Tom Eblen: Once 'the most fascinating place in Kentucky,' abandoned distillery awaits new life
By Tom Eblen
An elaborate covered plaza surrounds the spring at the Old Taylor Distillery at Millville in Woodford County near Frankfort. The chandelier in the center used to be constantly lit. The distillery built in 1887 and has been essentially abandoned since the early 1970s.
MILLVILLE — When Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. built his distillery along Glenn's Creek in 1887, he had more in mind than a place to make good bourbon whiskey. He wanted to create an eye-popping showplace.
The Old Taylor Distillery was built from hand-cut limestone to resemble a castle, complete with turrets and ramparts. A spring where water was drawn to make bourbon was surrounded by an elegant pergola with stone columns. The property had elaborate sunken gardens and fish ponds.
Old Taylor's 83-acre complex became a popular tourist attraction and a place for gatherings and weddings. Bill Samuels fondly remembers trips there as a child in the 1940s.
"It was the most fascinating place in Kentucky," said Samuels, who grew up to build his father's Maker's Mark bourbon into an international brand. "I was taken to a lot of distilleries when I was a kid. That's the one I remember."
But since 1972, when the distillery shut down, the property has been vandalized, neglected and reclaimed by nature. It is now one of Kentucky's most fascinating industrial ruins.
I have been taking bicycle rides past this out-of-the-way spot between Versailles and Frankfort for years. And I have often wondered: With bourbon tourism booming, why hasn't some distillery bought and restored Old Taylor as its showplace, just as Brown-Forman Corp. did with the Labrot & Graham distillery down the road?
E.H. Taylor, a longtime Frankfort mayor and descendant of Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor, was a bourbon industry leader and visionary. He died in 1922 at age 90. The distillery was sold in 1935 to National Distillers Corp., which later consolidated it with the adjacent Old Crow distillery.
Jim Beam later bought the distilleries, but shut them down in 1972 when bourbon sales slumped. Whiskey barrels continued to be aged in Old Taylor's warehouses until the early 1990s. Old Crow's warehouses are still in use.
A group of Atlanta-based investors bought the Old Taylor property in 2005. They took down a couple of the big warehouses to salvage and sell brick, stone and valuable heart-pine lumber.
The investors created an elaborate website that said profits from the salvage business would go toward restoration of the distillery. But when the housing boom went bust, the restoration never happened.
The property is now for sale, with an asking price of $1.5 million. Last week, I toured the ruins with Realtor Hill Parker and Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association and an avid preservationist.
"I actually had a dream the other night that we had a Kickstarter campaign and restored it," said Gregory, who estimates it would take $30 million or more to fix up the place and turn it back into a distillery and entertainment venue.
At the moment, the Old Taylor Distillery is more of a nightmare than a dream. Vandals have done significant damage over the years, smashing windows, throwing stone blocks through the roof and generally trashing the place. An on-site caretaker now tries to prevent further damage.
Where vandals left off, nature did its work. The property includes a brick-and-stone warehouse that is one of the largest in Kentucky — four stories high and the length of two football fields. But trees, vines and weeds have swallowed the huge building, all but hiding it from view.
"The first thing you would have to do is come in with a tanker truck of Roundup and see what you have under all this," Gregory said, referring to the powerful herbicide.
Surprisingly, most of the buildings look structurally sound. The brick and stone walls are solid and crack-free. Old-growth timbers and woodwork seem to have suffered little decay despite decades of neglect. One exception is a brick office building across the road. Its façade might be saved, but the interior has crumbled since most of the roof collapsed.
Parker said several groups of investors wanting to start small "craft" distilleries have recently inspected the property. The morning we were there, technicians for one potential buyer were assessing the lead paint and asbestos hazards.
"It's a great property," Parker said. "But there are significant challenges."
Gregory said Old Taylor would make a great "boutique" distillery and could have considerable cache as a tourist attraction. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail of distillery tours attracted 509,000 visitors last year.
"Hopefully, we'll have a buyer soon," Gregory said, "someone who will fix this place up and put it on the Bourbon Trail."
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com
Located in a picturesque valley along the banks of Glenn's Creek in northern Kentucky, the Old Taylor Distillery site consists of eighty-two acres. The site features the famous Old Taylor Castle, the Old Taylor Peristyle Springhouse and formal Sunken Gardens, in addition to several industrial whiskey-barrel warehouse buildings. The distillery was once a thriving bourbon producer of the bluegrass state and was the first to reach the benchmark count of one million U.S. Government certified cases of Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
The Old Taylor Distillery has been called one of the most remarkable sights in the bourbon industry. The main distillery building, the Old Taylor Castle, is made entirely of hand cut Kentucky white limestone and was built to resemble a medieval castle. The castle was often featured in Old Taylor advertisements and on labels as a company trademark.
Colonel E. H. Taylor Jr. established the Old Taylor Distillery in 1887. He was known as the “father of the modern bourbon industry”.
Taylor was known for his guarantee of quality in an industry that had virtually lost all credibility with consumers.
Taylor worked tirelessly to pass laws that would ensure quality product, and he was successful. He was the originator of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which was a federal subsidy by tax deferral for product made under strict government standards and supervision.
The success of this Act, lead the way for other federally enforced standards for food products. Most of our current standards in consumable products followed the spirit of consumer protection that E. H. Taylor Jr. brought to the bourbon industry. The governor of Kentucky bestowed the title of Colonel upon him for his contributions on this important matter of consumer protection.
