Monday, March 20, 2017

Whiskey Road Trip, Old Taylor and Old Crow sites

With last winter’s road trip, which included a few days of whiskey tourism in Tennessee and Kentucky, having transpired more than a year ago, I think it’s high time that I write the last few posts necessary to tie up all of the loose ends associated with that little adventure. Then I can move on to more pressing business.

As I mentioned toward the end of my post covering the visit to Buffalo Trace, my tour guide, Shelly, informed me that I would see very little on the Trace Tour that I hadn’t already seen on the Hard Hat Tour (she had extended our tour a good bit since it wasn’t a busy day, covering most of what would normally be seen on both tours). Rather than hanging around for the 4:00 Trace Tour, she suggested that I take a little drive and visit the sites of the former Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries, which are essentially right next to each other. She also let me know that given my interest in the history of the industry, I’d probably get a lot out of the Buffalo Trace National Historic Landmark Tour, which is offered Monday through Friday at 11:30, should I come back to visit in the future.

Shelly gave me easy-to-follow directions to get to the defunct distilleries from the hotel I was staying at, which was much better than taking the slightly more direct but much more confusing route there from Buffalo Trace. With just two days set aside for touring distilleries on my two week road trip, I hadn’t even considered trying to visit any historic former distilling sites, assuming that it would just be too tough to fit that into my itinerary. I had no idea some of the prime examples were less than four miles from the hotel I’d picked for my two nights in Frankfort.

When I reached the T-intersection where I would turn right and drive just a little further to reach my destination, there were signs pointing to the Woodford Reserve distillery if I turned left instead. It was less than three miles down the road.

The three distilleries all lie in Woodford County on Glenns Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River. Their histories are interrelated, so I’ll go over all three here. A key figure in this story is Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr.

E. H. Taylor started in banking in the early 1850’s, establishing his career in the business of his adoptive uncle. He got into the whiskey industry about a decade later, but from the position of a financier and business manager, rather than that of a practical distiller. He soon transitioned out of banking and eventually went into local politics during the 1870’s, but continued on with his whiskey industry interests. Taylor was involved in at least seven different distilleries during his lifetime.

Where Woodford Reserve stands today was once the site of the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. I covered the history of distilling there in my Woodford Reserve, Distiller’s Select post, but I’ve since discovered some new historical sources, so I’ll go over everything again with the updated information. On some points there are still conflicting sources, so what I’ve cobbled together here is the most likely course of events (in my opinion) based on all of the information I’ve found.

Whiskey was first distilled there by Elijah Pepper in 1812 when he established his farm-distillery on the 350 acre property. Pepper’s first foray into distilling was in 1780, when he was living in Virginia. He migrated to Kentucky in 1797 and operated a farm-distillery in Versailles with his brother-in-law for several years. That was about five miles away from the site he established as his own on the Grassy Springs Branch of Glenns Creek in 1812.

Elijah Pepper passed away in 1831 and his son, Oscar Pepper, took over the operation. The distillery was expanded in 1838 with the addition of a new stone still house, among other improvements. This was likely the year in which it took on the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery name. When he passed away in 1865, Oscar Pepper left no will. This is where the history gets a little convoluted. Many accounts assume a five year hiatus in production after Oscar Pepper’s death. But I’ve come across some pretty convincing evidence that Pepper’s oldest son, James Edwards Pepper, assumed control of the distillery in 1865 and continued to oversee the operation through 1866. He had only turned 15 about a month before his father’s passing, but was already well versed in his knowledge of the distilling business.

Colonel E. H. Taylor had been appointed as James Pepper’s legal guardian after Pepper lost his father while still a minor. I suspect that Taylor immediately had some influence at the distillery. In 1867 the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery was leased to Gaines, Berry & Co. This group, which invested in various distilling projects, was organized by Taylor in 1862. Gaines. Berry & Co. was reorganized into W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1868 when several new investors were brought into the group.

