Freddie Johnson for the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2018

by Colonel Steve Akley

Freddie #2.jpg

The year 2018, seems to be shaping up as the Year of Freddie Johnson. He had a key role in Neat: The Story of Bourbon and he gave us an amazing interview on The Bourbon Daily. My understanding that he is in high demand for interviews right now.

If you don’t yet know who Freddie is, well, let me bring you up-to-speed.

Simply put, Freddie Johnson is the greatest bourbon tour guide of all-time. He plies his trade at Buffalo Trace, and I’m not even sure that anyone who has ever been on a Freddie tour would argue it could be someone else. Being on a “Freddie tour” is truly a life-changing experience for the bourbon fan.

You get to see some of what he does in the recent documentary, Neat: The Story of Bourbon. There is a segment in the film where Freddie is leading a wide-eyed group of bourbon fans through his white dog demonstration. He pours a bit into their hands, and then has them clap their hands together and rub them vigorously together. He then instructs them to smell their hands. “It’s smells like alcohol,” he says to the group and you can tell by their body language and mannerisms they are glued to his every word. “The dog is awake,” he humorously notes. He then has them clap their hands together again and start rubbing them. They dutifully follow his instructions and notes the smell of corn with the second sniff of their hands. They are now informed what grain was used. He has them do the exercise one last time where after he notes is smells like bread. “You are now smelling the yeast,” he tells his group.

As a bourbon fan, watching Freddie at work gave me goose bumps. I’ve been there and done that same routine with him. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him leading these future bourbon fanatics through this demonstration.

How do I know they are “future bourbon fanatics?”

Because that’s what Freddie does.

He takes normal people… individuals who might be there for some down time on a vacation… perhaps they are riding through town on the way somewhere else and see the Buffalo Trace sign… maybe they enjoy drinking bourbon but they didn’t know it was their passion. Once Freddie gets done with you… it’s your passion. He brings his energy, knowledge and love for bourbon and he imparts it on to you.

Freddie is kind of the perfect storm when it comes to what he is doing. It has to start with the point that he doesn’t need to do this. Freddie had a long career as an engineer. He does it because he loves it, and, he does it because it’s part of him.  

You see, Freddie represents a lineage and history over 100 years that is tied to the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace. His grandfather, Jimmy Johnson, Sr., developed a friendship with Colonel Albert Blanton long before Colonel Blanton was running the George T. Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace). Colonel Blanton hired Jimmy, Sr., and the two became close friends. As the warehouse foreman, a position unheard of during the early 20th century for an African American, Jimmy, Sr. began to take notice where in the warehouse barrels would consistently age the best producing the most flavorful and drinkable bourbons. These “honey barrels” as they called them, were often used to curry favors with politicians and influencers for to help the distillery.

When he came of working age, Jimmy Johnson, Jr. also worked at Buffalo Trace. Like we see to this day in the bourbon business, being related to someone in a position of authority doesn’t grant you automatic access into a plum job. You have to work your way through the organization and that’s exactly what Jimmy, Jr. managed to do. He perfected a system to repair bourbon barrels that saved spillage and loss for the company. Once again a Johnson family member had caught the eye of Colonel Blanton and Jimmy, Jr. began to work his way up through the ranks of the company.

Jimmy, Jr. would ultimately rise to the position of Warehouse Supervisor where once again he would ascend to levels in the organization not typically seen for African Americans during the time outside of the distillery. Jimmy, Jr., who participated in the University of Kentucky’s Oral History Project where key individuals from the bourbon industry to preserve firsthand account of the bourbon business for generations to come,a conveyed the reason why he, as an African American, was able to garner the respect of his peers, was the fact racism simply wasn’t tolerated in the distillery. It was all about culture, and the culture inside of the distillery was that they had a team, with each person having a role to achieve their goals and everyone was treated with respect in their job.

Amazing how well that can work, right?

Like his father before him, Jimmy, Jr. ended up having an amazing career at the distillery as well. By chance, when he was in the military, he worked with a gentleman named Elmer T. Lee, also from Kentucky. Elmer T. Lee would go on to work at George T. Stagg/Buffalo Trace just like Jimmy, Jr. after the war. Of course, we all know Elmer T. Lee had one of the most respected careers in the bourbon industry, taking his place in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2001.