Colonel Taylor was a descendent of two U.S. Presidents, James Madison and Zachary Taylor. His early career had centered around the banking industry and his connections to wealth and power were beneficial to his business adventures, as well as his political interests, as he was elected to serve sixteen years as the Mayor of Frankfort, KY.
Colonel Taylor gained a reputation as a demanding perfectionist. However, his attention to every detail of the state-of-the-art facility that he built and his uncompromising standards for the production of a quality product, proved very successful for his business. Even so, only after his death would the company mention his staunch character in advertising:
Historic photos show how immaculate the facilities and grounds were kept while Colonel Taylor oversaw daily operations at the distillery. Colonel Taylor was one of the first distillers to open the doors to the public and conduct tours of the facilities as a way of promoting the high quality of the brand that proudly featured his signature on each label.
Colonel Taylor died, at the age of 90, in 1922. His distillery was sold to the National Distillers Corporation in 1935. Operations ceased at the facility in 1972 while under the direction of the Jim Beam Corporation.
Heart Pine Reserve intends to salvage the condemned buildings in a safe manner and to repair and restore the famous castle, peristyle spring house and surrounding grounds to their original beauty.
The reclamation of the re-usable antique building materials from obsolete structures is making the restoration of the most viable structures possible. Everyone that purchases old materials from the site can feel good about being a part of this unique opportunity to extend the life and legend of the Old Taylor Distillery.
Restoring a Kentucky Bourbon Landmark at Old Taylor Distillery
Feb. 15, 2016, 3 p.m. | Clair McLafferty
Much of the mystique and allure of the spirits industry lies in its rich history. Over the years, myth, facts and folklore have inextricably mixed to create the culture surrounding the drinks we love. In few places are these stories better told than at Kentucky bourbon distilleries. This is particularly true at the freshly renovated and reopened Old Taylor Distillery, where whiskey is made using methods of old in a building modeled after European castles. Here, enter the rickhouse, and the smells, cobwebs and lack of technology almost feel like entering a portal to another time.
“There isn’t a whole lot that’s changed about the bourbon-making process over the hundred years since Colonel [Edmund Haynes] Taylor, Jr. was here,” says Old Taylor Master Distiller Marianne Barnes. “There's a lot of science that's come in and, of course, new technology and electronics that make a plant easier to run with fewer people, but the timing, the temperature, the chemical reactions and the importance of yeast and maturation, it's all pretty much the same.”
The distillery’s water source is located in the keyhole-shaped European spring house — Colonel Taylor believed Kentucky's pristine water was the key to his great bourbon. Photo by Malicote Photography.
The beautiful setting doesn’t hurt: the distillery’s water source is located in the keyhole-shaped European spring house (“because [Colonel Taylor] said that the water here in Kentucky was the key to [his] great bourbon”), and the grand formal gardens have been restored with help from garden designer Jon Carloftis.
Nowadays, the distillery is made even more impressive by an herb garden and botanical trail. These new additions also serve a more utilitarian purpose: supplying flavoring components for gin that Barnes plans to produce.
The grand formal gardens of the Old Taylor Distillery have been restored with help from garden designer Jon Carloftis. Photo by Malicote Photography.
“Because we want to be known as a bourbon distillery and we won't have bourbon for five years, I thought the best way to do that was bring some familiar bourbon flavors to a different spirit,” she says. “We will be making a traditional gin but I'm going to put a spin on it with some Kentucky native ingredients, such as honeysuckle and different varieties of mint. There's a lot of opportunity to bring the vanillas and the citrus and the sweet notes that people recognize in bourbon to a gin, just by infusion.”
The building housing the Old Taylor Distillery was built in the style of European castles to generate bourbon tourism in the 1880s. Photo: Marianne Barnes
In a strategic move conceived by Col. Taylor, the estate was constructed to foster bourbon tourism in the 1880s — at that time, it was almost unheard of to visit a bourbon distillery. “He spent some time in Europe and was in awe when he came back,” says Barnes. “He wanted to bring the elegance and sophistication of the wineries and cognac distilleries, that desire to be at a distillery and fall in love with the product, back to Kentucky.”
As a result, “he spared no expense building this place,” she says. “He was probably a little bit crazy and wanted to show off. He built a place to entertain and impress at a time when people really didn't go to see bourbon distilleries.”
Taylor was also an innovator in advertising his whiskey. Back in the days when distilleries sold bourbon by the barrel, he was the first to decorate his barrels. “He decided to change it up and put brass hoops on the barrels so they would stand out behind the bar,” says Barnes. “He was using it as a way to attract people because he knew that his product was that good.”
But underlying all the beauty is a sense of functionality — which Barnes has a particular appreciation for. While she studied chemical engineering at the University of Louisville, she designed several ethanol distilleries. “I always like to say I knew how to make a very highly efficient, high yield distillery,” she says. “The way that [Old Taylor] is laid out, the way that it flows, I couldn't set it up any better myself.”
Col. Taylor was something of a renaissance man. Like his great-uncle President Zachary Taylor, Col. Taylor was into politics, serving as mayor of Frankfurt, Ky. for almost 10 years. He was also a leading force behind the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act.
Now, Old Taylor is earning its place in history again with the first female distiller at a Kentucky bourbon distillery. But Barnes didn’t take the job just for the status. “I was attracted to the site because of the challenge and because of the ability to build something new and work with Will Arvin and Wes Murray to put our stamp on what the Kentucky distilling industry really started as and is all about,” she says.
Old Taylor is earning its place in history again with the first female distiller at a Kentucky bourbon distillery. But Marianne Barnes didn’t take the job just for the status — she was after the opportunity to restore the brand to its former greatness. Photo by Malicote Photography.