Distillery Focus

Discovering Bourbon's past

We follow the Indiana Jones of Bourbon as he uncovers Buffalo Trace's Pompeii
By Maggie Kimberl
Climbing down a steep ladder into a warehouse sub-basement on the river's edge at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, Nicolas Laracuente's motion suddenly activates the lighting. It's nine o'clock in the morning, but as illuminated signs come into view it becomes clear what we're looking at: ruins of a 19th-century farm distillery intertwined with those of a more modern 19th-century commercial distillery.

The archaeologist

Laracuente climbs over stone knee high walls toward the oldest section of the ruins, explaining the various features that pinpoint its age. The stone work is crude but strong, having withstood more than 150 years of use, fire, and eventually abandonment. The newer section is made of bricks, and in some areas the pillars are twisted from the nearby river's flooding as well as pressure from above. We are climbing among the ruins of Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor's Old Fashioned Copper Distillery, built to modernise the 1869 Sweigert Distillery in 1873 and again in 1882 after a fire. It was, for a time, one of the most modern Bourbon distilleries in the state. In 1958 the building was decommissioned as a distillery and concrete was poured over the area, preserving it for its inadvertent discovery in 2016.

Laracuente was studying pre-med at Tulane University when he decided to enroll in an archaeology class. Like many people he went in assuming that all the cool stuff had already been discovered. When he realised there were more sites out there waiting to be uncovered he switched his major to archaeology and eventually earned his master's degree at the University of West Florida.

In the early days he worked on a project to map the American Cemetery in Louisiana as well as a project uncovering colonial era Spanish Missions in Florida. Then he met his wife, and they settled in Kentucky. Laracuente continued his studies at the University of Kentucky, where he discovered there was a gaping hole in archaeological research - in the study of historic archaeology in Kentucky.

"Archaeologists have learned some amazing things about 12,000 years of human occupation in Kentucky," says Laracuente. "This was one of the first places agriculture occurred in the world, there were Native American cultures who built ceremonial earthworks and lived in large villages. Kentucky was much more than just a Native American hunting ground and there is a rich body of archaeological research that tells us. It felt like historic archaeologists are just getting started." As he read through the State Plan, a two-volume document that outlines archaeological research in the State of Kentucky, he found only one chapter dedicated to historic archaeology in the state. One of the areas suggested for further study was the history of the distilling industry.

He began to look for abandoned distillery sites to study, eventually working as a volunteer archaeologist at the Jack Jouett House on the weekends. He pored over documents until he eventually discovered an advertisement offering to sell the Jouett Farm Distillery as well as legal documents indicating a dispute over ownership of the distillery's output. Armed with this information he set off hiking up and down the creek bed looking for evidence of the distillery ruins.

What he found was the remnants of a farm distillery that had been owned and operated by a man known as the "Paul Revere of the South." He and his team of volunteers began carefully digging and cataloguing everything they could find, right down to a button they discovered with a metal detector. They eventually discovered part of a horse's bridle near what they knew to have been a road. The garbage dump they found gave them information which allowed them to conclude there was someone, likely a slave, living in or near the distillery who was doing the distilling.

During the years there have been more discoveries and projects. The Epler Distillery was, unlike the Jouett Distillery, well documented on the tax rolls in Woodford County. In fact, before Prohibition there were more than 200 distilleries on the tax rolls in Woodford County alone, and Prohibition took the figure statewide down to six.

There's a lot to be learned about life in the frontier days from distilleries. They were, after all, nothing more than a way to preserve crops both for sale and for personal consumption. A distillery that became large and successful may have influenced farmers in the area to grow more corn, for instance. Entire communities were built around the commerce that many of these long-forgotten distilleries created. In fact, there are many distillery-centered towns which were completely wiped off the map because of Prohibition.

