My First Weekend at Bourbon Pompeii

In 2009, I made the decision to focus my archaeological research exclusively on the whiskey distillery industry. Since then I’ve worked on several farm distilleries and large industrial distilleries including Woodford Reserve, James Pepper Distillery, Canada Dry (they did more than just ginger ale) and Buffalo Trace.

Even though I’ve become known as the Bourbon Archaeologist, I never dreamed of being fortunate enough to be involved with the discovery of the “Bourbon Pompeii” at Buffalo Trace. The distillery was renovating the structure to be an event space and the first step of that was taking up part of a concrete floor in order to stabilize the building foundation. Not long after starting their excavation they ran into ‘something old’.

The first photo I took of the site.

My mouth dropped when I first saw the inside of the O.F.C. Building. The scale was immense. There was a bobcat and other machinery digging a large hole inside the building and there WAS something old beneath the floor. Foundations, a large circular tub, bricks and bits of stone everywhere.

AND there were freakin SEXY<can I say that in blog post? because it was> layers of soil in various colors that looked like they might be intact archaeological deposits which is SUPER-unusual on distillery sites. Usually these buildings are built on super sturdy foundations that have been cleared and prepped and are perfect for holding the enormous weight (and tremendously expensive) of distilling equipment and barrels full of tasty product. You really don’t want these buildings to collapse.

James Pepper Distillery Warehouse collapse in 1934 – read more here

All that work means that instead of an exciting layer cake with multiple layers of icing, the soil looks like fudge. A dense, flat, deflated, single layer. This is because all of the layers of history that you see in really interesting archaeological sites have been stripped away. I saw this at the Frazier distillery in Woodford County last year. The site had been salvaged at the end of its life leaving only a few artifacts and a single very thin layer (covered with some creek flood deposits) behind.

The arrow is pointing at the important layer… just 2cm thick.

I think I did a dance when I was showing Meredith and Dennis the differences in soil as we were walking around that first day. They quickly brought me into their project to document some of this before it was destroyed since they had a tight construction schedule. In order to stay out of the way of heavy machinery, I could come in on the weekend. So a few days later I spent one of the best weekends of my life happily profiling and sampling different parts of what had been excavated so far.

BTW – thanks to the plant managers who lowered food down to me so I didn’t have to take a break and climb out of the pit.

Plan View Profile Locations
Plan view from report I made for Buffalo Trace – the first 5 profiles were what I did that weekend. Most of the stuff in gray hadn’t been uncovered at that time. The fermenting vats weren’t uncovered either (more on that in a second).

The profiles in these gave me an idea of what was happening around the room. I cleaned up an area and if it looked different from other parts of the project area I would take the time to photo clean and draw them.

It looked like most of the area was redeposited soil, where some sort of construction happened and dirt was gathered from around the distillery to fill in voids and level areas during construction.

Wall Profile 4
Profile 4 had a bunch of glass dumped between two stone piers
Wall Profile 5
Profile 5 – “Wheelbarrow Loading”

There wasn’t really anything that could help date a deposits like the soil with large glass shards in Profile 4 (above). But profile 5 was cool. These were two narrow columns of soil between the fermenting vats. I interpreted these layers as quickly deposited when the masons finished building the large brick fermenting vats in 1883 and were backfilling soil around them. The gray layer on the right side of the photo above was a thick layer of mortar. I imagined that when they were finished they dumped the leftover mortar in the hole and started backfilling on top of it. The black layer at the top is cinders (spent coal). It was used to level the concrete floor that was poured in the 1950’s.

Disclaimer – I know that now. At the time I thought that layer had something to do with the 1st O.F.C. distillery burning in 1882.

I thought the first profile that I did was the coolest.

Wall 1 Profile
Profile 1 – sexy layers of soil – I had so much fun with this one.

Profile 1 had some of the earliest soil deposits that were preserved under the concrete floor. The only artifacts in these layers were bricks. The stars mark where there was something metal that rusted away and was only a stain in the soil. Several of those thick layers in the center are flood deposits.

This profile is the reason that the project changed and shifted away from event space. When I was explaining what these soils meant to Buffalo Trace, I pointed at the columns of soil on the left and right of Profile 1. At some point the conversation went something like this:

“Those are the building trenches that were dug when the pier and fermenting vats were constructed.”

“Wait, did you say fermenting vats?”

“Well, yeah. I think they are the ones on this Sanborn map. I just assumed that the brick walls are the outsides of them.”

“So if we pulled back the rest of this concrete floor we would expose the fermenters?”

Outside of the Fermenter Wall

This happens often. Archaeology can make you look at a place you thought you knew in a completely different way. No one who worked at this distillery knew this building as anything other than a large concrete floor storage space. This conversation started us down the road of changing the project from making event space into the new attraction that opened last month. Check out a video from the opening here.

If you have a chance register for a tour. It is free. Every weekday at 230.

A Blog By: Nicolas Laracuente

Bourbon Archaeologist


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