourbon drinkers would never realize.

If you climb to the third floor of Warehouse C and sample a barrel from the first aisle, it tastes sweeter than a sip from the middle aisle. That’s because the sun comes up on that side of the warehouse – when the warmth hits the barrel, it gives the bourbon a taste of fruit and sugar.

Bourbon in a warehouse with a concrete floor has a smoother taste than in a rack house, because it ages the bourbon more slowly.

Liquor aged in a white oak barrel tastes different than one aged in a barrel made of French oak. 

A tree that grows on the south side of a hill will create a different flavor than one on the north side, but one from an open field would be too green. That would give the bourbon a burning taste, Ronnie says.

“You can take the very same product that you put in the barrel, and I can put it in different locations in the warehouse and create a different taste,” he said. 

“It’s all based on having a good product, in a good barrel, in a good location.”

There are outside factors too, ones Ronnie can’t control from the warehouse. There’s competition from other distilleries, all of them trying to outdo the last best blend.

And tastes of consumers have changed. People like a smoother, sweeter bourbon today, he says.

“The old timer, if he was out working all day and he had his bottle in his pocket, and he was about half froze, he would take a drink to warm him up,” he said.

“The hotter it was, the more burn there was to it, they said, ‘Oh, buddy, isn’t that good?’”

But the younger generation – one that lives a fast pace and has access to more culinary offerings than the kitchen table – seeks a high-quality taste, he said.

“Now people want something that’s got a smooth taste to it,” he said. “Maybe a fruity taste, with a little a caramel taste to it, with spices.”

Angela Traver, spokeswoman for the distillery, says it takes years to figure out how to balance all the elements.

 “He (Ronnie) really knows where to put the barrels to get the best tasting product, and that’s something you only learn by experience,” she said. 

“You can’t come here on your first day and know where to put the barrel.”

To learn, he spent time with the men who came before him. They shared their successes and failures in their quest to make the perfect bourbon.

One of Ronnie’s admitted failures was trying to age the bourbon faster than it does naturally. He spent two years working on one experimental whiskey, heating and cooling the warehouse artificially.

“It’s hard to fool Mother Nature,” he said, laughing. 

She was doing it twice a day on her own: heating it up during the day and cooling it at night.

 “Patience is a virtue,” Traver said. “It can take anywhere from six to 16 years to figure out if something is good or not. You can’t be in a hurry around here.”

Ronnie’s life used to be more about hurry than it is now. He kept his farm until 1986, working both jobs every day. He often headed straight to the fields after finishing his work at Buffalo Trace, not getting home until 1 a.m.

“I didn’t stop and eat dinner,” he said. “I didn’t have time for that – it would have taken me another three or four minutes.”

Three hours of sleep was a good night, he said, and sometimes he wouldn’t go to bed at all. Working until the work was done was his philosophy.

“Ronnie doesn’t sleep,” Traver said.

But when he starting having health problems, he realized it was time to slow down. He quit farming in 1986, but has kept up the pace with his work at the distillery.

“If you don’t accomplish something each day, you drop further behind,” he said. “You’ve got to keep advancing, and if not, you get in a standstill. Don’t let up. Don’t relax.”

Ronnie says he’s made progress toward his goal of blending the perfect bourbon. The walls of his office are decorated with awards to prove it.

But he says he doesn’t think he’ll ever get there, because, as he puts it, the “perfect bourbon keeps changing.”

 “You’ve almost got to have the perfect bourbon each year,” he said.

“You always have that challenge, and in order to put out that perfect bourbon, you’ve got to stay on that challenge.” 

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