Dreaming About Old Crow Distillery and the Magic in That Dusty Old Bourbon

So I actually wrote this piece over the course of weeks, and not all in succession. I’d write some, leave it, come back to it….write some, leave it, and come back to it. Always sipping a little Old Grand-Dad along the way, leaving the world with a little less delicious bourbon… It’s not a piece based upon absolutes, and not every word is rooted in fact. I can’t offer any facts. Unfortunately when it comes to facts and Old Crow Distillery, there is simply little to be had. We can find the bottles of bourbon, taste and cherish them. We can scour the internet and regional historical societies for photos and stories, and come up with nothing. It’s quite similar to the situation an archaeologist would find his or herself in while studying the lives and traditions of the ancient Egyptians or Mayans. There are a few things written down, and artifacts to be studied, but when it comes down to figuring out how the hell they moved those 500 ton blocks into pyramids located in perfect relation to modern latitudes and longitudes as they related to the earth and stars; no idea.

What I offer you here is a stream of conscious writing, thinking, and dreaming about Old Crow Distillery. These are my opinions and thoughts, the ideas that flitter around my mind while sipping. Nothing more, nothing less. Just me trying to understand the magic in that dusty old bourbon. I used a few fictional characters for the purpose of setting scenes. Maybe you get something out of it, maybe not. Be forewarned, it’s a long piece…

I’m sitting here now, sipping one last pour of a magical Old Grand-Dad 100 proof Bonded bourbon by National Distillers at Old Crow Distillery, age stated 8 years old, bottled in 1987. I just shared some of this amazing bourbon with a friend who lives up the street, a guy who isn’t as familiar with the ins-n-outs and history of bourbon as I am (I don’t even claim to know a tenth as much as some, but I’m in constant pursuit of knowledge). Nor does he probably care, looking at the fat little glass filled with brown liquid, watching as I get overly excited and nearly philosophical about the OGD, pontificating what it means, why it’s important, and why exactly it can never happen again. I preach. I extol. In my mind’s eye I am weaving an enraptured tapestry of virtue about a distillery that will never again pump white corn mash through its tail box. “Sip up” I say, “This is pure liquid treasure.” We talk for a while, dragging out the pour. After a bit my buddy heads home, I’m certain wondering how on earth someone can be that obsessive over a product that in 45 minutes will be making its final descent to the Water Treatment Plant before taking a fun filled journey down the Mississippi, waving as it passes Jackson Square in New Orleans, plunging headlong into the Gulf of Mexico.

The house is quiet, other than the warm squeak of oak on oak that comes from the gentle sway of the rocking chair next to my bourbon crypt and the wood floor. I pour myself one more glass. I need to think about this Old Grand-Dad a little longer. Experience it one more time. I look at the glass the way Good Will Hunting looks at a seemingly unsolvable math equation on the chalk board at MIT. I dissect the flavors. The heady, powerful butterscotch that dominates the nose and palate. The finish that is so smooth, it’s the bourbon equivalent of satin. Swish and slosh around my tongue. The mouth-feel, dear Lord. It actually has a temperature, and I say this every time I drink OGD BIB; it’s cool to the touch and taste. I swirl the juice in the glass, inhaling its body. I gaze through the honeyish, golden liquid; soft lights beaming radiantly through the glass. I taste the pour and let it filter through me. The soft oaken caramel, dense with syrupy, sugary sweetness and a breath of antiquity. You can taste the summer humidity from the fields of sweet yellow corn that rose from the ground decades ago. The finish is mellow and fleeting, a solid 100 proof burn doing the subtle pirouettes on my mid-palate. To me, it’s perfection.

But how did this come to be? There is just so much to consider in the question “what makes this juice so special?” I am a self-professed disciple of all things single barrel and high proof. So how could I possibly be so smitten with this batched 100 proof liquid dream? I keep saying to myself, “There is nothing else like this in the world.” And really that’s true. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever had.

