Old Taylor Distillery's owners resurrecting its castle, gardens

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJune 14, 2014 

MILLVILLE — The idea that fans of bourbon would want to visit the places where the spirit is made seems a fairly new one, fostered by the growing popularity over the past decade of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

But Col. E.H. Taylor Jr., the man behind the historic Old Taylor Distillery in Woodford County, foresaw it from the beginning.

"He was 100 years ahead of his time," said Will Arvin, one of the partners in Peristyle, the company that bought the 83-acre Old Taylor grounds in May for $950,000.

"We'd always had a dream about getting into the bourbon business, and this particular property was the incentive to do it," Arvin said. "This will be a great spot for people to see history."

Arvin and business partner Wes Murry plan to invest about $6 million in bringing the distillery back to life and adding a visitors center.

They do expect visitors to come, just as they did in the 1880s, when picnickers by the hundreds arrived on a train to see Old Taylor's landscaped grounds and take home miniature, one-tenth-of-a-pint bottles of the distillery's wares.

A titan of bourbon's golden age at the turn of the last century, Taylor was one of the first to recognize the need for purity and consistent quality in whiskey, cleanliness in distilling, and the importance of public relations, according to late historian Gerald Carson's book The Social History of Bourbon.

Taylor, a longtime Frankfort mayor and descendant of the family of Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor, lobbied successfully for the federal Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which required distillers to state truthfully what was inside the bottle. By some accounts, his distillery became the first to bottle 1 million cases of bourbon.

"Most whiskey plants of the last century looked something like a sawmill," Carson wrote. "Colonel built pergolas and pools. He had turrets, too. The Old Taylor Distillery on Glenn's Creek, near Frankfort, looked like a medieval castle with thick stone walls, arched windows, red slate roof, towers and crenellated battlements, stone bridges, a sundial and sunken rose garden.

"Over his spring, Taylor erected a springhouse with Roman columns, sheltering the water gushing from the birdseye limestone in what amounted to a shrine. This structure is still there and looks about the way it did in the Colonel's heyday."

Maybe not exactly the way it did then — but despite decades of neglect, vandalism and decay, once Arvin and Murry began clearing away the overgrown plants last month, there indeed were the Roman columns, the stone bridges and even the large sunken garden.

Bringing Old Taylor to light

The clearing began in earnest in mid-May. The project has been taken up by well-known Kentucky gardening guru Jon Carloftis, who says he was intrigued with the idea of resurrecting this historic landscape.

Carloftis, who has had his spade in many a trendy pile of dirt from Manhattan to Beverly Hills, says he can barely wait to bring his friends to see the place.

"This is the place, my God," Carloftis said on a recent visit to see what the brush-clearing had revealed.

Deep in the garden next to the distillery's iconic castle, they uncovered the original spring-fed pool, garden pergolas and pathways.

While poking around in the brush and forgotten peonies, Carloftis found a long-hidden stone bench and showed it to Arvin.

"That's what's so exciting," Carloftis said. "Who doesn't want to uncover something that's been hidden for 45 years?"

The distillery was shuttered in 1972 after Jim Beam bought it from National Distillers and closed it down.

Carloftis plans to replant open spaces along the creek leading to an old cottage with native wildflowers for now, and turn the overgrown yews scattered throughout the space into living sculptures, with artful trimming and strategic lighting.

Carloftis predicted the location will be much in demand for photo shoots, weddings and other events.

"People want real, authentic, not overdone," Carloftis said.

The first big party is already booked: Carloftis is planning to have his 50th birthday party there in August.

He knows people will want to see the Southern Gothic elegance of the colonnaded springhouse and the lost distillery inside the castle.

Road to making bourbon

In fact, the light-filled castle building holds the fermenting tanks — 21 of them — along with the grain bins and most of the other machinery probably installed by National after World War II, when the distillery was used for industrial alcohol production for the war effort.

Next door, where the coal-fired boilers once belched black smoke, Arvin and Murry plan to put in a new still and make their own craft spirits, particularly bourbon.

The old one, a gigantic 72-inch column still, remains in place and like most of the equipment will stay there.

Murry said they hope to preserve much of the distilling history as a living bourbon museum.

Although there are some holes in the roof, most of the buildings are surprisingly sound structurally, a testament to the permanence Taylor envisioned when he built the stone battlements in 1887.

Arvin and Murry hope to have Old Taylor open to the public in some fashion by next summer, Arvin said.

In the meantime, to create some revenue streams, they are fixing up the existing warehouse spaces.

One barrel-aging warehouse — which at more than 600 feet, about two football fields, is perhaps the longest in the United States — held whiskey until about 20 years ago. They might lease the building, which could hold 40,000 barrels, to needy distilleries.

Another multistory concrete warehouse could be a great vampire movie set.

"Everyone who sees it says that," Murry said of the green gloom dripping with atmosphere.

But more likely it too will be leased for barrel storage, although its ricks are now expensive reclaimed flooring in someone's dream house.

Bourbon as a destination

Around the grounds, Murry and Arvin are considering setting up places for people to stay, possibly with a restaurant. They want to bring an element of hospitality to bourbon tourism that hasn't been there, and rent the place for events, such as parties, once the outside is refurbished.

That could give them capital to continue fitting out their own distillery to make bourbon, possibly a rye and an unaged spirit.

They have begun the process of obtaining the necessary federal and state distillers licenses. Their plans for what to make, how they will make it, who will distill it for them and what it will be called are not yet nailed down.

But they won't be able to use the Old Taylor name. Buffalo Trace got that from Jim Beam a few years back, said bourbon historian Michael Veach of the Filson Historical Society.

Buffalo Trace in Frankfort — once called OFC — was also the first distillery Taylor tried to turn into a showplace, before he lost control of it through financial troubles, Veach said.

Taylor, who died in 1922 at age 90, had traveled in Europe for more than a year, researching all the methods of distilling, and he put those ideas to work once he got back to Kentucky.

"One of the things he evidently learned over there was the idea of distillery tourism," Veach said. "He started that idea with OFC but once he left there and went and started Old Taylor, he took it to the next level. That's why it has that castle look. ... I have to think these were things he saw when he was touring in Europe. The sunken gardens remind me of a Roman ruin. ... And he would have seen ancient ruins."

Taylor understood that people were thirsty for more than just his bourbon. Arvin and Murry want to cater to that interest, too.

As Carloftis' partner, Dale Fisher, said, "You can make bourbon without any of this stuff, but people are going to come for all of it."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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