Documenting our Bourbon Heritage

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. More than two hundred distilleries once operated in Kentucky, but only sixty-one survived Prohibition. 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. With progress, however, comes loss, and the record of what existed at these sites across the Commonwealth is disappearing just as more and more people are interested in bourbon’s history.

Award-winning photographer Carol Peachee has documented many of these sites in The Birth of Bourbon: A Photographic Tour of Early Distilleries. She memorializes Kentucky’s oldest distilleries with her camera, capturing their architectural and mechanical wonders. Rather than viewing the industrial sites as merely remnants of the past, Peachee treats each space as an archeological find as she follows the ghosts of proud laborers through Kentucky’s bourbon history. By capturing Kentucky’s abandoned distilleries in intimate images, she documents these incredible historic sites that are rapidly vanishing or being irrevocably changed.

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. Insightful commentary accompanies each photograph, and Peachee’s reflections provide valuable information about the distilleries and the people who spent their lives working inside them. From massive machinery, colored a luminous yellow as it corrodes, to personal artifacts such as an abandoned oil can, these images reveal the vanishing years of bourbon history.

“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 plan to build a craft distillery in the bottling house. 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.


Mack McCormick, University Press of Kentucky, 663 S. Limestone Street, Lexington, KY 40508