Freddie Johnson is not one to brag. Although he comes from Buffalo Trace Distillery legends, he knows and talks with everyone in the Buffalo Trace family, from the rank and file to the higher-ups.
“I like it all,” he said when asked about his favorite part of the distillery.
Buffalo Trace has been part of Johnson’s family for years. Johnson’s grandfather, James B. Johnson Sr., worked as one of the first black foremen in the state. He was close friends with Col. Albert B. Blanton, who kept the distillery alive during the Prohibition Era by obtaining a government license to produce “medicinal whiskey.” His grandfather stayed at the distillery until 1964.
Freddie Johnson’s dad started at the distillery in 1936 as a warehouse yard person. His dad inspected and repaired barrels that held whiskey. Before retiring in 1978, his dad became warehouse supervisor and was the first black to hold that position in the state. Johnson’s father was present for the rolling out of every millionth barrel since Prohibition. He died in 2011.
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Now Johnson, 71, shares his knowledge with bourbon veterans and newcomers alike as a tour guide at the Frankfort distillery.
He recently won a Lexington Hospitality Award, which celebrates the front-line, non-managerial “heroes” of hospitality. The awards are sponsored by VisitLEX, Bluegrass Hospitality Association and Bluegrass Tourism Marketing Association.
Johnson was “blown away” by the nomination and the receipt of the award, he said.
He was nominated by Matt Higgins, the visitor center manager at the distillery and Johnson’s supervisor.
“No matter how far his guests traveled, or what bourbon knowledge they may already have, Freddie effortlessly makes everyone feel as though they’ve experienced something exceptional while at the distillery,” Higgins said about his nomination of Johnson.
“Freddie is great about reading the crowd and kind of tailoring the tour on the spot to make it for that group,” said Amy Preske, public relations manager for Buffalo Trace Distillery.
A Paris native, Johnson had been familiar with the distillery since he was 5 years old because of his father and grandfather. He has an interest in science and engineering and said he was always interested in how the distillery operates.
“It was the mechanics,” he said. “It was all these crazy things like these warehouses, the barrels rolling, and the sounds and the smells and all that. And I was like a kid in a candy shop.”
Johnson didn’t always work at the distillery. He had been employed at other companies, such as AT&T, before he returned to Kentucky several years ago to take care of his sick father, where he learned the true meaning of caregiving.
“It’s not just about giving somebody a drink of water or wiping their mouth when they drool,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot more to it.”
Johnson recalled a moment when, while caring for his dad following one of his chemo treatments, he could tell his dad was in pain. Johnson said his dad said it was “not so bad.”
“When they say things like that, you know they’re really suffering,” he said.
While taking care of his father, Johnson was reminded of a promise he made to his grandfather and father to work at the distillery, as they did. He became a tour guide 14 years ago.
Johnson’s popularity and legacy at the distillery has netted him recognition from the distillery. In the visitor’s center, there is a series of photos and a plaque dedicated to Johnson and his family. Buffalo Trace surprised him with that about a year ago.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said.
In addition to being recognized in the visitor’s center, Johnson frequently gets props and high reviews on TripAdvisor and his status has put him in touch with prominent celebrities, such as actress Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny on “The Big Bang Theory” and who was at the distillery last week.
The distillery has more or less always been a part of Johnson’s life, one way or another, and the distillery intends to keep it that way.
Buffalo Trace plans to have Johnson on standby when it rolls out its seven millionth barrel since Prohibition, some time early next year, so he can continue the tradition his father participated in. Along with Johnson, his 11-year-old grandson will be present. But as far as Johnson’s daughter goes ...
“My daughter said, ‘Forget it. I’m not rolling any barrels,’ ” Johnson said.
Other 2017 Lexington Hospitality Award winners include:
▪ Patty Doyle, who has been with Broadway Live at the Opera House for 8 years;
▪ Nicholas Tooth, a retired jockey who has spent the past 2 years working at Keeneland as a BETologist, hospitality golf cart driver during sales and a tour guide;
▪ Charlotte Reeder, a gift shop employee who has worked for the Kentucky Horse Park for 39 years;
▪ Kenny Simpson, who has volunteered for the Cynthiana/Harrison County Museum for more than 10 years;
▪ Randall Boyers, a volunteer with the Cynthiana/Harrison County Museum who has been a part of its efforts for more than 20 years of its 23-year history;
▪ Tyler Williams, who has worked at the front desk of the Hampton Inn Lexington Medical Center for a year;
▪ Marjorie (Margie) Green, who has worked with Bluegrass Extended Stay for 9 years;
▪ Filomeno Saquilabon, who has worked for Hilton Lexington Suites for 17 years;
▪ Jon Prewitt, who has worked for Holiday Inn Express Lexington NE for 5 years;
▪ Kathy White, a restaurant server, who has worked for Marriott Griffin Gate Resort and Spa for 27 years;
▪ Avis King, who has been a line cook for Hilton Lexington Downtown for 31 years;
▪ Joequetta Lewis, who has worked at the Lexington Courtyard by Marriott North for two years;
▪ Allison Barlow, who has been serving customers for 25 years at Ramsey’s Diners;
▪ Thomas Usher, who has been a server at Stella's Kentucky Deli for 3 years;
▪ Ricky Arnett, who has worked in the hospitality industry for many years as a bartender, host and manager, and spent the past 25 years behind the bar at Dudley’s;
▪ Billy Trussel, who has worked at The Julep Cup for more than 5 years;
▪ Heather Smith, who works at Malone's Hamburg and has been with Bluegrass Hospitality Group for 10 years.