Castles too rarely rise from American dirt…
…so when I saw one around a sharp bend in central Kentucky—just past a James Beam whisky warehouse—I didn’t know exactly where I was.
“Old Taylor Distillery Company” said the sign on the limestone fort, flanked by a tower and unmarked red brick industrial building. Little did I know that this stunning structure was standing almost a century before I knew what good bourbon was.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Junior, an orphan-turned-bourbon-baron that loved to entertain politicians and celebrities at his whiskey factory, founded Old Taylor. Perhaps it was because he felt at home, after all, he was not only the Great Nephew of President Zachary Taylor, but he was even elected Mayor for several terms of the nearby city of Frankfort, KY.
Kentucky Whisky, As We Know It
Taylor was integral in solidifying what contemporary drinkers call bourbon whiskey; before Old Taylor’s founder’s 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act fight, manufacturers often mixed sets of straight bourbons to achieve a level of quality in their drink. Colonel Taylor, though, believed in distilling right the first time.
The Bottled-in-Bond Act ensured bourbon whiskey would be the product of one distillation season at a single distillery, and that the product would then be stored in federally bonded warehouses under supervision at the distillery or bottling location for at least 4 years. Whiskey would have to test 100-proof (or 50 percent alcohol) at time of storage. Regulations like this shaped what we now consider to be true Kentucky bourbon.
Tours of the distillery were still offered through 1974, though the doors closed sometime in the following decade. By then a firm called National Distillers was operating the facilities, much in the original condition as Taylor did, though almost a century later.
Water was still being pumped through the Spring House (personally designed by Taylor; see below) so often used for parties and into the distillery building where it was blended with corn, wheat, and sometimes rye. Then, yeast would be added to the big yellow fermenting tanks where the bacteria would convert the natural sugars in the grain into alcohol.
The fermenting grain-water mixture would be distilled until the desired alcohol content was reached, then the alcohol would be barreled in new, charred oak barrels in the nearby federally bonded warehouse, in this case shared with the nearby Old Crow distillery.
2014 Update: In the past few years, Buffalo Trace Distillery of Frankfort, KY has acquired the rights to produce bourbon under the Old Taylor name—hopefully the reintroduction of the brand will inspire the stabilization and preservation of the now quite endangered Kentucky bourbon landmark.