"The artefacts we recover from distillery excavations tell a richer story than just whiskey was made here," Laracuente explains. "I've seen gendered artefacts like a decorative brooch that provides a connection to Sallie Ann, the spinster sister of the Epler Brothers who helped run their distillery in the late 1800s. Marbles from the Old Taylor House help us picture kids playing while folks are distilling at the OFC building just a few feet away. Or a jaw harp from the Jouett/Buck Distillery adds texture to the picture of what happened in this valley during the late 1700s. When I started this project I didn't realise that we might reconstruct the sounds of a historic distillery, the creak of wagon wheels, the crackle of fire heating the still, the click of grain on metal as the grist mill was loaded, snippets of conversation from people, and the twang of a jaw harp that someone left behind for us to find more than 200 years later." At the back of the Buffalo Trace Distillery grounds sits a warehouse that has been used for storage as long as anyone can remember. Crews were brought in to shore up the structural integrity of the building after plans were made to create a huge meeting and event space, but as they dug under the floor they kept hitting rubble. Then things took an unexpected turn.

In the 1950s a now-defunct company called Schenley Distillers owned the George T. Stagg Distillery, modern day Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, Kentucky. The company was modernising in order to keep their business strong, so rather than continuing to use Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor's copper lined fermentation tanks they scrapped the copper, filled everything with rubble, and poured concrete over top in 1958.

Taylor had been at the forefront of modern Bourbon production and tourism, turning the old Sweigert Distillery into the more modern Old Fashioned Copper Distillery. Among its many modern features were copper lined fermentation tanks, which allowed Taylor to boast that his whiskey always touched copper on its journey to the barrel. It was built to be a place of beauty so that he could host guests, one of the earliest advances toward modern-day Bourbon tourism.

The tanks had been recessed into the ground, built from bricks, lined with German cement, and then finally lined with copper. They were eventually unceremoniously stripped of copper, caved into themselves, filled with rubble, covered over with concrete, and forgotten - until 2016 when part of the concrete slab was removed.

Buffalo Trace was named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2013 because of its history of being used as a distillery before, during, and after Prohibition as well as its pre-industrial commercial architecture. Historic preservation on the site has included not only the saving of historic structures, but also the understanding of how they fit into the site's history. In 2012 an archaeological survey, which Laracuente led, was completed on the Old Taylor House, once the home of E. H. Taylor's great-grandfather Commodore Richard Taylor. It will be part of the Taylor Tour available for free to the public starting this year.

Preserving Bourbon Pompeii was ultimately the obvious choice for Buffalo Trace, and Laracuente was the obvious choice to lead the project. During the course of several months in the OFC building Laracuente did shovel tests, oversaw and guided the machine excavations of preservable areas, and researched the history and structures in the building. "For me this project began as a relatively straightforward job of documenting profiles that were uncovered during the initial stage of excavation," Laracuente concludes in his 94-page report on the project. "After I finished documenting Wall 5 and learning that we were going to remove the floor over the fermenting tanks to see if they were intact, I realised we were uncovering one of the more complex archaeological sites that I have encountered in my career so far." The first part of the discovery included walls from the Sweigert Distillery and a round tank, likely where slop was stored on its way out, lined with plaster. After the second portion of the concrete slab was removed Laracuente went about carefully excavating the fermentation tanks, spending his lunch breaks over two months excavating and clearing an area for the construction crew to proceed.

The dig uncovered foundation elements from 1869, finished stone walls from 1873, and fermenting tanks from 1882. When compared to lithographs from the time of construction, the resemblance to Colonel Taylor's Old Fashioned Copper Distillery is uncanny.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD it sent tons of pumice raining down, covering both Pompeii and Herculaneum, before the lava flows covered everything over, sealing it for archaeologists to find in the 1700s. Things were so perfectly preserved, it gave historians a great deal of information about how people would have lived two thousand years ago.

This discovery might not be as old, but gives us insight into what distilling was like in the 19th Century. Surprisingly little remains from this time period. Before Prohibition in nearby Woodford County alone there were more than 200 farm distilleries on the tax rolls. Prohibition wiped out all but six of the distilleries in Kentucky, leaving distillery remnants scattered throughout the state. Buffalo Trace's Bourbon Pompeii discovery is easily the best preserved 19th-century distillery ruins in the state.

The Grand Opening of the OFC Building and the 'Bourbon Pompeii' exhibit are expected in late summer, 2017, and the tour will be the 6th tour at the distillery. Tours will be available Monday to Friday at 2:30pm and reservations can be made online at the Buffalo Trace Distillery website.