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I got to see Old Crow up close recently, on my yearly springtime pilgrimage up to southern Indiana. Kentuckiana. Traveling through the heart of Kentucky bourbon country is always one of the highlights of the trip for me. Typically we stop at one of the distilleries to let the kids stretch their limbs before the final 100 mile push into Indiana. When my wife asked where I wanted to stop this time, I said I’d like to do something a little different, and maybe look for the remains of the National Distillers facilities, specifically Old Crow, and by extension Old Taylor, since it’s only a stone’s throw away. If you have never seen it, I highly recommend the drive. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Rat shacks with busted siding revealing hewn logs underneath, derelict fishing boats, the odd goat, piles of scrap metal and wild flowers dot the banks alongside Glenn’s Creek as you meander up and down the carved hills of the river valley. The road is so narrow, literally a one lane road marked for two. My initial thought was “How the hell did they ever manage to drive two lanes of big rigs loaded down with corn or bottles of whiskey on this road?” As you crest a hill, the smoke stack pokes up just over the tree line, like an elderly relative, oh so happy to see you, but too old and feeble to get up. “That’s OK pop. You stay there, I’ll come to you.” It’s surrounded by rusty, broken chain link fencing that blends into the scrubby brush and overgrowth, almost unnoticed. Halfway over the hill, before you get to the actual employee entrance, you can poke through the fence and get a good look at the grand old fellow. The ancient, cavernous confines of Old Crow. It sits empty and derelict now, a 5-star aviary resort for pigeons and crows basking in the rays of dull sunshine that burn through frosted glass. Still proud and fighting against collapse, though wearing the time ravaged, sun bleached, rain soaked, snow covered, weather beaten wrinkles and scars of age. To my eyes, even in this state of decrepit decay it couldn’t be any more stunning. It has a kind of masculine grace, like one of the great old cathedrals of Europe that is slowly rotting away. I just stood looking at it for a long time, trying to re-imagine it in better days, bustling with activity, barrels rolling in and out. Employees running out the door when the dinner whistle sounded to choke down chicken salad sandwiches, then running back in as they wiped the remnants on their sleeves. I snapped a couple photos and then nodded in knowing recognition, out of pure respect. It was an awesome moment.
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Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal – Abandoned http://www.abandonedonline.net

As I sip this bourbon that was distilled when I was four years old, I mentally juxtaposition the differences between NOW and THEN. In today’s distilleries that employ multi-degreed chemists and engineers in the front line trenches of the taste wars, and outfit their labs with machinery that can break-down and deduce the exact chemical make-up of any whiskey in the world, why can these flavors not be duplicated? This bourbon is damn near perfection, why wouldn’t a master distiller or whiskey producer recognize this and at least try to recreate the past?

My only answer is they can’t. It’s just not possible, because the magic that was captured so many years ago cannot be extruded out of complex computer codes and proprietary yeast strains. No chemist can coax or conjure that heady butterscotch out of the barrel any more than Gargamel could throw Smurfs into water and stir them briskly until they turned into gold nuggets.

Perhaps I just want it to be that good? No, there has to be more.

So how did National Distillers do it? By accident?

There are eras when they got the formula perfect. I have friends that will swear by and only drink the stuff made before the 1960’s facility expansion. After that there was a period when the distillation process was off, and according to many the juice lost a bit of its magic, and the brand took a hit. Apparently there was a known problem with the mash process, but production could not be stopped. It’s reminiscent of Harley Davidson motorcycles manufactured after the AMF buyout. Not all of them were garbage, you still see them on the road, and there is nothing as cool as a chopped down shovelhead. But as the company line goes, “there are some that Harley wishes they had kept on the line a little longer.” Then Harley got the name back, and fixed the problems. Same with ND. As far as the era’s, I’ve tasted a few of them, and for me personally, I like the late 1980’s. The butterscotch is just SO pronounced, the bourbon so sweet and rich, thick and oily. I have a bottle from 1975, and while there is a distinct difference, and the flavor of that one can best be described as “sharper” than the 1987 version, with less butterscotchy aura, I still enjoy it. It’s still classic.

