American Whiskey
T
he GHOSTS of WHISKIES PAST

Frankfort & Glenn's Creek: Bourbon's Real Kentucky Home
 

In February of 1999, we took another excursion into America's bourbon county. This time we came in through the back yard, where all the old discarded things lay. We were looking for the ghosts of some of Bourbon's true legends, and we found some.

Taking the scenic route along the northern banks of the Ohio river, we stopped briefly at New Richmond to see the marker that shows how incredibly high the river has risen during several floods. We also spent a few minutes driving the wrong direction around Ripley and Aberdeen, before crossing the bridge into Kentucky at Maysville. Maysville was the Ohio riverport for the Frankfort/Lawrenceburg/Lexington area of what was then all known as Bourbon County. Along with Louisville (then called Ohio Falls), and Owensboro, Maysville served to define the limits of just where "Bourbon" was. And although it's no longer important as a shipping point, geographically it still does.

Old Crow Distillery

Staying on the scenic route, we drove through Thoroughbred horse country around Lexington and into Georgetown. Known as Lebanon at the time, it was here that the Reverend Elijah Craig, popularly (although probably erroneously) credited with being the father of Bourbon Whiskey, made whiskey at his fulling mill in 1789 and it was also here that Henry Hudson Wathen was known to have operated a distillery a year earlier in 1788. There were no Cracker Barrel restaurants here at that time, but we found one today and had lunch there, before heading on toward Frankfort. Along the way we saw the Jim Beam facility at the Forks of the Elkhorn River. Only the warehouses and loading docks are used now, but the empty distillery buildings once held the heart of National Distillers Corporation. This was once the home of Old Grand Dad, Bourbon DeLuxe, Old Crow entranceSunny Brook, and others. Old Grand Dad and Bourbon Deluxe still exist, but the whiskey in the bottles is Jim Beam whiskey now.

We drove down twisty Glenn’s Creek road, looking for traces of the ruins of the old place. When we found it we were shocked at how big the place is. Distilleries tend to look pretty cruddy anyway, with the black fungus that likes to grow on the warehouses, but when combined with buildings that have been abandoned for ten or fifteen years it looks even worse. Still, it wasn’t the hardly-identifiable crumbled ruins we’d anticipated. We sat outside the gate for only a few minutes, getting the cameras out, before a security car (marked "Jim Beam") pulled up and, after making sure we were not a trespassing threat, a nice lady told us about the distillery and also about the Old Taylor distillery down the road. She suggested some good places for taking photos.

In 1823, a gentleman physician, Dr. James Crow, arrived in the area. A man apparently trying to escape from a less-than-completely-responsible past (involving bankruptcy and abandonment), Crow was beginning to get his new life in order when he went to work for Colonel Willis Field, a distiller on Grier's Creek near Woodford County. Crow brought his scientific and medical training to what had been a very rough-and-tumble process and the results were astounding. He was able to achieve a consistency of quality never before imagined, one which would give a distiller the ability to make production commitments that could actually be met. Dr. Crow soon moved to the town of Millville on Glenn's Creek and for the next twenty years he was in charge of the Oscar Pepper Distillery (later to become Labrot & Graham) on McCracken Pike. Later he went to work for the Johnson Distillery a couple miles north on Glenn's Creek Road. That distillery later became Old Taylor. He worked there until his death in 1856. Because of his development of methods that would ensure continuity and consistent quality (including the use of measuring devices and the knowledge of how the sour-mash process actually works) many consider Dr. James Crow to be the true father of Bourbon. Empty streets at Old CrowThe man who became the new master distiller, William Mitchell, had worked directly with Crow and knew all his methods. His continuation of Old Crow whiskey was identical to the original. He in turn taught this to his own successor, Van Johnson.

Dr. Crow never actually owned a distillery, though. The enormous Old Crow distillery which sits on Glenn's Creek today was built around 1872, 16 years after he died. Old Crow whiskey was made here, in essentially the exact same way, until Prohibition, and then again after Repeal. National Distillers owned it then, but they had made no changes in the way the bourbon was made. Then, sometime during the 1960's, the plant was refurbished and formula was changed. The new version was different, and there was some public outcry, but National continued to use it until they were purchased by Jim Beam Brands in 1987.

