Whiskey making has been an integral part of American history since frontier times. Kentucky is home to more barrels of bourbon than people, and ninety-five percent of all of America’s native spirit is produced in the Bluegrass State. In Kentucky, early settlers brought stills to preserve grain, and they soon found that the limestone-filtered water and the unique climate of the scenic Bluegrass region made it an ideal place for the production of barrel-aged liquor. And so, bourbon whiskey was born.
More than two hundred commercial distilleries were operating in Kentucky before Prohibition, but only sixty-one reopened after its repeal in 1933. Though the businesses were gone, most of the buildings remained, unused, slowly deteriorating for decades. Now, thanks in large part to the explosion of interest in craft bourbon, many of these historic buildings are being brought back to life, often as new distilleries. As the popularity of America’s native spirit increases worldwide, many historic distilleries are being renovated, refurbished, and brought back into operation.
In The Birth of Bourbon: A Phorographic Tour of Early Distilleries, award-winning photographer Carol Peachee takes readers on an unforgettable tour of lost distilleries as well as facilities undergoing renewal, such as the famous Old Taylor and James E. Pepper distilleries in Lexington, Kentucky. This beautiful book also includes spaces that well-known brands, including Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace, have preserved as a homage to their rich histories. By using a photography technique called high-dynamic-range imaging (HDR), Peachee captures the vibrant and haunting beauty of the distilleries. HDR photography is a process that layers three or more images taken of the same scene at different shutter speeds. The technique creates a fuller range of luminosity and color and gives the photographs a striking, ethereal quality.
“Photographed again today,” Peachee explains, “they would look different, which would make some of the images, barely four years old, a relic in their own right.” In 2010, the James E. Pepper Distillery in Lexington was the first set of ruins that she photographed. Four years later, the location was repurposed and commercialized.
Just months after Peachee visited the Old Crow Distillery in Millville, the ruins were sold to entrepreneurs who built Castle & Key Distillery, home to Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller Marianne Barnes. Likewise, the Dowling Distilleries warehouse in Burgin was photographed in the process of being torn down. Major buildings at other sites like Buffalo Springs Distillery in Stamping Ground did not survive to be photographed.
As more and more historical distilleries are lost or altered, these images provide an important glimpse of the past and detailed insight on Kentucky’s relationship with bourbon. The Birth of Bourbon is a tour of Kentucky bourbon heritage that might have otherwise been lost if not for Peachee’s determination to save it. The results not only document what remains, but they also showcase the beauty of these sites through a meditation on impermanence, labor, time, presence, and loss.
Carol Peachee is a fine art photographer and cofounder of the Kentucky Women’s Photography Network. She is the winner of the 2010 Elizabeth Fort Duncan Award in photography from the Pennyroyal Art Guild.