In my opinion, the rich quality and immense flavor of this bourbon lies in a confluence of factors:

Equipment, Technology and Craftsmanship: Take into account the old manufacturing line. By 1979, the distillery had already done generations upon generations of living. Even when Old Crow was middle aged in human years, young men got their first jobs there, got married and supported families there, retired from there and died. And still the old boilers kicked and pinged and boiled and chortled. Old Crow Distillery as it stands today started operation around 1872, and was put together well before the movement of tolerances and standards that took grip after WWII, almost 60 years later. There were no cookie cutter designs, no off-the-shelf turn-key systems. All engineering happened on site and was completely customized to owner preferences. Craftsmanship abounded. Men with true skills, who spent their career formative years not in college, but in apprenticeship, cut, bent and soldered by hand every pipe and plate of copper in the facility. Every copper rivet. Every flared joint. Every bevel weld. Every beaded solder joint. Every calibration. Nothing was done by robot or micrometer. This would have been the case even when the distillery was refurbished nearly 100 years later. The distillery got an upgrade in the 1960’s, and though I’ve done my best to research, converse, pick and decipher any information and lead I could find, there just isn’t any information to be had. I can’t tell you if the original still was kept in production, if they just added a second line, or if they got a bigger still altogether. There are no pictures I can find. No blueprints. No documentation. No engineering schematics or markups stamped “As Built”. Nada. Zip. Zilch. And in my opinion that speaks volumes about how the bourbon was produced. These were the days before ISO standards. When records and important numbers were filed in Lee Roy’s head and a wadded piece of note paper in the front pocket of his mash smattered coveralls. When Charlie and Putt, doing everything by hand and eyeball, were the Quality Control and Measurement apparatus.

Every piece of equipment had a personality and could never adhere to modern tolerances or standards. Maybe a pipe fitting that had a tiny pinhole that allowed some of the distillate to take on a micro-breathe of air. Just a little bubble in the mix every now and again that caused a minutia oxidation. Maybe over time those air bubbles added up, the sum of which was the equivalent of a dry line in corrosion, leaving a kind of aged aftertaste in the juice. Everything stretches with time, and copper lines would be no different. Think about, over the course of 50 or 100 years, a copper line that is supposed to be a flat 8 feet starts to sag just a little. Decades of water hammer and steam hammer, deforming and contorting the lines. The run is longer, and it starts to creep ever closer to a nearby heat source. How does that impact the distillate? I’ve read lots of theory and conjecture from a technical side. I’ve been told that the equipment has nothing to do with it. So confident must Beam have been that the process could be replicated anywhere after the purchase of the Old Crow facility that they trashed the equipment, leaving it to the circling vultures of the salvage trade. (Old Taylor suffered the same fate.) Maybe they just didn’t care, as the bourbon aficionado didn’t really exist at the time, outside of a small number of people, and they probably weren’t looking at OGD like it was rare Bordeaux. Either way, every bit of copper was turned into pennies of profit. And the recipe? Gone. The yeast strain? Gone. Supposedly it’s made in the spirit of the original, but I would be the worst riverboat gambler if I tried to bluff you and say that I get the same kind of heart fluttering elation drinking Old Grand-Dad distilled in Clermont as I do the Frankfort variety. By recipe, I’m talking about more than just the ratio of corn to rye in the mash, but rather everything that went into the batch, from the selection of raw materials to the influence exerted by the quirks and character of the distilling equipment. Antiquated dials that weren’t as accurate as they could have been. Settings that were just slightly off but close enough. You get the picture.

