By Richard Thomas
Although Prohibition left America replete with defunct distilleries, to date the story of America’s exploding craft whiskey movement has been one of new starts. Where old names like Pepper or Michter’s has been revived, for the most part it has had no connection to its roots past its brand name. Yet recent years have seen a handful of efforts to revive distilling with a real tie to history, either in terms of the place or the people concerned.
When The Barrel House started production in 2008, they crossed two historic thresholds. The first and most important was bringing distillation back to Lexington, Kentucky. The second was re-establishing it on the site of the old James E. Pepper Distillery, closed in 1958. The name of James E. Pepper adorns a sourced brand now, but The Barrel House was making moonshine and bourbon in the old Pepper barrel house years before that. The first of the bourbon was released just this past July.
Nelson’s Green Brier
The original Nelson’s Distillery was situated in Green Brier, Tennessee and ran from 1868 until the state of Tennessee enacted its own mini-Prohibition in 1909. For most of that time it was owned by the namesake Nelson family. Today the site of the old distillery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but there are no plans to return whiskey-making to that site.
Instead, the connection is through the Nelson family, whose descendants first got back into the whiskey business by bottling Belle Meade Bourbon. The new Nelson’s Green Brier distillery opened its doors in Nashville in November 2014.
Old Charles Medley
Old Charles Medley was itself a comeback, rebuilt from the Owensboro, Kentucky ruins of the burnt Green River Distillery operating on the site from 1885 to 1918. The current structure was built in 1936, after Prohibition, and operated until 1993. The site was bought by South Carolina-based Terressentia last year, and ground was broken on the $25 million restoration of the site in July.
Terressentia is best known as the inventor of the TerrePure, one of a handful of processes that are claimed to accelerate the maturation of whiskey, and, in a move that will probably raise a furor among bourbon bloggers as it becomes more widely known, the distillery has been renamed for O.Z. Tyler, inventor of the TerrePure process, and will produce whiskey aged using it.
While Sazerac and Buffalo Trace put the Taylor brand names to use, what was the grand dame of Kentucky distillery ruins sat under threat of being cannibalized for architectural salvage. The only reason why it stood long enough for restoration was the 2008 U.S. housing boom collapse, one of the few bright spots in an event that helped trigger the Great Recession. Amazingly, copper thieves and others missed the presence of Old Taylor’s distillation equipment, much of which was still there when Peristyle bought the property in 2014.
Built in the 1880s, Old Taylor was meant to be a showcase to bourbon-making. The main building had a castle facade, and out back were extensive gardens, including a pavilion with a pool. It was closed in 1972, but now renovation work is well under way. Marianne Barnes, former Master Taster at Brown-Forman, was named Master Distiller in March.
Like Nelson’s Green Brier, the legacy connection of Louisville’s Peerless Distilling is via the family rather than the location. The original distillery was in Henderson County, Kentucky. The comeback version is in Louisville, started by the descendants of Peerless proprietor Henry Kraver. The revived Peerless began production in June 2015. Bourbon and rye are laid up on the ricks, and moonshine is being made and bottled for immediate sale.