Whiskey, Archaeology, and Things That Will Never Be Excavated

Ivor Noel Hume once found 47 wine bottles filled with cherries during an excavation of a tavern at Colonial Williamsburg.

While it is fun to think about, I’m fairly sure that I will never find a jug of whiskey on an early Kentucky farm distillery (sealed “dusties” from industrial distilleries are a different story). At the Jouett / Buck distillery (beginning around 1790), Jack was using slave labor to essentially distill money. Stoneware jugs of whiskey were currency in Kentucky’s barter economy. People traded them for help with things like raising their barns. In Jack Jouett’s case, he traded his distillery to the Buck brothers in 1804 for 1400 gallons of whiskey and a hundred dollars worth of merchantable goods.

Whiskey was money. Not something to be left behind when your distillery goes out of business.

In fact, most everything of value is typically salvaged and reused for other purposes at industrial and farm distillery sites making some of these sites very ephemeral. At the Jouett / Buck distillery we recovered nearly 2,000 artifacts and less than 5 relate directly to distilling. The rest of the artifacts tell the story of what the distillers were doing while not distilling. We found the “mess hall” or break area with remains of a meal and the pot in which it may have been cooked. Buttons and other parts of their clothes. And a jaw harp that someone may have been playing while the still was running.

Instead of artifacts often it is the site layout that makes sense as a distillery. There is a constant source of water, fuel, materials. The topography of the site is important too as gravity is used to assist moving water through the distilling process. This layout isn’t accidental, there are several distilling manuals that give advice on what you need for a successful distillery operation.

distilling manual often with diagrams that assist would be distillers in setup

Understanding the site layout helps make sense of seemingly random artifacts and features. It helps differentiate between a site that was just a historic house and a site that contains remnants of our whiskey heritage.

But there are other things that that archaeologists will never be able to excavate no matter how much we understand about how a distillery operates.

A few years ago, I ran into Gerry Seavo. We were in downtown Frankfort. It was one of those days when the valley is thick with the smell of Buffalo Trace drying their spent mash.  On days like that I throw open the windows of my house, my office, and my car. Anything to fill my nose with that delicious smell.

It even permeated our short conversation. Gerry said, “Man. That smell will knock you over,” sparking a short discussion about Bourbon, drying mash, how different distilleries use their spent mash, and on.

It stuck in my head because I realized that this smell is something that you can never excavate. It is definitely something that changes one’s experience of a place. On the first day of excavating at Buffalo Trace one of the crew said she didn’t like the smell (it was loud. I’m sure I misheard). After spending a day working in the center of the distillery everything we wore was imbued with the scent.

There are plenty of other things that may never be excavated.

“Mold” growing on the sides of Bourbon warehouses adds character to some of the buildings. Although other people find it to be a nuisance.

The personalities and relationships within the industry have no material markers. The archival record preserves some of this. The personalities of Jack Jouett and Peter or Charles Buck bleed through their litigation. Other aspects are related through oral histories.

So many of the materials associated with the industry degrade. Most of the wood from a cooper returned to dust a long time ago, although the barrel bands may remain. A larger problem (for archaeology) is that the work spaces were kept clean. Broken stoneware jugs may be the only trace of containers used on early distilling sites. However, unless the accident happened while the distillery was being abandoned, these pottery shards would have been cleaned and moved to the trash.

Sound is something that can never be excavated. At Buffalo Trace, our work next to the Old Taylor House was beside the cooling tower. This machine draws water from the river and cools it to the correct temperature for whatever task it is needed for. It is also the loudest machine known to man. Wearing earplugs helped, but we had to develop a sign language for “excavate 20 centimeters and level out the floor.”

The GPR survey at James Pepper distillery was quiet. The only sound was the scratch of the plastic sled on the gravel parking lot.

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Camille Westmont running the GPR at James Pepper Distillery in 2010

What did historic distilleries sound like? Did the sound of equipment drown out the voice of the workers? Or could the booming laugh of a master distiller be heard across the distillery grounds?

The next time you visit Buffalo Trace (or any of your favorite distilleries) take a minute and listen. You might hear, smell, or taste parts of the past that echo whiskey heritage.

Nick Laracuente

Bourbon Archaeologist