First Look

Reviving a Lost Bourbon Landmark

Built by Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. in 1887, the distillery was ahead of its time even then.

Like a scene from a Southern gothic novel sprung to life, the Old Taylor Distillery—complete with a kudzu-covered turreted limestone castle, overgrown gardens, and a crumbling Roman-style springhouse—languished in beautiful disrepair for nearly forty years. Then in May 2014, Kentucky natives Will Arvin and Wes Murry bought the sprawling property in Woodford County and set about reviving this piece of bourbon history.

Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Digital Library

A vintage postcard of the Old Taylor Distillery.

Photo: Courtesy of Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens

The distillery’s grounds and buildings before restoration.

Built by Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. in 1887, the distillery was ahead of its time even then. In those days, most distilleries were rough, industrial-looking outfits, but Taylor constructed a maze of manicured gardens with pergolas and pools, walking trails, and picnic spaces. Guests came in droves to spend the afternoon at Old Taylor—to eat lunch on the banks of Glenn’s Creek and take home sample-sized bottles of whiskey.

The sunken garden before the restoration.

Old Taylor Distillery

Carloftis’ sketch of the property.

With that history in mind, the gardens became Arvin and Murry’s first order of business. They enlisted Jon Carloftis and Dale Fisher of the famed Lexington design firm, Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens to help restore the landscape. “Photos can’t do this place justice because the buildings and grounds were so overwhelming, haunting, and mysterious in their decay,” Carloftis says. “It is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. We tried to respect the old while moving forward with new ideas.” That meant hours spent studying vintage photos and days clearing brush to uncover what they could of the original garden’s layout. They restored the sunken garden first. They planted historically accurate hemlocks, magnolias, and native berries for the birds and butterflies, but also introduced new plants like Limelight hydrangeas that wouldn’t have been available in the 1880s. Fisher and Carloftis are still working on a walking trail, raised-bed herb gardens, and rebuilding the peristyle springhouse.

The restored sunken garden.

And then there’s the bourbon.

In hiring twenty-eight-year-old Marianne Barnes, the first female master distiller in the business, Arvin and Murry have taken another page out of the forward-thinking Colonel’s playbook. Barnes, who earned her degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville, was the master taster at Brown-Forman before taking the reigns at Old Taylor. Her focus will of course be bourbon. Using a formula inspired by Colonel Taylor’s original recipes and aged in the property’s barrelhouse, but she will also produce a gin made with the botanicals Fisher and Carloftis are planting on site.

Photo: Courtesy of Business Lexington

Distiller Marianne Barnes.

The gardens come back to life.

The distillery is set to open in April 2016, but you can get a sneak peak next month at the Proven Winners weekend at Old Taylor, hosted by Carloftis. The event kicks off with a Friday night cocktail party at Botherum, Carloftis’ historic home in Lexington, and continues Saturday at Old Taylor with talks on everything from floral design to beekeeping to crafting garden-fresh cocktails.