The Old Taylor Distillery has been silent since 1972. It still is, but its current owners have already done more in a year than anyone else has in the last 45.
Old Taylor is just outside of Frankfort in the valley formed by Glenn's Creek and reached by Glenn's Creek Road. It is near Millville, a small town that once housed many of the distillery's workers. It was built early in the 20th century by E. H. Taylor, Jr., who built and owned many distilleries during his long career. Since it was going to carry his name, he wanted a showpiece. He intended it as a place for lavish parties, especially his annual Kentucky Derby party. Guests were transported to the site by private train.
Most distilleries in those days were pretty utilitarian. Old Taylor was different. As I wrote in my book, Bourbon, Straight, "It had pergolas, reflecting pools, stone bridges, gazebos, and a limestone distillery building adorned with the turrets, towers, and crenellated battlements of a medieval castle. The grounds were meticulously landscaped. The spring house was designed to evoke a Roman bath."
Taylor made bourbon there until Prohibition. When the government ordered that bourbon stored in rural areas be concentrated in the cities to reduce theft, he sold the distillery and the Old Taylor brand to the Wathen brothers and their American Medicinal Spirits Company in Louisville. As Prohibition was ending, they sold out to what was left of the Whiskey Trust to form National Distillers. After Prohibition, National resumed distilling at both Old Taylor and its next door neighbor, Old Crow; as well as at a third distillery on the other side of Frankfort where it made Old Grand-Dad. Old Taylor was open to the public and included a bourbon industry museum and hall-of-fame.
|The Old Taylor springhouse, as pictured on a postcard from the 1960s.|
In 1987, National was acquired by Jim Beam. National was the bigger company but Beam had cash and National had a portfolio of tired brands and outdated assets like its three Frankfort distilleries. The industry was drowning in whiskey no one wanted, so Beam's first act was to stop distilling at Crow and Grand-Dad. They continued to use the warehouses at Taylor, Crow, and Grand-Dad, even renting space to Wild Turkey; but the offices and bottling moved to Grand-Dad and both properties on Glenn's Creek Road began to deteriorate.
You can see what Taylor and Crow looked like in 1991-92 in my documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky."
Eventually the distillers decided that the site is too humid, has bad air circulation, and the roads to and from it are no good for big trucks, making it subpar for aging. They stopped putting new make in the warehouses. When what was already there matured and was removed, they sold both properties, which continued to fall apart. One warehouse collapsed. Most of the roofs were compromised. Everything was overgrown. Crow was largely dismantled for the vintage brick, stone, and wood. Various Taylor owners talked about restoration and revival, but not much happened.
That began to change last year when Will Arvin and Wes Murry bought it. They soon made two key hires. Marianne Barnes, a rising star at Brown-Forman, was added as their distiller. (The photograph above is from her Facebook page.) The other hire was Jon Carloftis, a Kentucky native, award-winning garden designer, garden writer, television guest, author, and lecturer. Barnes isn't making any whiskey yet, and many of the buildings still need a lot of work, but Carloftis has transformed the look of the place through landscaping. He wasn't starting from scratch, but to just call it a 'restoration' doesn't do it justice.
Unlike all of the previous owners, Arvin and Murry clearly have a plan and enough money to implement it. They are spending strategically. In the gardening world, which is a very big world, Carloftis is a major celebrity. Barnes, though not as well known yet, is young, female and attractive, making her virtually unique among distillers. A start-up distillery has to think about tourism, whiskey shows and general publicity. The product has to be solid too, when the time comes. Barnes is probably the best trained and most experienced distiller of her generation, so that part will be fine.
You can't sample Marianne's work yet, but if you are into gardens and old distilleries, but mostly gardens, Jon Carloftis is hosting a big event there on September 12th.