Freddie Johnson: The Best Story in Bourbon

The bourbon industry is dominated by so many prominent names, Beam, Noe, Booker, Russell, Samuels, and many more. These family names brought bourbon to where it is today. Most of them are Master Distillers, the face of their respective company. Just about every industry has jobs that, on the surface, look to be more important than others. However, we all know that there are other jobs that usually go unnoticed with their contribution in keeping the company headed in the right direction.

One family name you don't hear in bourbon, but you should, is Johnson. Meet Freddie Johnson, a 3rd generation Buffalo Trace employee and current tour guide. Like most of the other bourbon legends, whiskey runs in his blood. Freddie's grandfather, Jimmy Johnson Sr., started at Buffalo Trace in 1912, a time when African Americans were not given many rights. Because of his great work ethic and skills, Col. Blanton gave Johnson Sr. a job as the first African American warehouse foreman in Kentucky. This was extremely rare, as African Americans were not given jobs at such a high level. Johnson Sr.'s job was no small task. He was in charge of a 150,000 barrel warehouse and oversaw everything from storage to dumping and picking barrels. Rumor has it, he showed Col. Blanton where the best barrels were in the warehouse and eventually that paved the way for the first single barrel bourbon you may know as Blantons.

Freddie's father, Jimmy Johnson Jr., continued the family tradition in 1936 by joining his dad at the distillery. He quickly moved up, by learning from the older workers, and was promote and became the first African American warehouse supervisor in the state of Kentucky. He soon became Col. Blanton's go to man on just about any task he wanted completed. Johnson Jr. was quoted saying “When someone asks you to do something, you do it and you do the best job you can.”

When Freddie Johnson got to the age of looking for a job, the bourbon industry was all but dried up. He got a job working for AT&T which had him moving very frequently. After receiving a call from his dad about his terminal illness, he fulfilled a promise he had made and got a job working at Buffalo Trace.

So who is Freddie Johnson? I'll let current Buffalo Trace CEO, Mark Brown, fill you in. “We simply love Freddie; his passion, his knowledge and his remarkable “down to earth” ability to deliver that passion and knowledge in a most entertaining manner.” Freddie looks at bourbon with a since of appreciation, reverence and even family pride. In the documentary Neat: The Story of Bourbon, Freddie tells a story about sitting down with his father and brother with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle that was given to him as a gift. He pours a drink for each of them and himself and they all take a drink. He starts putting the top back on the bottle to put it away, and his father asks him what he's doing. In which Freddie explains to his dad that he thought they could save it. It's a very expensive bottle. His dad looks at him and says that there will always be old barrels of bourbon, but you won't get many opportunities like this. He takes the top off and they finish the entire bottle while sharing stories with each other from life. Freddie explains how moving that experience was for him and 9 months from that moment, his dad and brother were no longer living.

Bourbon is much more than alcohol dumped into wooden barrels. Bourbon brings family and friends together. Bourbon brings different cultures together. It brings people together. Visitors to Buffalo Trace, who are lucky enough to get on a Freddie tour, are given a glimpse of over 100 years of bourbon history. Freddie makes every person on his tour feel like part of his family. You see the passion in his eyes and you hear the love of bourbon in his voice. There is no other man in the bourbon industry who personifies what bourbon is more than Freddie Johnson. I started this introduction of Freddie with a quote from Mark Brown, CEO of Buffalo Trace, and I will end with one. “Freddie is unique and a more genuine person you could ever wish to meet. I look forward to working with Freddie until the end of our days.”

Jordan Grigsby