Buffalo Trace Distillery simply wanted to create a new events and meeting space overlooking the nearby scenic Kentucky River, yet now the famed whiskey maker is dealing with an archeological site that’s stopped the work.
In April, workers began digging into the current 134-year-old foundation of the O.F.C. Building, located on its Frankfort, Kentucky, campus. But the excavators didn’t have to go too deeply to discover that below the current foundation lay another foundation—and much more—from the original O.F.C. Distillery built there in 1873.
The discovery is being called the Bourbon Pompeii (though no distillery workers or rare bottles of whiskey were found encased in oak ashes), and now the distillery is making plans to turn it into a tourist exhibit.
Remnants of walls, a cistern, and 11,000-gallon fermenters were unearthed and deemed to be in remarkably good condition—despite a devastating fire there in 1882. The distillery’s owner, the always determined and perseverant Col. E.H. Taylor, simply cleaned up the mess and built a newer, better distillery right over top of the old and returned to distilling a year later.
(If you’re a fan of Monty Python’s “Holy Grail,” the notion of a grand building burning down and being rebuilt atop it likely has you thinking of the “Swamp Castle” scene.)
To help determine what they found, work was halted and two area experts, historic preservation consultant and whiskey historian Carolyn Brooks and bourbon archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente, were summoned to the site. Both confirmed the findings.
The distillery retrieved archived documents of Taylor’s, who described the site this way: “(T)he walls of the O.F.C. fermenting room are constructed of rough ashler from limestone quarries – the floor is grouted in best English cement…. The vats… are constructed of brick, laid in English cement – the base six feet below the level of the floor, and the top eleven feet below the ceiling. They are first lined with first quality of Portland cement, and this again lined with the best sheet copper, manufactured especially for this purpose.”
Interestingly, the location of these artifacts were known as recently as 1958 to then-owner Schenley. That year the building was decommissioned, and a new cement floor was poured over its vats. According to an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, “The copper was stripped out and sold, and the tops of the fermenting tanks were knocked down inside to flatten them to floor level and then were filled in with rubble from elsewhere.”
Such statements will lead some to slap their foreheads in disgust. But let’s be fair: Knowing the expense required to preserve old buildings, especially at a time when bourbon was descending toward its nadir, covering it all in concrete seems like the economical thing to do. It’s likely few ever thought bourbon fans a half century later would regard such stuff as valuable whiskey history.
So when will the public be able to view this amazing find? So far, Buffalo Trace hasn’t set a date. Despite what’s been found below, it’s continuing with turning the building’s upper floor into a modern events space, while working to decide how best to preserve the site below. And according to the Herald-Leader article, Buffalo Trace, known for its bent to experiment, is planning to recreate Col. Taylor’s process by relining one of the fermenters and again filling it with mash. As reporter Janet Patton wrote, “Eventually, bourbon fans might even be able to taste history.”
Now that would be Antique Collection worthy.
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....