Buffalo Trace unearths ‘bourbon Pompeii’ of 1873 distillery on Kentucky River

Bourbon Pompeii found at Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort unearthed remnants of the O.F.C. Distillery dating to 1873 while renovating a building along the Kentucky River. The site will become an archaeological exhibit for select visitors at the historic distillery.
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Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort unearthed remnants of the O.F.C. Distillery dating to 1873 while renovating a building along the Kentucky River. The site will become an archaeological exhibit for select visitors at the historic distillery.

Buffalo Trace Distillery has unearthed the foundations of a distillery from 1873 inside one of the oldest buildings on the Franklin County site. The discoveries came as Buffalo Trace prepared to renovate a building long used for storage along the Kentucky River.

The plan, according to spokeswoman Amy Preske, was to turn the two-floor building into event and convention space. Before work could begin, she said, the distillery knew it had to shore up the building because the river-facing wall had separated a few inches from the structure. “We didn’t want it to slide off into the river,” she said.

That meant workers had to dig into the floor. And that’s where the amazing finds began.

In April, they had uncovered brick pillars and remnants of walls. In June, even more exciting: They found what they thought might have been a cistern. Further digging peeled back more of the first floor to reveal a row of brick structures. Early on, the distillery called in Louisville historian Carolyn Brooks and bourbon archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente to tell them exactly what they had.

Amazingly, the brick structures turned out to be virtually intact 11,000-gallon fermenting tanks built by the legendary Col. E.H. Taylor for one of the versions of his O.F.C. Distillery, a showplace of bourbon-making celebrated by Taylor in a booklet of lithographs as “the most complete and perfect in America.”

Laracuente, who said he’s “giddy” over the finds, said the tanks are almost certainly the only ones of their kind in existence at any Kentucky distillery.

Finding intact remains is “very rare,” he said, in part because distilleries often were destroyed by fire.

The first, relatively simple O.F.C. Distillery, built on the site by Taylor in 1869, was torn down in 1873 and rebuilt bigger and better. The second O.F.C. was destroyed by fire caused by lightning in 1882.

According to the historical records, Laracuente said, Taylor rebuilt it in less than a year, and that rush might have led to some of the preservation of the structures they found: Instead of tearing down everything and starting over, Taylor rebuilt on top.

Stray pieces of the original walls have been found inside the dig, he said.

When Taylor rebuilt in 1882, his goal was to make something that would perfect the art of bourbon-making, and he also clearly envisioned showing off this perfection to the world. “The fermenting room of the O.F.C. distillery is believed to be the handsomest and best in America,” he wrote in a pamphlet on the place.

But he emphasized the sanitary aspects too: “In the construction of the fermenting room, special attention was given to the attainment of cleanliness, light, and ventilation,” he wrote. “The vats, eight in number, are constructed of brick, laid in English cement — the base six feet below the level of the floor, and the tops 11 feet below the ceiling. They are first lined with the first quality of Portland cement, and this again lined with the best sheet copper, manufactured especially for the purpose.”

The italics are Taylor’s. He believed that by touching only copper, his whiskey was made superior to other brands that were fermented in wooden tanks. That led to the naming of his distillery: O.F.C. apparently stood for either Old Fire Copper or Old Fashioned Copper. Taylor used both names at times, Preske said.

In fact, Laracuente has found a few stray remnants of that sheet copper, which hung from wooden supports around the rim of the tanks and was draped inside.

Brooks was able to match a lithograph showing the fermenting room at OFC to structures and pediments to the row of columns in the room.

But the big round tank was nowhere to be seen. Brooks and Laracuente have dated it to a version of the distillery that came about 50 years later. It turned out to be a slop tank fed by a room-long trough, but they aren’t sure exactly what it was used for or why.

“There are so many layers,” Laracuente said. “This sort of thing just doesn’t exist at other buildings. When you build a hard building like that, you build fresh. It’s probably going to be the only thing we’ll find like it … and the only reason they did it that way was because they were in a hurry.”

The distillery was used until the 1950s, when then-owner Schenley decommissioned it. The copper was stripped out and sold, and the tops of the fermenting tanks were knocked down inside to flatten them to floor level and then were filled in with rubble from elsewhere.

“And they poured concrete over everything. Everybody just forgot that all that stuff was there,” Laracuente said. The building became all-purpose storage, next to the water pumphouse and other utilitarian functions for today’s Buffalo Trace Distillery, leaving the past sealed inside.

Which has led to some interesting revelations, too: In the fill, Laracuente and the workers found distinctive shards of extremely thick glass. Lots and lots of it, Laracuente said.

Where could it have come from? That led Brooks back to the lithographs. In one, Taylor is posed in front of a horseshoe of multi-story tanks. The illustration is labeled “condensing room at O.F.C. Distillery” and above it is a huge skylight, like nothing that exists at the distillery today.

Frankly, Laracuente and Preske said, Buffalo Trace historians had long thought this just artistic license. Now, with the finding of the massive pieces of glass, they are reconsidering but haven’t pinpointed a possible location.

Other aspects of Taylor’s pamphlet also are puzzling. He described a unique process for handling the mash, or cooked grains. He kept the mash in small tubs that look like open barrels for 24 hours before putting it into the fermenters and adding rye and barley malt.

This process seems very different from today’s bourbon making, in which cooked mash goes directly into large vats for fermentation.

As a result of the historical findings, Buffalo Trace has revamped the plans. There will be event space on the second floor of the O.F.C. Building, but the archaeological remnants will remain exposed. They are being shored up to stabilize them in case of future river flooding, with holes drilled to drain out the water.

And in the future, select visitors might be able to tour this unique piece of whiskey history.

“This will be an indoor ‘bourbon’ Pompeii, with catwalks over the ruins,” Laracuente said.

And Buffalo Trace, which prides itself on experimentation, plans to re-create Taylor’s process, he said, by relining one of the fermenters and again filling it with mash. Eventually, bourbon fans might even be able to taste history.