By Richard Thomas
When I attended the unveiling of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s “Bourbon Pompeii,” it was with the eye of a history and archaeology fan, practiced in using imagination to build on foundations. That is so necessary because, as with the real Pompeii, what Buffalo Trace discovered beneath one of its buildings fronting the Kentucky River was only slightly more than foundations.
The OFC Building, also known as the “Bourbon Pompeii,” is next to the even more historic (and preserved) Old Taylor House. Dating to the 1790s, the former home of Commodore Richard Taylor (great-grandfather of the E. H. Taylor of Kentucky Bourbon fame), is the oldest still-standing home in Franklin County. Excavations through a 1950s era concrete floor revealed walls and foundations from an 1869 and 1873 distillery building, as well as masonry vats dating to 1883. As is the case with many Greek and Roman ruins that aren’t Pompeii, some imagination is needed to make full use of the ruins found under the OFC Building, to bring the walls and vats to life as the working, whiskey-making factory that Taylor built.
Little imagination is necessary to understand that the “Bourbon Pompeii” has been under more than just concrete, however, and at multiple times in its history has been flooded. Among the exhibits is a picture of the half-submerged distillery during the 1989 flood, one I witnessed firsthand as a teenager. Accompanying the dramatic photo was a quote from Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley: “We have grown accustomed to the river with all of our distilling experience along with it. She will rise as she wishes and we will scramble into action until she goes back to bed.”
Buffalo Trace isn’t the only distillery on the Kentucky River, but it is the only one sitting on its banks. Down in Lawrenceburg, Wild Turkey overlooks the river from its high, safe perch atop the Kentucky River Palisades. Only the new urban distilleries on Louisville’s Whiskey Row are in a place (arguably) as flood prone as Buffalo Trace.
In just my lifetime, the river has put water into downtown Frankfort in 1997, 1989 and 1978, year of the landmark flood that crested at 48 1/2 feet and often appears on lists of the worst floods in American history. Stepping out onto the balcony of the OFC Building brings one face to face with the temperamental nature of the Kentucky River. Below the OFC Building are the lovely stone ruins of the old spring that supplied water for the old distillery, while one can usually see fish of various stripes in the water itself. Across the river is a beached barge, overtaken by nature, and signs of lesser and more recent floods abound for any who knows how to look for them.
Being sealed up in concrete and forgotten for almost 70 years has helped protect the “Bourbon Pompeii” from the river. Buffalo Trace knows their neighbor well, but the last flood was long before the Bourbon Boom, so its only a matter of time before some winter sends panic through the Bourbon enthusiast community as news breaks that the distillery is once again a few feet underwater (if not more), although I’m sure the distillery is well-prepared for the occasion.
So, in addition to imagining what the old distillery was like, building it up from the ruins, I also imagined both it and the current OFC Building in floodtimes. When the next flood comes, I’m certain Bourbon Pompeii will survive it. Yet I’m just as certain that the site will be filled with silt and need to be excavated again.
Editor’s Note: I didn’t mention the “Derby” flood of 2010 here, because folks I knew described it as not that bad of a flood. Maybe it wasn’t where they were, but it was bad enough at Buffalo Trace that they added a new flood marker to some buildings!