The courts finally settled the estate of Oscar Pepper in 1869. The property was divided equally among his seven children, but the portion with the distillery and all of the other business assets was left to the youngest son, Presley O’Bannon Pepper, who was only seven years old. This effectively left Oscar Pepper’s widow in charge of everything. She signed an agreement to lease the distillery out to W. A. Gaines & Co. for another two years on January 1st of 1870. Later in that year Colonel Taylor withdrew from W. A. Gaines & Co. In the 1870 census James Pepper was still listed as the distillery manager, so he was likely involved in its operation all along.

Toward the end of 1872 James Pepper won a lawsuit against his mother and regained full control of the distillery. In 1874 he entered into an agreement with Taylor, where Taylor invested capital for major improvements at the distillery. When Pepper declared bankruptcy in 1877 he lost the distillery property to Taylor. Shortly thereafter Taylor experienced his own bankruptcy, leaving the distillery in the hands of George T. Stagg, who had paid off Taylor’s creditors for pennies on the dollar. By the end of 1878 Stagg had sold the distillery on to James Graham, who then partnered with Leopold Labrot. They changed the name slightly to Labrot & Graham’s Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, but eventually (likely when emerging from Prohibition) it was shortened to the Labrot & Graham Distillery.

Finally, in 1940 the distillery was sold to Brown-Forman who used it to produce bourbon for their Early Times brand. They closed the distillery in 1957 and sold off the property in 1973. Brown-Forman re-purchased the site in 1994 and using the original 1838 still house as well as a pair of stone warehouses that date to the 1890’s, they built the distillery that is now known as Woodford Reserve.

Following McCracken Pike, the road which runs alongside Glenns Creek, to the north for 3.3 miles from Woodford Reserve will bring you to the former Old Taylor distillery. The site was originally home to the Johnson farm and distillery; it was also referred to as the Old Anderson Johnson distillery and later the James C. Johnson distillery (I’m assuming that James was Anderson’s son). Its date of establishment is unknown, but it was definitely in operation by the 1830’s and may have started as early as 1816.

The distillery was purchased by Jacob Swigert Taylor in 1879 and its name was changed to the J. Swigert Taylor distillery. E. H. Taylor bought the distillery from his oldest son in 1882, but Jacob continued to run the operation and its name remained the same.

After E. H. Taylor’s 1877 bankruptcy he had stayed involved in the O.F.C. distillery (which he had previously owned, and is now Buffalo Trace) in Frankfort, in partnership with George T. Stagg. But Taylor eventually had a falling out with Stagg and they parted ways at the start of 1887. Colonel Taylor formed a new partnership with two of his sons (Jacob Swigert and Kenner; his youngest son, Edmund Watson joined them at a later date) and they renamed their distillery Old Taylor.

Many accounts of the history of this site assume that a new distillery was built there in 1879 and again in 1887. None of the buildings that exist today were built before 1887 and any details of the evolution of the site prior to that year are speculative. More recent research has shown that the distillery was rebuilt and expanded over a period of many years after 1887, but primarily between 1900 and 1912. This was E. H. Taylor’s last distillery project; what he built there was to serve as an impressive tourist attraction as well as being a tribute to his namesake brand of whiskey.

The still house is the most iconic building on the property. Taking the form of a medieval castle, its limestone construction features corner turrets and crenellated battlements. This building’s construction lasted from 1901 to 1907. A small octagonal spring house and the larger, peristyle spring house are both architecturally significant. Just north of the castle is the Sunken Garden, which is one of the site’s most spectacular features. Warehouse B, which dates to 1912, is at the far north end of the property. At 68 feet by 530 feet, it is supposedly the longest brick masonry warehouse constructed in the world during that era.


The distillery operated up until Prohibition, and then it was acquired by American Medicinal Spirits in 1927 and used as a concentration warehouse. AMS was taken over by National Distillers in 1935, just after the end of Prohibition. Old Taylor quickly came back online and went through a period of expansion and modernization with several new buildings being added between 1935 and 1940. The largest of these is Warehouse E, which sits between the creek and the Sunken Garden.