The capstone to Lee’s career was Blanton’s Bourbon. The first modern era single barrel offering from a distillery. When you come out with a single barrel product there is no hiding. It’s going to taste like what that one barrel yields. You aren’t mixing it in with a batch that can smooth out rough edges. Elmer had to make sure he got this first ever super premium bourbon offering right, so where did he turn for advice?

Yep, you guessed it, Jimmy Johnson, Jr.

The person who had learned all about the concept of honey barrels from his father, Jimmy, Sr. Famously, Elmer T. Lee thanked Jimmy Johnson, Jr. for his contributions to Blanton’s when it was introduced to the press at the rollout. This wasn’t expected. After all, Elmer was the Master Distiller. He gets final say on what goes into the bottles and it’s his name that gets attached to the product. A class guy all the way, Elmer acknowledged Jimmy, Jr. for his efforts when protocol was the Master Distiller is known as the only person making any decisions on bourbon selections.

After the lengthy careers of Jimmy, Sr. and Jimmy Jr. working at the distillery, it wasn’t certain that there would be a third-generation family member of the Johnson family member working there. After Jimmy, Jr. retired, there was a void, but Jimmy, Jr. stayed involved with the distillery with hopes that Freddie would one day come back and work there to carry on the family tradition even though he had moved away and found success in another respected field.

One of the neatest aspects of Buffalo Trace is they began having a ceremony marking “millionth barrels” after Prohibition. In 1942, they barreled their one millionth barrel. In 1953, they build a special one-barrel warehouse to ceremoniously holds and ages each millionth barrel, only to be replaced by the next millionth barrel.

In 2008, Buffalo Trace was preparing to barrel its six-millionth barrel. Jimmy Johnson, Jr. had been at every millionth barrel ceremony since Prohibition. Unfortunately, Jimmy was ill and it wasn’t certain he would be able to participate.

The realization that a Johnson family member might not be there for a “million-barrel ceremony” inspired Jimmy, Jr. to do a few things. First, it inspired him to fight. He was ill, but being involved in that ceremony was important to him and looking back, the desire to do so perhaps gave him some extra time.

Secondly, he also spoke to Freddie. Again, Freddie didn’t need Buffalo Trace, he had a great job… but maybe, Buffalo Trace needed him.

You can have a great history, but Colonel Taylor, George T. Stagg, Colonel Blanton, Elmer T. Lee, their time at the distillery had come-and-gone. Freddie represented a direct tie to the lineage that was this company.

In his final months, Jimmy, Jr. asked Freddie to come back to the distillery and he spent his time teaching Freddie what he knew.

“What he knew,” wasn’t just what Jimmy Johnson, Jr. knew, by the way. It was also what Jimmy, Sr. had taught him. It’s knowledge imparted to him by Elmer T. Lee and Colonel Blanton. Individuals who were sharing information they had learned from generations before them.

Yes, Jimmy Jr. made the ceremony for the six-millionth barrel. He died shortly thereafter, but his dream had been realized, Freddie had come home to Buffalo Trace. Now, you can get all of that wisdom and knowledge for free on a tour at Buffalo Trace from Freddie Johnson himself.

The story of Freddie and his family makes me so happy. I love what the Johnson family represents and how much they have contributed to bourbon… both historically as well as inspiring so many through the spirited, and educational tours Freddie offers.

There is one aspect that needs to cap off this great story of one of the most important families in the history of bourbon, and that’s a spot in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. The most important men and women from the world of bourbon have been recognized for their contributions to our favorite distilled spirit.

Sadly, not one member of the Johnson family has been enshrined. I don’t know the protocol, or process by which the Kentucky Distiller’s Association recognizes individuals for the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, but it’s been flawed to date by missing the Johnsons.

The good news… it can be fixed, and you can help. We’ve started a petition we ask that you sign so we can present it to the KDA this summer as the determine who is going in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame this year.

I would love to either see each of the Johnson men go in individually, or, perhaps even be recognized as a family just like the Shapira family of Heaven Hill was back in 2002 or the Shermans of Vendome in 2005.

Whether its individual or family recognition, please help us in truly making 2018, the Year of Freddie Johnson by assisting us in getting him in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. You can sign our petition by clicking here: #FreddieBourbonHOF18