By Jim Murray

Tribute to a whiskey dreamer

Jim Murray mourns the loss of Cecil Williams, a man dedicated to whiskey and a much loved friend to the end.
It's strange how fate will play its quirky little tricks on life. And how often are they unbearably sad. The other day I was talking to my octogenarian neighbour in England who observed that it is always the kind and truly decent people who die first. Just a few hours later I was to be reminded, heartbreakingly, just how right he was when I learnt of the sudden and untimely death of my very closest, dearest friend, Cecil Withrow. Only the loss of my father a decade earlier has ever hit me so hard. Cecil and I first met six years ago, when I found him sleeping in a cot somewhere in the remains of the Old Taylor Distillery on Glenn's Creek. He was accompanied by two dogs, several fishing rods, a gun and his wife Dorothy, to whom he was touchingly devoted. His story, featured recently in Whisky Magazine, was a remarkable one. He had for years been on the payroll of National Distillers, owners also of the Old Crow distillery a mile down the creek and the Old Grandad Distillery on the other side of Frankfort. Though employed on the maintenance side, he felt so passionately about the whiskey they made that when Jim Beam took them over and closed those ancient distilleries down - an action he never forgave - he raised enough capital to buy the dilapidated buildings and warehouses of the famous Old Taylor Distillery.He dreamt of bringing the distillery back to life. Not with the massive continuous stills, that were just about intact in the still house, but with a little pot still, preferably making small batch rye. For Cecil had old timer's ways. First of all he cleaned up the beautiful old bottling hall and astutely turned it into an antiques mall so revenue could be brought in. This was more than supplemented by renting out his warehouses to Wild Turkey. He also had plans to create a museum to house his superb collection of much treasured National Distillers artefacts.However Cecil lived his life at what can only be described as a Kentuckian pace. Which meant he was in no particular hurry to bottle his first bourbon, called Stonecastle - the name he had given the Old Taylor Distillery. And so, after years of planning, just two weeks after celebrating the bottling of the Buffalo Trace whiskey, Cecil was gone.It was probably Cecil's cavernous appetite for life and food that proved to be his undoing. He ate lustily and it was after a meal and having just put up the Christmas tree he suffered a massive heart attack to which this giant of a man succumbed. Not only did he leave behind Dorothy and his son Michael, who now takes over the business, but the real apple of his eye, 20-month-old granddaughter, Taylor, who he was raising day and night with the most tender of love. Cecil Withrow was, without a shadow of a doubt, a whiskey man to the very last. On a personal level, he was my neighbour and the honorary caretaker of my house. And, unquestionably, he was also the very best friend I ever had and something of a grandad to my son, James. We both, unashamedly, loved him very much. It is hard to believe that we will never again see that lion's mane of white hair cascading over his neck; that carefully nurtured hill-billian beard; listen to his fabulously droll humour and the uniquely Kentuckian ability to ask "whatya doing now?" over nearly ten seconds. It will be hard to imagine life now devoid of steak and eggs at Farmer's Kitchen, late night chewing the fat on my porch with a rye or 10-year-old Ancient Age in hand. My home will be haunted by his larger than life, benevolent presence and, to be honest, I'm glad.And for fate's final, uncanny, quirky trick? Well, every distillery in Kentucky has a state number by which it is known. Old Taylor's, the distillery Cecil lived and breathed, is 53. The very age when Cecil's time was called.