Glenn's Creek Distilling
The history of bourbon in the Bluegrass is rich and varied, with tales of great success, the deep heritage of by-gone eras, and the courage and determination of distilleries reborn. The rise of Woodford Reserve from the old Labrot & Graham Distillery and Castle & Key from the Old Taylor Distillery are true success stories. Barely three miles separate Woodford Reserve and the former Old Taylor Distillery that lay abandoned for decades. Less frequented, though, is Glenn's Creek Distilling, located less than a mile west of Castle & Key, and its story, too, is historic and thrilling.
Home of the Old Crow Distillery
The story of Glenn's Creek Distilling (which takes its name from the water source that cuts through the limestone behind the distillery) begins a century ago. Glenn's Creek Distilling is set on the former Old Crow Distillery. Interestingly enough, James Crow, the founder of the Old Crow Distillery had his fingers, literally in all three of the distilleries mentioned that meander along Glenn's Creek.
Crow, a native of Scotland, studied medicine and chemistry at Edinburgh University before coming to Kentucky in 1823. Working at the Glenn's Creek Distillery in 1835, he added science to what was once just art, adding thermometers, hydrometers and pH balance testing to bourbon production. He discovered that by retaining some of the spent mash as "setback", and using it in the next bash of mash - just like sourdough starter - that the finished product could be more consistent and of higher quality.
He later moved to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (which later became the Labrot & Graham Distillery before being re-born as the Woodford Reserve Distillery). There, he began producing the Old Crow brand. James subsequently moved to the nearby Johnson Distillery, which later evolved into the Old Taylor Distillery. Three moves; three legendary distilleries.
His brand - Old Crow - continued to be produced at the Johnson Distillery. The logo on the bottle depicted a crow atop grains of barley. The brand continued to prosper and was thought by many to be one of the finest bourbons in the country. The distillery was subsequently purchased by National Distillers in 1934. Following World War II, the Old Crow Distillery was modernized, including the addition of a new copper column still. At that time, too, National Distillers began tinkering with the original recipe, trimming costs, reducing the setback, and subsequently, reducing the quality.
Like many distillers at the time, sales continued to decline through bourbon's dark days. In 1987, National Distillers sold the Old Crow Distillery, inventory, and brand to Jim Beam. Today's Old Crow product bears little semblance to its former grandeur, and, is rather, a shorter-aged Jim Beam White Label product. The production portions of the plant were shuttered that year, though Beam kept a few warehouses open for aging finished product. It was here, in July 2019, that lightning struck one of the warehouses causing a fire and a subsequent loss of a significant amount of the modern Old Crow bourbon.
Adjacent to the warehouse portion of the complex, though, was the abandoned production facility. Nature began to overtake the property quickly, and what nature didn't destroy, scrappers finished the work, dismantling copper and metal equipment. In 2013, Neil Craig (a descendant of Elijah Craig) along with partner David Meirer purchased the former production portion of the distillery from Suntory (now parent of Jim Beam). They began to produce bourbon, rye, and rum whiskeys. Today, Meier is the sole owner of the Glenn's Creek Distillery at Old Crow.
We visited Glenn's Creek on a warm summer Friday for a 10 am tour, much to the chagrin of my wife. "It's awfully early, don't you think?" "Never too early for a distillery tour and good bourbon", I replied. As we arrived at the distillery - a stone's throw from Beam's Old Crow warehouses and nearby Castle & Key, you're struck by the immense history of the site. While much of it looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, Glenn's Creek is a work-in-progress and the renovation continues. However, all around, you're reminded of the Old Crow name still emblazoned on signs and chiseled onto buildings.
The distillery itself operates in small quarters inside the former bottling building. While we waited for the tour, we took in the small welcome center and gift shop full of old pictures of the distillery in its former glory, as well as what it looked like when David took possession.
As it turned out, we were the only participants on the tour that day. Our friendly guide led us to a table and bar where he sat down and shared the history of the facility, the owner, and the current products. It was easy to see the operations, as they were, literally, surrounding us in a single room, comprising mash tubs, a small copper pot still from the Lost Spirits Distillery in California, and several racks of aging spirits. Current production is about 60 gallons per day, or a little over one barrel per day.
Two interesting nuggets of information were uncovered on our tour. One, when asked if the grains going into the finished products were locally sourced, he smiled slowly and answered, "Yep. Our corn comes from nearby Frankfort, Kentucky ... from the local Tractor Supply farm store." We enjoyed a chuckle as we continued sipping. And second, as Meirer began to renovate the space and begin distilling, he enlisted the help of a retired worker [Bob] from the original Old Crow Distillery. Together, they uncovered some of the original yeast spores left in the mash tanks and carefully brought them back to life. It was pretty cool to consider that the spirits we were enjoying were created by yeast cultures from bourbon's bygone days and had ties back to a historic top-shelf bourbon.
We were able to sample four of the distinct products produced at the distillery:
OCD #5 is the most popular of the Glenn's Creek brands, and while we were able to sample, there was none available for us to purchase that day. Developed as a tribute to the original Old Crow name and utilizing some of the original yeast recovered from the fermenters (#5, hence the name), this bourbon uses a high-corn mash bill of 87% corn, 8% rye, and 5% malted barley and is bottled at barrel strength (this one was 115 proof). Loads of corn and oak on this one, followed by peppercorn spice and a long, spicy finish. This was pretty tasty and I was bummed that they were out on the day of our visit.
Cafe' Ole' uses the same mash bill as OCD #5 but adds a heavily toasted malt. It was lovely with notes of dark chocolate and espresso beans.
Millville Malt is a malt whiskey bottled at barrel strength. Named after the nearby community of Millville nestled along Glenn's Creek, this honors many of the Scottish settlers who worked at the nearby distilleries. This had a delightful, light smoke and peat nose and palate.
!Cuervito Vivo! is another single barrel bourbon (ours was from barrel #5), designed to recreate the top-shelf bourbon that defined Old Crow. Translated, the name is “live little crow”, very fitting to this bourbon developed with the help of Bob, the last supervisor to manage the Old Crow Distillery. The bourbon was bottled at 101 proof and the label stated that it had been aged for at least two years. To the eye, this was golden amber with thin tears displayed in the glass. Very buttery on the nose, with toffee, rich butterscotch, and golden raisins. On the palate, this was lemon chamomile tea, honey, peaches, and a spicy fruit compote drizzled with butterscotch topping. The finish was dry with oak, spice, and honey drenched raisins.
We tip our glass to Dave and the crew at Glenn's Creek as they continue to rebuild and honor the Old Crow Distillery. The products are a solid start, and while I'd love to try these as they get a little more age on them, it's hard to deny this hallowed ground. If you're in the neighborhood checking out Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, or Castle & Key, be sure to add this small distillery doing big things and producing spirits with a bold taste. Cheers!