Alchemist Cabinet Interview: Bourbon Archaeologist Nick Laracuente

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Down in Fermenting Vat #6 with Fiona Martin who was filming for the video that Joanna Hay Productions produced for the Bourbon Pompei Exhibit.

I first heard of Nicolas Laracuente when I visited my friend Brian Cushing at the Locust Grove Farm Distillery and later met him along with my good friend and sometimes Alchemist Cabinet contributor Mark Baxter at a later Locust Grove event where he spoke about his time excavating old distilleries in the Bluegrass state.  Nick is full of energy and enthusiasm and truly loves what he does.  We are thankful to have him here on the blog to talk about his work and are hopeful that one day we can convince him to come north of the river and explore a few of the sites we have posted about here on the site before.

Nicolas, tell us a little about your pre-archeological background:

I’m an Army brat.
When my dad was stationed in Germany, I spent a lot of time crawling around castles and ruins that we found in the forest near our house. I guess that is where my interest in archaeology came from. When we eventually settled in Kentucky for middle school and high school, I gradually forgot that there was history in our own backyards. I guess it wasn’t right in your face like the ruins and historic castles and such all over the place in Germany. Or maybe I thought that, historic sites like Abraham Lincoln’s Boyhood Home, identified the only places where historic materials had actually been preserved for someone to see.

I don’t remember exactly what it was that high school me was thinking. Regardless, I didn’t realize that there was still a lot to be discovered in the world, that’s why I went to college to study pre-med rather than archaeology. Fortunately, it was only one semester in before I took an archaeology class as an elective. I officially switched majors the day I turned in my final for that class.

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So, what led you into archeology and subsequently that sexy “Bourbon Archeology” category you are now pursuing?

At first it was the thrill of discovery. When I realized that all of the ‘important’ sites have not already been documented that was the hook.

At first I was into Classical Archaeology and spent a lot of time in school studying sculptures and architecture of Greek and Roman ruins. When I started looking at what it took to get a job I realized that you have to be either wealthy or well-connected to work in that field. I am neither. You also have to be fluent in German, French, Italian, Greek and Latin (at minimum) in order to keep up with the current archaeology publications. That is way beyond my proficiency in both English and Bad English.
The other classes that I took at Tulane University focused on Mesoamerican Archaeology which I’ve always found kind of boring. And I don’t really love travelling out of the country. I had my fill of that when I was little.

I spent every summer in undergrad working on a Phase I survey of a 500,000 acre military base in Louisiana. That basically means I walked in a straight line digging a meter deep hole every 27 steps and sifting the dirt to find artifacts. Discovering new sites nearly every day of work was interesting but, we never had an opportunity to actually stop and examine these sites more closely. That would come later in Phase II and III projects that took place once I had moved on.
It wasn’t until I got a job working at Cane River Creole National Historical Park that I was able to spend some time looking at a site (the two plantations I was responsible for) in more detail. For 2 1/2 years, I was all over the park doing excavations in front of contractors who were stabilizing the historic buildings. I worked on everything from the slave cabins to the two story wooden screw press cotton gin. It was great, but ultimately the job was only temporary.

I needed a masters degree in order to settle down in any one place and get a job and not spend time sleeping in hotels or in my car working on various projects across the nation. I went to the University of West Florida and that’s where I got my Masters degree. My thesis was on how to identify actions prompted by trauma associated with hurricanes in the archaeological record. It was there that the responsibility to share archaeology with anyone that would listen was drilled into me. Typically, archaeologists hold their information close to their chest from either fear that releasing that information will cause the sites to be looted (which is often true) or it is on their to-do list and is never tended to because project funding runs out.

One of my archaeology mentors, Dr. Judy Bense, was chair of University of West Florida Archaeology when I got there in 2005. Their public outreach program involved constant talks outside of the university, tours of their excavations while they were in progress, a daily radio show called “Unearthing Pensacola”, and more. This has grown into the Florida Public Archaeology Network and has become a contributor to Florida’s economy through the money brought in by heritage tourists.

Dr. Bense told me this began just by engaging anyone in Pensacola who would listen and repeating “Archaeology is here and it is good”.
That phrase kept coming back to me when I returned to University of Kentucky to pursue a PhD. I started working with the Kentucky Archaeology Survey on different investigations around the state and at Living Archaeology Weekend which is a huge public outreach event every September in Red River Gorge. I learned that around 10% of Kentucky had been surveyed for archaeological sites. And in that 10% over 30,000 sites had been found. Cool stuff too. Some of the first sites where we have evidence of agriculture in the entire world are in Red River Gorge. But for some reason, only a handful of archaeologists were committed to doing research in Kentucky.
I decided to scrap everything that I had been working on for my dissertation and focus on something in Kentucky. Flipping through the state plan that detailed all of the work done in the state thus far I noticed a paragraph on distilleries (just a paragraph out of nearly 1000 pages!) that just mentioned this would be an industry someone should look at.

When I started really digging into distilleries. I realized that the industry is at the center of many different aspects of society. You can talk about economic, labor, religious, or technological issues just with a focus on this one industry. From that point on I decided that I would only work on research related to the industry. I’ve since moved on from the PhD (finding that I met my goal for a stable archaeology job by working for the Kentucky Heritage Council) but, I’ve continued my research and its grown into a community archaeology project and a project here and there with Buffalo Trace.

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The first group we took in the field as part of the Jack Jouett Archaeology Project. Everyone got shirts from the KDA

Can you explain to us a little about the different classification types of distilleries that you are excavating and what their importance to our modern understanding of distillation in the commonwealth and the U.S. is?