Once production ceased in 1972 as the industry entered a major downturn, the property was neglected and gradually fell into a state of disrepair. National Distillers was acquired by Jim Beam in 1987, but they bough National primarily for the brands it owned and nothing was done with the Old Taylor property. Beam sold off the site in 1994 and the next owners wanted to bring distilling back there, but lacked the financial resources to do so. The site sold again after 10 years and unfortunately Warehouse C and Warehouse D were torn down in 2005 so the brick and wood could be sold off. Their outlines can clearly be seen in overhead views, lying across the street from the Sunken Garden and the Historic Bottling House. Also visible are the ruins of Warehouse A, which was next to Warehouse B and dated to 1910.

Finally, in 2014, the distillery was sold to someone who was interested in its preservation and in resuming distilling at the site. The Sunken Garden was brought back to life and restoration work on some of the buildings had begun at the time of my visit. No one was there while I was poking around, so all of the pictures I took were from the road. It is currently running as the Castle and Key distillery, but I’ve read that they are negotiating with Buffalo Trace for the rights to the Old Taylor name.

Before I cover the third distillery on Glenns Creek, let’s take a look at the man that connects them all. Dr. James Crow was born in Scotland in 1789. He trained as a physician and chemist in Edinburgh, graduating in 1822 and immigrating to the United States in 1823. Initially settling in Philadelphia, he followed the westward migration to Kentucky in 1825.

Crow was hired to run the farm distillery of Willis Field in 1826. This was on Griers Creek, about three miles west of Versailles. James Crow revolutionized distilling by applying scientific methods to whiskey making. He is often credited with inventing the sour mash method, but it is more likely that he was able to fully understand how it worked and improved the process by using litmus paper to measure the acidity of the mash. He was also one of the first distillers to use the thermometer, hydrometer and saccharometer. He would only make a certain amount of spirit from a bushel of grain, indicating a narrow cut of the spirit run, and he insisted on barrel aging for all of his whiskey at a time when that was not always done. Perhaps influenced by his medical background, he also took great care to ensure the hygiene of his distilling equipment.

Crow made a superior product very consistently and his reputation quickly spread. In 1833 he was hired as Oscar Pepper’s distillery master, moving five miles north of his previous employer. He worked there until 1855, with the exception of 1837 and 1838. That hiatus was likely due to the rebuilding and expansion of Oscar Pepper’s distillery which happened during that time. Crow found work at the nearby distillery of Newton Henry to fill that gap. Finally, Dr. Crow went to work at the Johnson distillery, located a few miles further north on Glenns Creek, in 1956. He died while on the job at that distillery later the same year. As detailed above, that site eventually became the home of the Old Taylor distillery.

We don’t know exactly when whiskey began to be sold under the Old Crow brand. But we do know that when James Crow worked for Oscar Pepper, his compensation was 1/8 of the whiskey produced (in 1855 this was 10 barrels of the 80 barrel total). It’s likely that Dr. Crow sold this whiskey as his own and associated it with his name from an early date. His reputation was such that it wouldn’t surprise me if Oscar Pepper also sold some of the whiskey produced at his distillery under the Old Crow brand in addition to using his own Old Oscar Pepper label.

We also know that in 1849 Robert Letcher, a former Kentucky Governor, wrote a letter to a friend where he praised the qualities of Old Crow whiskey, so it was certainly well-known as a brand by that point.

When James Crow died in 1856, his long-time assistant, William Mitchell, was still working at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. Mitchell was quite familiar with Crow’s recipe and methods for making whiskey. Since Pepper still had aging stocks produced by Crow and the ability to make more whiskey to the same standards, it made sense for him to continue using the Old Crow brand name. This was one of the earliest instances of brand name marketing in the U.S., a practice that was mostly pioneered by the soap industry.

