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."