February 2, 2017

Buffalo Trace Distillery Uncovers "Bourbon Pompeii"

Buffalo Trace Grounds

photo by: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Buffalo Trace Distillery is a National Historic Landmark and claims the title "oldest continually operating distillery in America."

When it comes to bourbon, older is generally considered better. So when the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, unexpectedly unearthed a bourbon operation from 1873, they knew they had something good.

In October 2016, workers at Buffalo Trace uncovered the foundations and fermenting vats of the O.F.C. (“Old Fired Copper” or “Old Fashioned Copper,” depending on the source) Distillery while they were renovating a long-vacant building for use as an event space. The discovery is particularly significant because the equipment and structures of older distilleries are typically removed completely during development and expansion.

But history is nothing new to Buffalo Trace, which is recognized as a National Historic Landmark and lays claim to the title “oldest continually operating distillery in the United States.” In fact, distilling tradition on the site dates back all the way to 1786—that’s before the United States Constitution was put in place.

Buffalo Trace Mash Floor

photo by: Buffalo Trace Distillery

Workers discovered the remains of an 1873 distillery underneath one of the current facility's long-vacant buildings.

EH Taylor Fermenters 2

photo by: Buffalo Trace Distillery

The old O.F.C. Distillery will soon be available for the public to tour.

Once the discovery was made, Buffalo Trace called in the historic preservation consultant and whiskey historian Carolyn Brooks, along with Nicolas Laracuente, who holds the dream title of “bourbon archaeologist.”

Together, the duo began putting the pieces together. What they found was that the foundation of the building dated back to 1873, when Col. E.H. Taylor ran the O.F.C Distillery on the premises. When the facility burned in 1882, Taylor kept the foundation and expanded the operation, adding 11,000-gallon fermenting vats, lined with copper (hence the name), which is said to have improved the sanitation and quality of the bourbon.

Since the discovery, Buffalo Trace has revised their adaptive reuse plans for the building to include preservation of the find. Excavation of the space has been completed, and a series of catwalks is now being constructed above the space so that visitors can tour the find.

The distillery also plans to fully restore at least one fermentation vat for active use. On the floors above, work will continue on the adaptive reuse of the remaining building space for use as a meeting and events center.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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