A taste of history: Buffalo Trace Distillery exposes a “bourbon Pompeii”

Bourbon archaeologist Nick Laracuente walks along an unearthed fermentation tank inside a building Buffalo Trace Distillery used for storage // Photo via Lexington Herald Leader

One day, you’re renovating a your storage facility alongside the Kentucky River into a convention and event space. The next, you unearth the foundations of a distillery dating back to 1873. That’s exactly what happened to a Frankfort, Kentucky distillery.

According to the Lexington Herald Leader, Buffalo Trace Distillery discovered the remnants of the O.F.C. Distillery when workers needed to stabilize a wall from sliding into the river. Workers began digging up the ground, and this past April, they uncovered brick pillars and remains of walls. Fast forward to June, more brick structures were exposed, as well as what they presumed to be a cistern. After calling in historian Carolyn Brooks and a bourbon archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente, a spirited treasure had indeed been found.

Buffalo Trace has decided to make the second floor of the O.F.C. building the event space, and keep the archaeological remains visible // Photo via Lexington Herald Leader

Those brick structures were “virtually intact 11,000-gallon fermenting tanks built by the legendary Col. E.H. Taylor for one of the versions of his O.F.C. Distillery, a showplace of bourbon-making celebrated by Taylor in a booklet of lithographs as ‘the most complete and perfect in America,’” the news outlet reported.

The Lexington Herald Leader gave a brief history of the historic distillery: the O.F.C. Distillery was built in 1869, but torn down and rebuilt in 1873. The new-and-improved second O.F.C. was burnt down by lightning in 1882. Laracuente noted that instead of completely tearing down the whole edifice, Taylor just built on top of the structures. That rush rebuild may have led to some of the preservations they found, such as pieces of the original walls and stray fragments of sheet copper.

With another rebuild yet again in 1882, Taylor’s “goal was to make something that would perfect the art of bourbon-making” and wanted show off this “perfection to the world.” The article continues on by saying that Taylor had the brick vats were first lined with cement, and then lined yet again with sheet copper. He believed that the copper would make his whiskey superior to brands that were fermented in wooden vessels. Hence the name O.F.C., which  stood for both Old Fire Copper or Old Fashioned Copper.

Laracuente holding a remnant of copper sheeting that once was integrated into the fermentation tanks at O.F.C. Distillery // Photo via Lexington Herald Leader

Brooks and Laracuente also discovered a sort of “slop tank,” but it dates 50 years later. This other version of the distillery was used until the 1950s, when then-owner Schenley shut it down. The copper was taken out and sold, with the fermenting tanks pummeled to the ground and filled with debris. Concrete was slathered over everything and “everybody just forgot that all that stuff was there,” Laracuente said. Until Buffalo Trace’s plan for renovations, the building was an all-purpose storage.

Since the revealings, the distillery has decided to make the second floor of the O.F.C. building the event space, but keep the archaeological remains visible. And Laracuente envisions “an indoor ‘bourbon’ Pompeii, with catwalks over the ruins” in the future.

[H/T Lexington Herald Leader]


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