Steel catwalks have been installed so that people can peer down into the vats and ruins where whiskey was made more than 100 years ago.
Already, the tour, which has not been advertised, is booked through September. The distillery takes about 15 people a day through the ruins of one of the oldest buildings on the historic site, where Col. E.H. Taylor built — and rebuilt and rebuilt — the distillery that would make his Old Fire Copper whiskey.
The tour has drawn a variety of visitors, from historians and archaeologists to pure bourbon geeks to peer down into the tanks once filled by gents in vests and hats in the 1880s, said Amy Preske, Buffalo Trace spokeswoman. Although the tour is billed as taking an hour, it often runs longer.
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“People don’t want to leave,” she said. “They love reading the signs.”
Scattered around the site are historic photos and lithographs. Eventually there will be a display of artifacts recovered from the ruins, which stretch beneath them, filling the building tucked behind the busy distillery.
The retelling of the bourbon history remains a family affair: New videos for the tour uses lithographs to illustrate the founding of the original OFC Distillery which dates from 1869 to 1873, the building of the second distillery (and its destruction by lightning in 1882), and the rebuilding in 1883. The video is narrated by E.H. Taylor Hay Jr., the grandson of E.H. Taylor.
Hay’s wife, Joanna, created the story boards outlining for visitors which parts of the ruins belong to each distillery. There’s the wall with a doorway from the first distillery, the foundation of the second, and the vats and drop tub from the third. As visitors walk past, each portion lights up.
Joanna Hay narrated a second video that takes the story up to the modern day distillery, when Mark Brown, president and CEO of Sazerac, the present day owners of Buffalo Trace, planned to turn the disused building into a meeting venue.
As the excavations began last April, workers found brick pillars and remnants of walls. In June, things really got exciting when they found a circular wall that they thought might have been a cistern.
Enter bourbon archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente: He realized they had stumbled across history, the remains of the first industrial distillery in Kentucky.
As he says in the tour video, “Our very own Pompeii ... Right in the heart of Kentucky ... a bourbon Pompeii.”
Laracuente, who now works for Buffalo Trace as their official “bourbon archeologist,” coined the Pompeii term for the site, a reference to the Roman city buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and excavated in the 1700s.
As his dig expanded, the remains of four fermenting vats were chiseled from the cement. Inside were bricks, some labeled “Kain Tuck” and a flap of copper sheeting.
Using archival documents, Laracuente and Louisville historian Carolyn Brooks were able to figure out that these 11,000-gallon vats were those shown in a pamphlet by Col. Taylor as part of “the handsomest and best” fermenting room in America, with copper-clad fermenters.
The distillery eventually will restore one of the tanks including its copper cladding. The plan, according to Matt Higgins, gift shop manager, is to once again use that vat to make whiskey the way Taylor did.
In June, Buffalo Trace received “patent pending” status for Taylor’s process, called the “Old Fashioned Sour Mash” technique. It’s similar to a process that the distillery used in 2002 for a special release and will involve holding the mash for a time to allow it to naturally sour. Taylor’s 1882 pamphlet illustrates some aspects of his process, which differs from that used to produce today’s bourbon.
The next project for Buffalo Trace will be digging out and restoring the original spring used by Taylor, down by the Kentucky River. The spring, which also is shown in the illustration of his rebuilt distillery, was uncovered during the restoration dig last year.
To visit ‘bourbon Pompeii’
Free tours are currently offered at 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Book one of 15 spots online at BuffaloTraceDistillery.com. For group consideration, contact the distillery gift shop, 800-654-8471. On Sept. 1, the distillery will begin taking reservations for December through February. Each tour includes a free tasting.