When the Old Oscar Pepper distillery was leased out in 1867 to Gaines, Berry & Co. (which became W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1868), Mitchell was retained as the distiller and the company continued to use the Old Crow brand. When James Pepper regained control of the family distillery in 1872, W. A. Gaines & Co. took the Old Crow brand as their own. I’m not sure if they paid the Pepper family for the rights to the name or if they simply assumed its ownership after using it for the five years during which they leased the Pepper distillery.

The distillery owned by W. A. Gaines and located on Glenns Creek, just north of Old Taylor then became the home of Old Crow. This is where the history gets really confusing. Depending on where you look, dates for the establishment of that distillery are listed as 1872, 1878 and 1882. After way too much research, I think I’ve figured out the most likely scenario.

The above mentioned distillery was probably built in 1868 by Gaines, Berry & Co. as the Hermitage distillery (this was their other major brand). William Mitchell is reported to have left W. A. Gaines & Co. in 1872. I believe he stayed loyal to the Pepper family and continuing to work for James when he regained control of the Pepper distillery. At the same time, Van Johnson, Mitchell’s assistant of several years, was hired by Gaines to take over as their head distiller. With his knowledge of Dr. Crow’s techniques and recipe, it was possible to shift production of Old Crow whiskey to the Hermitage distillery in 1872 (hence the first mistaken date of that distillery’s establishment).

It seems that at some point Gaines, Berry & Co. bought another distillery, one which had existed since at least 1871 (it can be seen on maps from that year), and moved the Hermitage name there. That distillery was located on the Kentucky River in the southern part Frankfort. It was turned into a chair factory during Prohibition before being torn down in 1945. Any modern traces of it have been lost to urban sprawl. At the same time the original Hermitage distillery would have been renamed as the Old Crow distillery. I’m guessing that this happened in 1878, as it would explain the second mistaken date of the establishment of the distillery on Glenns Creek.

In1882 Gaines, Berry & Co. registered trademark for “Old Crow Distillery, Woodford County, Kentucky. Copper Distilled Whiskey. W. A. Gaines, Distiller” (Congress had just passed a new trademark act in 1881). This is likely the origin of the third incorrect date of establishment of the Old Crow distillery. In 1887 W. A. Gaines & Co incorporated under the same name (having been a co-partnership previously). This can also add to the confusion of the company timeline.

During Prohibition Old Crow, like Old Taylor, was absorbed by the American Medicinal Spirits Company, which then became part of National Distillers. National reopened the Old Crow distillery shortly after the end of Prohibition and even refurbished and expanded it in the 1960’s. Unfortunately they screwed up the recipe, getting the backset ratio wrong when they modernized the distillery. The whiskey didn’t taste right and the brand lost much of its following. The problem was finally corrected in the 1980’s but just a few years later, in 1987, National was bought by Jim Beam and they immediately closed the plant. The Old Crow brand lives on but in the form of low-quality, minimally aged Beam distillate.

Beam continues to use seven of the warehouses for barrel aging; they are the more modern ones on the south end of the site. A few of them were even refurbished a few years ago. The rest of the distillery site was left to deteriorate through the years. Finally, at the end of 2013, Beam sold off the portion of the property that they weren’t using for warehousing. The new owners have set up a small scale distillery in the former bottling hall and are operating as Glenns Creek Distilling. They are making attempts to preserve and restore the remaining buildings as time and finances allow.

At the time of my visit there was some activity on the site, but it didn’t really look like it was open to the public, so again, all of my photos were taken from the road. As the daylight began to fade I drove down to Woodford Reserve. It was after 5:00 so the gate was closed and you can’t see too much from the road. I’m looking forward to returning to the area so I can tour all three distilleries now that I understand their interrelated histories.

1 comment:

VT Mike said...

Just as a brief footnote, I'm going to include a quote that I came across from the letter that Robert Letcher sent to his friend Orlando Brown in 1849 to let him know that Letcher was sending a supply of Old Crow to cure what was ailing Orlando. I find this quite amusing.

"That's all you need to make you well - you have been deprived of your "native victuals," and that creates a Rebellion in your abdominal regions - Old Crow will put down the insurrection."