Old Taylor Distillery

Two decades after James Crow's death, the second "father" of Bourbon began his work, also here along Glenn's Creek. Colonel Edmund H. Taylor began his distillery-owner's career at the O.F.C. distillery in Leestown (which later became Ancient Age). After turning over ownership to his partner George T. Stagg, Taylor built a new distillery on Glenn's Creek. It has been called one of the most remarkable sights in the bourbon industry. The main distillery building is made entirely of limestone blocks, in the form of a medieval castle, complete with turrets. A drawing of the castle appears on the label of Old Taylor Bourbon. The castle wasn't just a facade, either; inside were gardens and ornate rooms where Colonel Taylor used to entertain important government officials and politicians. Taylor's contribution was the guarantee of quality in an industry that had lost nearly all credibility. Very few distillers were selling quality product, and virtually none of what good bourbon was being made ever got to the public without being diluted, polluted, and rectified. Edmund Taylor crusaded tirelessly to have laws passed that would ensure quality product, and he was successful. He was the originator of what became known as the Bottled-in-Bond act of 1897. This was essentially a federal subsidy by tax deferral for product made to strict government standards and stored under government supervision. In the process, he was responsible for documenting what those standards would be. And therefore, Edmund H. Taylor, Jr. was given the task of defining Straight Bourbon Whiskey. As a result of the success of this act, other federally enforced standards for food products were enacted, and we can say we owe much of our current standards in many consumable products to this gentleman with a distillery on Glenn's Creek.

Well, maybe a couple of distilleries. Actually, Col. Taylor owned or had an interest in several plants, including the Pepper distillery and Frankfort distillery, and even the Stagg distillery in Leestown was actually known as the E.H.Taylor Jr. Company. Edmund Taylor remained a very powerful figure in the bourbon industry well into the twentieth century. He died, at the age of 90, in 1922.

I’d read earlier that the Old Taylor place, which is built in the style of a stone castle, had been purchased by an ex-employee of Old Crow, who has opened a museum and has also produced a very small amount of bourbon which he is scheduled to release this year. We had expected the place, now called Stone Castle Distillery to be a couple miles or so down the road, so we were very surprised to find that the large expanse of sheds and whiskey warehouses through which Glenn’s Creek Road winds included both distilleries.

We were surprised to find Old Taylor located literally right next door to the Old Crow place. In fact, they appear to have shared some warehouses and, according to Cecil Withrow, the bearded, white-haired ex-boilermaker who now owns it, they even shared production facilities at one time. Cecil is a collector with a special fascination for Old Crow and Old Taylor. He has lots of Crow decanters, pictures, bottles, and other memorabilia. Oh, yes, and a distillery! He told us he is indeed ready to bottle some product (purchased, not produced) but he doesn’t have it together yet. Meantime, he’s slowly restoring the distillery. He showed us photos of the main building where most of the restoration has been done. It's really beautiful. There is also a restaurant scheduled to open this spring.

We spent most of our time (we will be back for a more thorough tour) in the main bottling room, which Cecil has divided up into museum-like displays and flea-market booths, mostly dedicated to whiskey memorabilia. We spent a long, fascinating time there and bought a couple nice items. We got a Kentucky Tavern decanter with the name written in gold on the glass and we got a Jack Danielís Barrelhouse No. 1 bottle, complete with tag and wooden case. That was priced at $18.00 but Cecil let us have it for even less. We later saw those bottles in nearly identical condition selling for nearly one hundred dollars.

From Stonecastle/Old Taylor we continued down Glenn’s Creek Road, as it became McCracken Pike and passed Labrot & Graham, then drove on through Versailles toward Lawrenceburg. We passed Wild Turkey Distillery in Tyrone along the way.

 

The Old Fire Copper Distilling Company
   still operating, now as Buffalo Trace

The National Distilling Company (Old Grand Dad)Old Dowling 16 year old 100 proof
   now Jim Beam's Frankfort Distributing Center

The Old Crow Distilling Company
  closed and abandoned


The Old Taylor Distilling Company
  closed (except as explained below)

The Labrot & Graham Distilling Company
  beautifully restored and operated by Brown-Forman

The Ripy Brothers' Tyrone Distilling Company
  closed and in ruins

The J.T.S. Brown Distilling Company
   still operating, now as Boulevard (Wild Turkey)

The Old Joe Distilling Company
   closed and in ruins

The Old Prentice Distilling Company
     still operating, now as Seagram's Four Roses

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Story and original photography copyright ©1999 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.