Abandoned Distilleries; Is Preservation a Problem?


“Got Bourbon? Kentucky does.”  It is not surprising that this slogan appears on shirts across the bluegrass state. Kentucky natives are proud of being known as ‘bourbon country’ and they are not afraid to show it, either. There is bourbon marketing everywhere. Billboards, clothing, television, newspapers, magazines, even radio broadcasts, advertise the importance of drinking bourbon and whiskey products. Bourbon and whiskey companies encourage consumers to be “Kentucky Proud” in all aspects of drinking alcohol. Many people choose to drink bourbon at social gatherings for the sole reason of drinking something that was made, and sold, in Kentucky. Bourbon and whiskey products are one of the most important aspects to Kentucky’s past, present, and future. However, not many people think about the behind the scenes portion of how bourbon is made in Kentucky. There are many distilleries throughout the state from which our culture thrives, but some of these distilleries are no longer in operation. Do these abandoned distilleries hold unanswered questions about the bourbon industry, and would the economy be any different if they were still up and running? What can be done with these distilleries that are no longer in use if there are no future plans other than demolition? Would historically preserving these landmarks be a smart idea for the economy, even though no bourbon is being produced on it’s property? There are two distilleries in particular that have caught my attention in rural Kentucky, but nothing is being done when it comes to the preservation of these distilleries. Through background research on the abandoned properties, it has been made clear that some of these distilleries are more mysterious than one would think, and that they are in fact a key asset to our economy as a whole.

There is always one question everyone asks themselves when they see something that is no longer up and running. People always want to know what happened to the area, and why whatever happened, happened. At least this is the kind of question that goes through my head. The Old Crow Distillery, located south of Frankfort, Kentucky, is a prime example of an abandoned property with a rich history. Through the years, the unused distillery has been guarded by security guards at all times, day and night. However, no one seems to really know why. Is it because the property is dangerous, or they don’t want vandals messing with the historic buildings on site? In the 1823, Dr. James Crow worked for various distilleries in the region. It seemed he was a natural when it came to bourbon production, because he eventually found a management position in the Oscar Pepper Distillery and the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Though Dr. Crow started working in the industry in 1823, the distillery named after him, Old Crow Distillery, did not open until he had passed away. Despite that, Old Crow was one of the first nationally marketed brand names. This accomplishment is one that needs to be recognized, considering the property is a candidate for demolition. Why would a company that has succeeded so well not be restored to it’s former greatness?

Several Buildings on the property are used to store Jim Beam products, which is one reason why the distillery is guarded 24/7. Nevertheless, that does not mean there aren’t more abandoned, unused buildings in the proximity. Many are waiting for either restoration, or destruction. I feel that if Jim Beam owns the property, then it would only help their company to expand and use the entire distillery for good use and production. Restoring the distillery to it’s former glory would be a great step in economic growth and it would keep a distillery, with more than enough potential, from dying. Restoration would also help Jim Beam produce more product than they do now, which means business for them would increase. There is an operational Jim Beam Distillery on the east side of Frankfort, Kentucky, and it would be very easy to transfer workers to different distilleries, since the properties are within a 15 minute drive of one another. Employees would not have to move to start working at the new location, and restoration of the property would even open more opportunities for the unemployed. Also, it would be smart of Jim Beam to restore the property because they would be unspoken heroes for saving such a historic piece of Kentucky’s past. Old Crow deserves to live on, and it can do that through awareness of it’s importance to Kentucky’s history. By doing this, there may be a chance that these historic sites can be completely saved, rather than  only partially saved.

The Old Crow Distillery is one of the two distilleries in Woodford County facing  possible destruction.  However, the company that wants to demolish both distilleries does not yet own the properties. Until the demolition company purchases the distilleries from their owners, they are safer under the current ownership than they could potentially be under the ownership of anyone else. Some believe that it would be smart to put a historic zoning overlay on the properties. This would then give Woodford County Fiscal Court power to decide what to do before any destruction can be made. However, right now, both properties are under a different ownership, causing Woodford County Fiscal Court to have no control over the property.

The other distillery in danger of being destroyed is the Old Taylor Distillery. The Old Taylor Distillery is directly next to Old Crow Distillery, located south of Frankfort, Kentucky. If one did not know this distillery existed, they might think that they were passing by an old castle, because the entry to the plant looks like a stone fortress.The property is owned by one private owner who is currently in the process of restoring it all by himself, by hand. Be that as it may, but this distillery needs more attention that one man can give himself. That is why there are restoration plans being made for parts of the landmark, and they are listed as follows. The Old Taylor Castle is one building expecting restoration. The castle was commonly used to advertise for Taylor’s whiskey and bourbon products, and is a  very important building on the entire 82-acre plot of land. The Old Taylor Springhouse was the distillery’s source of clean water, and is a beautiful work of art. Finally, the grounds and ornate buildings among the site are being properly restored to their true beauty. E.H. Taylor used the common grounds to entertain government officials and other members of high power. There are many rumors that the abandoned property is haunted, which attracts many teenagers when the sun goes down. Young adults come to explore the property, to see for themselves if they can stay long enough to see anything supernatural. Security has really cracked down on the property, and not just by security guards. Many residents of Millville, the surrounding community, watch for trespassers as well. When they suspect people to be exploring the property, they are quickly set straight and scared off with the idea that the property is too dangerous to step foot on. However, this does not stop many from continuing to return time after time.

