The staff entrance, a small guard shack with limestone walls and a rotten wood roof, was unmanned. A few houses that were built by the distillery’s employees were behind me. The guard shack was empty. I had an hour, give or take, with the favorite distillery of Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, President Grant, and General Early. I had to know if there was any American magic left.
1835-1987: Crow Country
James Crow, a Scotsman made his way to the Glenn Creek area of rural Kentucky in 1835 and soon began working in the Oscar Pepper Distillery. Pepper set up there in 1872, very early in the Bourbon days, because of the proximity to the creek and the discovery of a natural spring. To this day, distillers often brag about the source of their water and there is a long-held belief that subtle properties of the water can make or break a whiskey.
Crow brought with him some experience in chemistry and an understanding of the sour mash process that had not yet been applied to the effort. As a result of his expertise, his particular formulas and methodologies earned him a very high reputation. So much so that people began asking for “Crow”, which soon became “Old Crow” as the whiskey aged in barrels near the distillery. When James Crow left Oscar’s operation to work in what became Old Taylor Distillery, Oscar’s practical distillers kept making ‘Crow’ bourbon exactly as James taught them.
Very little whiskey was produced near Glenn Creek during the Civil War, and Crow and Pepper both died shortly after. A Frankfort partnership, Gaines Berry & Company, bought the former Oscar Pepper distillery in 1866 and asked its distillers to keep brewing Crow’s recipe. Before the war, Old Crow had become well respected in the social circles of Southern plantation owners, and there was no reason to think its popularity would not be remembered during Reconstruction.
Gaines & Berry were right, and the distillery succeeded and grew alongside their former partner’s operation, Old Taylor, to the point that the road along Glenn Creek was dominated by cooperages, barrel houses, and smokestacks. Little changed when National Distillers bought out Gaines Berry Co. in 1934, and many improvements were made to the property through the 1960s. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, a few brands began to dominate nationally, squeezing out the medium-sized operations like Old Taylor and Old Crow. In 1987, Jim Beam bought Old Crow and shut it down.
Walking the Crow
Exploring the distillery reminded me of many of the urban ruins I have documented… whenever it was convenient for a wall to be removed, without a second thought it seems, the wall was knocked down. It has clearly been intensively scrapped for years, in spite of constantly-patrolling security, courtesy Jim Beam.
By the same token, there were also stretches of the distillery, especially on the top floors and more hard-to-reach spots, that were time capsules of the last days of operation, like a wooden box of glass jars left near a testing spout. The spring building is still full of water, though it looked a little green to me, and the at the base of the tallest chimney are a row of beautiful Westinghouse stokers.
The most beautiful space is the distilling room, which has very high ceilings to accommodate the (long scrapped) column distiller. Up above, I see the round window—the eye of the building—and recognize it from a historical photo. The only piece of equipment remaining is turquoise-green control panel on one of the many landings that partition the huge space, not far from a second-story loading door where smaller pieces of equipment could be hauled in. I wonder if that’s how scrappers gutted it.
Hopefully, the days of neglecting and ravaging this beautiful and interesting building are over; in 2013 it was purchased by a pair of distillers hoping to restore the buildings and turn it into a working space once again. See their Facebook page to see how the project is going. Obviously, my trip preceded their project by some time, but it is my understanding that they offer tours. I highly encourage interested readers to go and support this effort—it’s rare to see people investing like this and I love it.