Distillery Focus

New for old (Taylor)

The old Taylor Distillery is getting a new lease of life Paul Harris investigates.
By Paul Harris
Glenn’s Creek is as picturesque as anything the River Spey has to offer. The fast running waters are just as clear, although the defile is narrower and the lush vegetation overshadows the green waters in a way the Spey does not admit. Just as the Spey cuts through the legendary land of Glenlivet and Glen Grant, so Glenn’s Creek, in faraway Kentucky, flows through that of Labrot & Graham, Old Crow and Old Taylor. They may be thousands of miles apart but the romance of carefully distilled spirit clings to the atmosphere of both rivers - even when you leave the actual bouquet far behind.Glenn’s Creek is in blue grass country. The grass is so lush and green the folks around here reckon it looks blue. There are two great and enduring human activities known to man in this fine part of Kentucky: the art of distilling glorious whiskey and the raising of exceptionally strong horses. It is said that both of these qualities are made possible by the very special local limestone which imparts subtlety to the whiskey and extreme strength to the bones of those horses. The road known as McCracken Pike snakes through this remote part of Kentucky, Woodford County. The river is to the left, ranches and typical wooden Southern houses, complete with porches and rocking chairs, to the right. On the road between Frankfort and Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales in deliberate defiance to a long lost French colonial adventure), three distilleries perch at the waterside. There is the newly
renovated, stone built Labrot & Graham plant - brought back to life by Brown-Forman at a cost of some $10 million and home to the highly rated Woodford Reserve. There is the large, abandoned, Old Crow distillery, little more than a rusting mass of ironmongery - although the
warehouses are home to stocks of maturing Jim Beam. Situated midway between these two, as you round a corner in the road, you come upon The Old Taylor Distillery.My breath was taken away by the first sight of Colonel Taylor’s fantastic creation: a vast still house built in 1887 with local limestone in the style of an English mediaeval castle, complete with turrets and battlements. It is pure Walt Disney. Now shuttered and, at first sight, abandoned, the castle is the centrepiece of a vast distilling complex. It’s complete with brick and concrete warehouses, a brick headquarters
building with trees sprouting from the frontage, ornamental gazebos and summer houses, and a huge, cool spring house, built in 1906 and
fashioned from classical style, complete turned limestone columns - looking for all the world like some displaced Greek temple.Whiskey was first produced here in 1819 but it wasn’t until 1879 that Colonel Edmund H Taylor bought the old Johnson distillery. He had previously owned Labrot & Graham and the OFC (later Ancient Age) distilleries. He was also one of the founders of the W Gaines company which built the neighbouring Old Crow. He was, by all accounts, determined to make Old Taylor a
bourbon of true distinction and, even in those far off days, he knew that if he constructed a distillery of architectural prominence then the patina would rub off on the drink he produced. Old Colonel Taylor knew the importance of
marketing a good business image long before such corporate parlance became common place.
Today, a notice at a delivery gate announces ‘Stone Castle Antiques Mall’. If you make your way between shuttered, crumbling buildings and past a collapsed brick warehouse you will make an unlikely discovery within the walls of the old bottling hall. When I found this treasure trove of whiskey memorabilia it was deserted. Deserted except for Cecil Withrow that is. Cecil Withrow is the sort of person you would not fail to spot in a crowd, never mind a deserted distillery. A vast, bearded figure, he has the distinct appearance of a refugee from a sixties rock band. He is a born and bred Kentuckian who used to work for Old Crow. Apart from military service in Vietnam, he has lived in the nearby town of Millville all his life. And his passion in life - the best bourbon - has led to him becoming the unlikely owner of The Old Taylor Distillery, which he bought from Jim Beam.He’s been here for six years now and he sees Old Taylor as a long-term project. First there were urgent roof repairs, making the buildings secure and, most recently, electrical work which at least means the site is lit and safe. The last whiskey was made here in 1974 although bottling continued until 1979. After Old Taylor stopped production, Old Crow was made here. The concrete warehouses are back in use - Withrow lets them out for storage to other distillers.He has been quietly buying whiskey from another distillery: bottling is to start and by the end of the year the first bottles of his own bourbon, to be called Glenn’s Creek, will be on the market. “This will be pretty heavy Kentucky bourbon,” says Withrow who has firm views on the drink. “It will be bottled by hand at around 100-105 degrees proof. I like to use traditional methods. When I buy whiskey I pay a premium price for hand selected barrels. I take it straight to the eighth floor of the warehouse here. It’s hot up there. Four or five years is quite enough. No way does it have to be six or seven years old. It’ll be single barrel bottling and I’ll be tasting it myself and bottling it just when I think it is ready .”He reaches up above his desk for an unlabelled bottle with one shot left in the bottom. I try it. In that first taste is the sharp bite of rye, then it’s smooth in the middle and dry on the aftertaste. A sturdy bourbon with more than a suggestion of Wild Turkey, or was it a hint of Ancient Age? Eventually, Withrow hopes to be producing 1,000 cases a year of Glenn’s Creek. Withrow has some very firm views on good bourbon. “The water changes east of Frankfort - west of Frankfort they simply can’t make a good whiskey. All this stuff about it’s the same Kentucky limestone is bullshit.” Colonel Taylor, a man made rich from his whiskey, sold out in 1911 to the Medicinal Spirits Co in Louisville. He died eleven years later aged 90. National Distillers acquired the Old Taylor plant in 1936, followed by Jim Beam. Distilling may again start at Old Taylor, though one senses this would be in a rather hazy future. “The still in the castle is much too large. I’ll need to have a new still made.” Will he, like his neighbour Labrot & Graham, order a copper pot still from Forsyths in Scotland? “Definitely, no. I’m making Kentucky Bourbon so I’ll use Kentucky steel. A Vendome still will be just fine.” Based nearby in Louisville, Vendome are the traditional local providers of continuous stills. James Crow, who arrived from Scotland and set up shop on Glenn’s Creek, is one of his heroes. He tells the anecdote about Jim Crow overhearing some boys off on a fishing trip. “Let’s take some whiskey off Jim Crow,” says one. “Let’s not bother,” says another, “we’ll just get sick.” Hearing this, Crow felt bound to intervene, “Lookee here, there’s not a headache in one barrel of my whiskey.” You can take it for granted that this will go for Glenn’s Creek as well. Withrow was one of those boys who fished in Glenn’s Creek. He’s doing well for someone who used to get chased away by the distillery’s security guards. “I used to say to them, ‘One day I’ll be giving the orders’. Well, I’m back as the boss and now they greet me with courtesy in the street.”