And what about the production line? The men that produced this bourbon cared about their craft and were dedicated to the product. Think about the way men used to be. Every man was Mickey Mantle. A hard ass, hard living sum’bitch. A sun-up to sun-down time clocker. Serious as can be about work and life and drinking and family in that order. Men like my grandpa who woke up every day stretching his broken body, filling a thermos with percolated roofing pitch and confidently snarling, “Let’s do some God damn good work, God damnit.” That was his way of saying “good morning”. To add to that, the men that worked there became intimately familiar with the equipment they were running. Some might spend 30 years doing the same tasks, day after day, year after year. No thoughts of envy or delusions of promotion. Only the job that needed to be done. They knew their machines, how they were operating, and if something was wrong, they fixed it themselves. A job to be done and men paid to do it right. There was only QUALITY and PRIDE. Production was not stopped. Every man was a highly-skilled self-taught maintenance technician, capable of keeping his station operating to its peak potential. Or close to it. I mean, some things can be fixed with baling twine, duct tape, gum or leaning on them.

In my mind, the corn dust that hung thick in the air must have been absolutely tremendous, pushed and pulled through a first edition HVAC system that counted open windows as air conditioners. The dust would have gathered in a dense, soot-like blanket over everything in the building, even the bottling line. Distilleries now are so clean you can eat off of nearly any surface. But Old Crow was a production facility in the vein of every other factory at that time. The big boilers used coal, burning it bright and hot, like parking massive Union Pacific mogul locomotives in your living room, puffing and chuffing. The idea of clean rooms and hermetic sealing was still years into the future. Don’t believe me? Thumb through NASA photos from the mid 1950’s and look for guys in white coats that were smoking while assembling mock-ups of the Project Mercury capsule. Even the boys in the Mission Control were lighting up cigarettes in the control room during the Gemini and Apollo flights. That was the cutting edge of technology in those days as far as the world was concerned. It’s doubtful any distillery in Kentucky was adhering to such stringent guidelines. When the mash was bubbling and rolling over itself in the tanks, and Bud took a stroll up the catwalk to check its progress, how much of that vintage corn dust did he kick up? Did he accidentally bump his shoulder into the railing above the tank, sending a dusty plume billowing towards the open tank like a reverse mushroom cloud? How would that impact the flavor?

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Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal – Abandoned http://www.abandonedonline.net

The aging warehouses themselves are still in use, some anyway. Beam had the good foresight to keep any and all storage on hand. They are huge, brick structures, sunk deep into the valley. If you look at the aging barns at Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Willett and Beam, they are pretty much all out there in the open. Especially Heaven Hill, whose rick houses are literally on a hill. Maker’s Mark has theirs all over the countryside. But all of them are heavily sun exposed, no shade. I’m a firm believer that different warehouses are magical, and that bourbon aged in one warehouse is simply better than bourbon aged in others. It’s another situation where I’m told it makes no difference, the product is consistent from barn to barn, but my taste buds know different. Those old brick monsters are tucked deep into the nape of the valley, and it seems to me they would only get 3/4 the sun exposure of all other brands as the sun dove behind the hill. What I also noticed was how cool and moisture-saturated the area was. It just seemed like I was in shade everywhere. It was hot and sunny outside, but the road was damp. The grass was damp. The leaves were damp. It was as if Old Crow was built in the center of a dense rain forest, a steamy sauna of the earth’s breath, saving for the fact that the air temperature felt cool. I imagine the interior of those big brick barns was chilly, to say the least. In the winter, would the valley shield and cradle the rickhouses against the Alberta Clippers that come screaming out of Canada, over Lake Michigan, across the frozen desert of northern Indiana and down the I-65 corridor? The barrels, tucked into that warm mist, soaking in the flavors of the landscape, expressing themselves into the whiskey. Cooking down for 8 years. It’s the same process every distiller uses, but with a distinctive, unequaled result.

So how did they do it? At the end of the day, and the end of this pour, I don’t know. Maybe no one does.

And maybe, the mystery of it all and how it sparks our imagination is the secret ingredient…..the real magic in that dusty bourbon.

One thought on “Dreaming About Old Crow Distillery and the Magic in That Dusty Old Bourbon

  1. You should have stopped in for a tour of Glenns Creek Distilling! We have great bourbon we make using some yeast captured in the old fermenters. Next time in town stop in!
    David Meier, owner

    Like

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