On the Trail

Ghosts of Kentucky

David Driscoll

In the new age of whiskey appreciation few subjects are more provocative and fascinating than that of "lost" distilleries—once operational facilities that no longer operate, but whose whiskies still exist for consumption and contemplation. The idea that a whiskey could live on in the bottle or continue maturing in cask long after the distillery itself has been shuttered is an exhilarating one. Collectors and avid fans alike have flocked to purchase lost legends like Scotland's Port Ellen and Brora—two of the most famous "lost"whisky distilleries in Scotland—and the lore of Pappy Van Winkle has made the old Stitzel Weller site a mecca for Bourbon drinkers, even though the plants themselves haven't operated in decades. Tasting the whiskies is almost like drinking a ghost; it's the leftover spirit from a once living being that continues to haunt your palate and tease your sensations from the afterlife.

While many of the world's "lost" distilleries are serious tourist attractions for serious whisky drinkers, most are either still used for storage by their parent companies, or they've been demolished and removed from the earth entirely; the land was either too valuable to waste or the abandoned buildings simply became an eyesore. Port Ellen, for example, is still used by Diageo as a malting center. Brora is used for warehousing space. Stitzel-Weller functions as the head office for Bulleit Bourbon. The Old Taylor distillery in Kentucky's Woodford County was one of the few accessible ruinous sites up until a few years ago when an investment group purchased the dilapidated buildings and began refurbishing them under the name Castle and Key. The main offices were right on the road, so all you had to do was park and explore the rubble. I remember digging through the old records of the accounting building back in 2013, completely flabbergasted that something so cool was just sitting there wasting away. But there was another seriously haunted-looking old distillery nearby that I'd been itching to break into for years: the Old Crow distillery. It was completely fenced off and deeply set into a small valley between the hills. You could make out some of the brick buildings through the chain link barrier, but not much more. 

The Old Crow distillery went out of business in 1985 when the plant's owner National Distillers decided to get out of the whiskey industry. The site was sold to Jim Beam, who still uses the nearby bonded warehouses for storage, but the production center was completely fenced off and left to decay for more than three decades. No one ever went in or out. The empty edifaces just sat there like the set of an old horror movie, calling my name each time I visited the area. This was the year, however, that I was finally going to man up and hop that fence. I was going to summon some courage, grab my camera, and do a little documentary journalism about one of Kentucky's fallen soldiers. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the distillery to find the gates wide open. I pulled in cautiously, parked the car, and looked around for signs of life. I noticed a few guys going into a newer-looking office near the lot, so I made my way inside. "Hello?" I called out. "Anyone here?"

It turns out that another distilling outfit recently made a cash offer to Beam for the crumbling Old Crow distillery in the hopes of revitalizing the property and eventually giving tours of the attraction. I asked if I could have a look around and they were happy to oblige, so long as I didn't meander too deeply into the buildings. Many of the structures are still unsafe and a number of the buildings have asbestos, so the last thing they needed was for me to get hurt on their newly legalized property. As for what exactly I was exploring, I'll tell you: the Old Crow distillery was built in 1860 by Oscar Pepper, who also operated a second distillery near Frankfort. You'll still see a few whiskies on the market using the Pepper name (particularly that of his son James), but neither of his distilleries have operated in generations. Old Crow distillery obviously made Old Crow Kentucky Bourbon, but the brand you see on the bargain shelves today is made by Jim Beam who inherited the rights to the label when they purchased the site in '85. In its day the whiskey was considered one of the very best.  

Walking into the larger production center, what instantly grabs you is the boiler room. It's a sign of exactly how massive an operation the distillery was, even compared to today's standards. Four coal-fired ovens pumped heat into the gigantic boiler that still hangs overhead today. It's very much a remnant of the American industrial age, like something out of an Upton Sinclair novel. According to Chester Zoeller's book Bourbon in Kentucky, Old Crow was churning out 1,400 bushels of corn a day by the early 1900s. That's about 112 barrels of whiskey daily, and the warehouse capacity had grown to over 125,000 barrels at that point. Zoeller also notes that the distillery was purchased by another company in 1935 and was expanded further. Old Crow was obviously a serious player in the early days of the Kentucky Bourbon industry. 

Both the Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries sit along Glenn's Creek, a small tributary of the Kentucky River from which both facilities drew water for mashing and cooking. The damn and pumping equipment are still there and the water still gets drawn into the well behind the fermentation building.

While the well hasn't been used to make whiskey in more than thirty years, it has now become sort of a makeshift pond for numerous fish from the river. According to the guys who bought the place, they've become pets. They bring chairs out, drink beer, and feed the fish when its time to have a company meeting. I can see why. It's a very tranquil and inspiring place to sit.

The giant fermentation tanks are still there as well, albeit they've slowly been eaten away by rust and vegetal growth from the surrounding forest. 

Since whiskey became big business again, historical legitimacy and the ability to link one's product to the past carries a lot of value with hardcore fans of the genre. I knew the day would eventually come when someone would try to revamp the Old Crow site, which is why I wanted to get in and snoop around before that happened. While the new investors have done some work to clean up the property, they still have a long way to go. But I wish them luck on their incredible undertaking. The Old Crow distillery is a historical gem. I'm happy I got the chance to finally see it in person.

-David Driscoll