Raise a glass to Colonel E.H. Taylor, the father of bourbon tourism, on National Bourbon Day.
Each year, on June 14, we celebrate America’s native spirit with National Bourbon Day
As set forth in a resolution adopted by Congress on May 4, 1964, only whiskey distilled in America from a mash containing a minimum of 51 percent corn and aged for at least two years in new, charred American White Oak barrels can rightfully be labeled as bourbon.
A lot of folks take that even further and contend that “If It Ain’t Kentucky, It Ain’t Bourbon.” Who can blame them? Bourbon is our signature industry in Kentucky, and fully 95 percent of the world’s bourbon — including the very finest expressions — originates in the Bluegrass state.
According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there are least 1 million more barrels of bourbon currently aging in Kentucky than there are people. It’s a $3 billion industry that generates a lot of jobs, a lot of revenue and a whole lot of bourbon.
Arguably, the intertwined association of Kentucky and bourbon — and especially interest in bourbon tourism and touring distilleries like those found on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — wouldn’t be quite as strong as it is today without the work of one visionary distiller: Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., founder of Old Taylor Distillery and forefather of the modern bourbon industry and of bourbon tourism.
E.H. Taylor was born in Columbia, Kentucky, in 1832 and raised by his grand uncle, Zachary Taylor (yes, the former President). He was later sent to live with another uncle who shared his name. That’s when he added “Jr.” to his name, so as to distinguish himself from his uncle and as a sign of respect.
After a few early career moves, Taylor went to work for Oscar Pepper in the distilling business. Intrigued, Taylor set out to travel the world and learn as much as he could about traditional and modern methods of distillation. He returned home to Kentucky filled with ideas, and built Hermitage Distillery in 1868, incorporating much of what he’d learned.
Taylor bought the Sweigert Distillery from his wife’s family in 1870 and set about modernizing it as O.F.C.-Stagg Distillery, making it a place he would be proud to show off to visitors. This is the site that would eventually become Buffalo Trace Distillery, on the banks of the Kentucky River in Frankfort. After a series of bad business deals, however, Taylor moved on to build yet another distillery. It would be his masterpiece.
Taylor completed construction of his Old Taylor Distillery in 1887 on a showstopper of a site nestled in the hills of Woodford County. It was here that his ideas for modern distillation and for bourbon tourism culminated in an operation like no other before it.
The distillery building was an enormous limestone castle, modeled after the castles Taylor had admired on his earlier trips through Europe. The grounds also featured both sunken and raised gardens, where Taylor would host picnics.
The Old Taylor Distillery even had its own train station that would bring visitors in from Frankfort for his famous Kentucky Derby parties. A springhouse, covered by a key-shaped peristyle, was across from the train station, setting the scene with beautiful Greco-Roman architecture as guests entered the perfectly manicured grounds.
Making a quality product was certainly at the top of Colonel Taylor’s priority list, but hospitality ranked right up there, as well. Taylor was awarded the title “Master of Hospitality” in 1917 by an esteemed group of college professors.
“E.H. Taylor, Jr. formed the idea that a distillery should be a place to show off to visitors while he was touring European distilleries in the late 1860s,” says bourbon historian Michael Veach. “He built first the O.F.C. and then the Old Taylor distilleries with visitors in mind.”
He didn’t do this because it was convenient. He did it because it was striking.
Today, after years of decay, the former Old Taylor distillery is rising from the ashes thanks to a plucky group of folks turning it into the Castle and Key Distillery. Though they could have saved a lot of money and headaches razing the site and building a brand new completely modern facility, they opted to salvage Colonel Taylor’s magnum opus.
The renovation incorporates the old with the new throughout, and anything that isn’t being reused is being repurposed. Distillation will again take place in the giant limestone castle, and the ruins of Taylor’s first warehouse have been turned into an herb garden for the gin that will be made as soon as the distillery is up and running.
Hospitality will again be a focus of the operation. An old groundskeeper’s house is currently being renovated to become a tasting room and two-bedroom rental cabin. Additionally, there are also plans to turn the former E.H. Taylor Administration building into a bed and breakfast, making Castle and Key the only Kentucky bourbon distillery with permanent guest accommodations.
Distillation is expected to begin in the fall, and the site will once again open to visitors shortly after. Castle and Key brand ambassador Brett Connors can’t wait to show how Colonel Taylor’s vision is being reimagined for modern guests.
“He didn’t do all of this because it was convenient. He did it because it was striking,” Connors says. “We want to do what he did. Bring people out for the day so they can enjoy the grounds and imbibe.”
Bourbon historian Michael Veach will host a “Beyond the Bourbon: Exploring the life of E.H. Taylor” tour with Mint Julep Tours on June 30. Guests will visit Vendome Copper Works, Buffalo Trace, and Castle and Key to learn more about Taylor’s legacy and lasting impact on bourbon tourism and the bourbon industry. Visit mintjuleptours.com/exclusive-experiences for details.