Words by The Bourbonator
There is a romance attached to anything old and whiskey is no exception. That point in which a bottle moves into a decade granting it the title of ‘vintage’ or to coin the colloquialism, ‘dusty’ is something that has created a sub-genre within the American whiskey community of which I have fallen for hook, line and sinker. It was a sample of Wild Turkey 8 Year Old 101 from the 1970’s a few years ago that peaked my interest. “This tastes fanstastic” I thought as I pondered why it tasted so far removed from today’s iteration. Though this was no isolated example, many of the bourbons of the 1970’s-mid 90’s I have tasted since have a richness in flavour that coat the palate with a paint roller soaked in butterscotch and now I’m smitten. What’s the point of being in love though if you can’t shout it from the rooftops? Like a Shakespearean play, I’ll be using this blog as my sonnet and regaling you with ‘Tales of the Dusty’ from my balcony in Verona laptop at home.
Part 1: Old Taylor
Old Taylor is a brand that has stood the test of time, changing hands a few times through the decades whilst remaining synonymous with exceptional bourbon. Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr. was a pioneer of American whiskey. A descendent of two U.S. presidents he had originally pursued banking and political interests before leveraging from his 16 year tenure as Mayor of Frankfort to revitalise a flailing whiskey industry that had little to no confidence from consumers due to lack of regulations around quality. He used his connections within government and the state senate to pass the Bottled-In-Bond-Act of 1897 mandating a higher set of standards that the industry would adhere to. Taylor started and owned seven different distilleries throughout his career, the most successful being the O.F.C. and Carlisle distilleries, the beginners of today’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.
The Old Taylor Distillery, located South of Frankfort was built by E.H. Taylor in 1887 and was known for being the first to produce one million cases of Straight Bourbon whiskey. It later became a showcase for bourbon making in Kentucky with an ornate construction made from limestone with castle-like turrets and beautiful gardens making it a tourist attraction to the public.
Colonel Taylor passed away in 1922 and National Distillers purchased the Old Taylor Distillery in 1935 where they continued to produce there until 1972 when It was sold again to the Jim Beam Corporation. Beam continued to store and age bourbon in the warehouses there until 1994 when the space was declared surplus and remained empty for many years. After a few failed attempts by outside investors to reopen the now dormant and decaying distillery, it was eventually purchased in 2014 by ‘Peristyle’ who announced plans to restore and reopen the distillery under the name ‘Castle and Key’ whilst employing the first female Master Distiller since prohibition. Marianne Barnes, former Master Taster for Brown-Forman has set to work producing a native Kentucky botanical gin there to be released in 2018 prior to releasing their own Bottled-In-Bond bourbon.
Today, the Old Taylor brand is owned by Sazerac who purchased it from Beam Suntory in 2009 with distillation continuing at Buffalo Trace. The label on the bottles remain relatively unchanged and have retained that nostalgic aesthetic, though each one now comes in a presentation tube that prevents any of these from becoming ‘dusty’ again.
As you can see, whilst the storied history behind the label has remained unchanged, the juice has been subject to the interpretation of three separate distilleries. In my humble opinion, the bourbon was at its best at the original Old Taylor (Castle) distillery operated by National Distillers, exemplifying that deep caramel and maple sweetness that causes even the hardened bourbon drinker to go weak at the knees. This was released at 86, bonded 100 and a rare 101 proof all with an age statement of 6 years but as was typical of the glut era would contain distillate above its years.
If you find yourself in the boondocks of some far flung US town and stumble into a liquor store stuck in time with no access to the internet, look for those yellow labels, turn the bottle on its head and look for the year, is it pre-1994? Then look at the back label and locate the first 5 digits above the barcode, does it read ‘86259? If not, is there a distillery code DSP-KY-19 on the front label? If you can check off any one of these, it’s pretty much guaranteed that what you have in your hands is juice from the National Distillers era. Then buy a lottery ticket and make sure you’re not struck by lightning when you step outside.