Distill My Heart
I was in Kentucky and Tennessee this past weekend. My husband had a seminar in Nashville on Monday and since he had to go down on Sunday anyway, we decided to go a day early and see what we could see. Having never been to either state before it was a new experience for both of us and one we’re likely to repeat. One reason is Kentucky bourbon. We’re both fans and so some bourbon tasting was definitely on the agenda. A friend of his suggested we take the back road to Woodford Reserve so we could see some distillery ruins. Oh how could I refuse? Unfortunately (or fortunately since they seemed really decrepit and dangerous) we couldn’t get into one and didn’t have time to trespass in the other. Here’s the one we couldn’t go into –
Old Crow Distillery –
To get all of these shots I had to put the camera on top of the chain link fence between strands of barbed wire. It was well over my head and I was very thankful for my flip and swivel LCD so I could see to compose.
Bourbon making evolved out of whiskey making pretty soon after it got started in Kentucky. Every current bourbon producer has its own story as to how bourbon was created but a few things are consistent. At first whiskey was a clear liquid made simply from corn mash. It was drunk all through the colonies and also used as a bartering product in Appalachia (leading right to the Whiskey Rebellion under the contentious administration of Jefferson and Hamilton). I didn’t get a sense of Kentucky’s participation in it, but here is where true American whiskey was born. Someone, somehow put whiskey in a barrel that had been burned. Exactly how it was burned is lost to us, but it was probably an accident. Shipping whiskey down to New Orleans took a long time; 5-6 months on average and by the time it arrived it had taken on the character, color and flavor of the charring inside the barrel. After a while people began to prefer it, asking for that whiskey from Bourbon county Kentucky, eventually shortening it to bourbon.
Just down the road from the ruins of Old Crow are the ruins of the Old Taylor distillery. In between are barrel houses upon barrel houses, many of which are used today by the Jim Beam company. When we got to Old Taylor we could hear voices from people trespassing by the barrel house and further up the sound of some power equipment; like a saw. There was a new, red pick up truck parked just inside the now open gates. Eventually someone came out and asked what we were doing there. He warned us that if we were caught inside the complex or even had our car parked near it, we could be ticketed or towed or both. Playing the tourist angle and introducing ourselves got us an invitation into what turned out to be a woodworking shop, ironically housed in the old cooperage. Deputy Sheriff Sandy was working on some plaques for the various law enforcement departments he does work for. He invited us to sit a spell and talk. We did.
He told us all about the Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries and how the Old Taylor brand is being revived by the good people at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. It was closed down in the 1970s and left to sit. Barrel tracks, loading bays, mash cookers – all left behind. Even the timecards of the last shift workers were left in the clock house by the gates. Sandy went on to explain that Kentucky bourbon must first be made in the state, contain no less than 51% corn mash, distilled to 160 proof and no higher, be barreled for at least 24 months in new, charred, white oak barrels. Charring those barrels is a highly individual thing and ranges from just a few seconds to almost half a minute. Most bourbon spends far longer in those barrels; averaging 7-9 years.
Well, as much as it pained me to go (since I wanted to tour the ruins legitimately) we had to. Before we did though, Sandy told us about a soldier who is buried in the cemetery across the street from the distillery gates. I would have stopped there to shoot anyway (you know me and cemeteries), but knowing about this really old dude made it all the more special. Here’s his death notice in the Louisville and Nashville Christian Advocate 1853 –
JOSHUA McQUEEN born Baltimore. Co., Md., Oct. 15, 1746; died Franklin Co., Ky., April 17, 1853 in his 107th year; s/o Thomas and Jane McQueen; firstborn of five children; enlisted in American army and served 7 years during the Revolutionary War; among battles he was in: Germantown, Monmouth, Brandywine. “At Valley Forge, he was one of the sufferers in that memorable winter, when the fidelity of the soldier was thoroughly tested” during which time he was servant to Gen. /Nathanael/Green(e); md Margaret Baxter; had 11 children; about 1790 moved to Madison Co., Ky.; joined MEC 1792/93; wife died and he md Jemima Cornelison d/o John and Elizabeth Cornelison of Ky. who was a Baptist; moved to Franklin Co., Ky. 1832; to three miles below Frankfort, Ky. in 1842 where he died.
Wow. Just wow. Sandy himself bought and erected the modern stone you see here. No one knows exactly where Joshua is buried, but just knowing he’s been commemorated is a good thing.
Oh and before I go, here’s a working distillery – Woodford Reserve –
We got an excellent tour here. That building houses all their active production; shipping & receiving, bottling, yeast cooker, mash fermenters and 3 copper distillers themselves. Amazing and very labor intensive. Small batches is putting it mildly. The tour guide mentioned a nearby cemetery, so of course I had to go there, too. It’s directly across the road from the visitor center and had its own fascination –
In the back corner there is a stylized representation of what I think is a corn maiden. Corn being the biggest cash crop around Kentucky and a mandatory ingredient for bourbon, it’s not too surprising that images of corn appear everywhere; signs, gateposts and fences just to name a few.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Coming up – a Kentucky ghost train just in time for Halloween!