History behind this distillery is very interesting, to say the least. The distillery was built by E.H. Taylor, Jr. in 1887, 15 years after the construction of Old Crow just down the road. Taylor was a legend in the whiskey industry, owning the first distillery to produce one million cases of straight bourbon whiskey, that distillery being Old Taylor. When Old Taylor was constructed, it was almost considered a landmark. It produced quality bourbon, purchased all over the state, which was good for the bourbon industry in general. The property was beautiful, providing a great atmosphere for those who came to see the distillery. In the coming years, though, what happened to the distillery? Currently it looks as though employees dropped everything they were doing and fled the property. Books remain open on desks, jackets and personal belongings crowd the rusty lockers and several empty bourbon bottles still remain on the property. What could have possibly happened that caused such a quick exit?

There are many theories behind the abandonment of Old Taylor Distillery. Some people think that it was just time to move on. Maybe the economy was bad and the bourbon produced on site wasn’t as popular in demand as it once was. Some think that the property was becoming insufficient for use as a functional distillery. While these theories are very believable, it is not known or sure as to why it was left in such haste. When Ricky Brunner, a native of Frankfort, Kentucky, was asked about the distillery’s possible uses, he responded, “I really enjoy driving past the distillery. For one, it is in a beautiful location and it is a very relaxing, stress-relieving drive. Then out of nowhere, on this little country road, there is this enormous, breath-taking structure. It’s just really neat to see such an old property and not really know anything about it. It’s also very interesting to me to wonder about what happened to the distillery. If it’s walls could talk, they sure would know a lot more about what happened to it than we know now. I have no idea what they would be used for now if they weren’t used for bourbon distribution, but I know that they are just too cool to be left alone.” This quote struck me in a different way than I would have expected. Maybe it is a good thing that we don’t know exactly what happened to Old Taylor Distillery. It leaves us to create our own story on what we think happened. Although, when it comes down to it, reality is always better than truth, which means what we want to think is not as important as the actual facts. Also, is it worth it to just leave the distilleries as they are, just because they look neat? If they are left the way they are now, then the only possible outcome is their eventual demolition of themselves. They literally will fall to the ground in a couple more years if nothing is done. They will, in essence, destroy themselves.

There are many some rumors concerning the Old Taylor Distillery that are related to the strict security. Yes, at one time, Jim Beam stored barrels of alcohol on the property of Old Taylor and Old Crow Distillery, but there is a deeper suspicion. Some people think that the distillery is still in operation, but in secret. Though that seems suspicious, many people think that there is a possibility that moonshine is being made somewhere on the property, which is why people are so protective when it comes to others exploring the property. With that being said, it is just a rumor, or a belief, that in no means has been proven true. Another theory about the strict security has to do with safety. Many people are told that the buildings can cave in at any moment, or the floors could give in if walked on. The property is apparently very unstable which is expected since it’s been sitting for so long without care. However, I believe that security is tight to keep out vandals and thieves, rather than harmless citizens who just want nothing more than to look around. Vandalism has started to become a large problem at the distillery whether it be teenagers coming inside and spray painting graffiti on the walls or kicking out windows an shattering glass. All vandalism at this property is very harmful to the distillery since the ultimate goal is to preserve, instead of destroy. Theft on site is also very common, considering there are old documents, empty bottles, and unnecessary keepsakes all over the grounds. These reasons listed are only theories as to why it is guarded, but it’s always fun to imagine something more exciting than reality.

Even though it seems like the distillery reclamation is not going to happen, these properties may actually one day be restored. How can you help that to happen, though? Let people know how you feel about preserving our economy. Let them know that Kentucky’s history is one that needs to be recognized as something great and that it needs to be saved. If enough people spread word about these distilleries and their endangerment, then they could possibly be helped before it’s too late. Also, if you ever get the chance to drive through this rural area in Woodford County, I would do so. The distilleries are something that you can not get the full affect by simply looking at pictures. Seeing it in person is more incredible than I can explain to you through text alone. The feeling I first felt when I saw the castle looming over my head as I slowly drove by, I didn’t really know what to say. I gaped at the beauty of the amazing fortress I was witnessing. I felt excited, and creeped out at the same time. I wanted nothing more than to go inside and explore, but I also wanted to leave as quickly as my car would let me. It was as eerie as it was incredible; for some reason, something about the area is very strange and unreal. Maybe it is the back road that winds through the middle of the property, or the low light scattered throughout the abandoned buildings that give off an ghostly glow once the sun goes down. There really is no explanation for the spectacle that is The Old Taylor Distillery. My experience did not stop there, however. The Old Crow Distillery is still right around the corner, and it is just as phenomenal to see. The large buildings look as if they could be prisons, and it makes me very sad to see such an amazing piece of property going to waste because of lack of care. These distilleries need to be in use in one way or another. They need to be, and should be, restored to their former beauty and glory, because they are such an important part in Kentucky’s history. These distilleries were once known around the world, and that’s the way they should still be. Kentucky is bourbon country, and I’m shocked to see the lack of care that these distilleries have received, especially since bourbon whiskey is such a part of our state’s rich, thriving culture.

Heart Pine Reserve. (2006). History of the old taylor distillery. Retrieved from http://heartpinereserve.com/distillery_history_pg.html

(Heart Pine Reserve, 2006)

Cahal, S. (n.d.). Old taylor distillery. Retrieved from http://www.abandonedonline.net/industry/old-taylor-distillery/

Cowdery, C. (2005, April 7). Distillery destruction saving kentuck’ys heritage. Retrieved from http://www.theculturedtraveler.com/Archives/Apr2005/theculturedtraveler.htm

Cahal, S. (n.d.). Old crow distillery. Retrieved from http://www.abandonedonline.net/industry/old-crow-distillery/

Guerra, L. (2011, October 2). Abandoned old taylor distillery. Retrieved from http://www.angelssharemag.com/Whiskey_Bourbon/?p=1298

Heart Pine Reserve. (2006). Reclamation/restoration project. Retrieved from http://heartpinereserve.com/project_pg.html

Brunner, Ricky. Interview

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