These different classifications are adapted from the all of the different bourbon histories (Veach, Minnick, others, and now Carla Carlton’s awesome new book) that I’ve read. Michael Veach talks specifically about farm distilleries briefly in his book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. He says that farm distilleries consisted of one or two 100 gallon stills (Veach 2013:6). Once these histories get into talking about master distillers, industry standardization, and branding they are generally talking about Industrial Distilleries which is pretty much every distillery that we see in operation today. In these histories moonshine is generally everything illegal.

I used those three tiers of classification when I started my work with a general question: do these things look materially different? Of course they do. They differ in size but not always in the way you would expect. Frazier distillery that operated in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s in Woodford County is actually smaller square footage wise than the Epler farm distillery that operated through the Civil War. The same actions happened at these two sites but the layouts differ with the technologies and labor available to the distillers.
You see these differences in moonshine sites as well. In areas where law enforcement is out in force, there are steps taken to conceal the sites that don’t make sense from a production standpoint. There are some stills that only operate when its raining since the sole source of water comes from the dripline of a rockshelter high up on a mountain. Others don’t have any artifacts on the site as the distillers took everything portable with them and scattered it throughout the woods as they were heading home. I imagine these sites differ dramatically from a moonshine distillery where the circumstances are different. Depending on when and where the moonshine is happening the people are either thought of as evil criminals while others are seen as good people trying to get by in spite of an overbearing government.
I think these same differences are evident in farm distilleries, I just haven’t finished the work to support that yet.

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A possible piece of a metal catwalk from Frazier distillery.

 

What do you look for when you are researching a site and how much of it revolves on groundwork vs talking to local people and gathering oral histories or spending time in the archives looking for clues?

The first time that I went on a survey looking for distilleries was with my friend Sam Hawkins who is the grandson of Mel Hawkins. Mel was the last master distiller at Canada Dry before they got out of bourbon. Somehow, Sam had a Rolls Royce that he took out for Sunday drives. So we hopped in the Rolls and drove down a single lane road near Four Roses distillery asking anyone who was out if they knew where distilleries were. It turned out that ever single pile of rocks near water was considered to be a distillery.
Was this true? Or was local lore so steeped in bourbon legends that everything old was given a place in whiskey history whether it was warranted or not?
I turned to the whiskey histories to develop expectations for the tiers that I mentioned earlier. Then to archives to find a site that was without doubt an early distillery. That’s when I started working with Jack Jouett’s distillery.

There was years of archival work that happened before I ever arrived at the Jack Jouett House Historic Site. Volunteers who work at that house spent years compiling the documents and any other information they could find about his life. It wasn’t until I mentioned my distillery research during a board meeting that someone mentioned Jack had a distillery.

Their former director, Janice Clark, told me that she wanted to focus a year of activities on investigating Jack’s distillery. I took the newspaper article that was in their collections and found a set of lawsuit documents at the Kentucky Library and Archives where Jack Jouett had traded his land and distillery in exchange for 1400 gallons of whiskey. The new distillers argued that they couldn’t pay him because the distillery and creek didn’t have the capacity that Jouett had advertised. Regardless of which side was correct there were landmarks in the documents that led us to the site where Jouett’s distillery was built in the 1790s.

There is not a lot of archival info specific to these really early distilleries. The lawsuit was lucky. I’m sure that this happened other times throughout Kentucky, but haven’t came across any yet. Part of that is because I’ve been focused on fieldwork. We spent a year and a half working on Jouett’s distillery. We learned of two others during that time and have been doing preliminary work there in the years that followed.
Right now I need to return to the archives to research these sites in more detail. Various oral history collections are providing some great context for the archaeological data that we’ve recovered.

It is circular. I’ll never be completely done with any one of these things. But, I am hoping to get reports to individual landowners about the distilleries on their properties in the next few months… some of that took the back burner when Bourbon Pompeii came up.

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A butchered bone from Jack Jouett’s distillery operated from ~1790 to early 1800s when it was sold to Buck Family then operated until late 1800s

Talk to us a little about Bourbon Pompeii and how that site was discovered and what it represents.

Bourbon Pompeii or the O.F.C. building at Buffalo Trace was found during the renovation of the building into meeting / reception space. I had done some work for them a few years prior so when they hit ‘something old’ they called me to ask what it was they had discovered. Over the course of a year we discovered at least three different phases of distillery ruins that had been buried beneath a building that had only been used for storage for the last 60 years. There are ruins of two distilleries that predate the O.F.C. building and there are 14,000 gallon fermenting vats that had been buried and forgotten that were part of the original layout of the building that stands on the distillery today.
I think that this project is an example of a large distilling company honoring the authenticity and history of bourbon. I hope to see more of this throughout the industry. They could have finished their project and covered it over and no one would have been wiser. Instead they went through the time and expense of redesigning their project into this catwalk system that overlooks the ruins in the excavation pit that was left open. And if that wasn’t enough, now they are going to reactivate one of those fermenting vats and recreate the process by which E.H. Taylor was distilling.

I still get giddy every time I talk about this project. If you all want to know more about the specific history, go take the free tour they offer daily at 2pm or sign up to spend a few hours touring the site with me though Mint Julep Tours.

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Working with students from University of Kentucky behind the Old Taylor House

Have you had any really big revelations about distilling in the state by looking back at these old sites, anything that you or distillers you talk with find surprising?

Well… I haven’t dug up a full bottle of anything. But, I did help Buffalo Trace document those forgotten distilleries beneath the existing distillery. Here the revelation was obvious and as we dug into the archival information about the E.H. Taylor and his O.F.C. distillery there were some abnormal things he did during the fermenting process that will be replicated once that fermenter is reactivated. I’m not sure I can share the exact details but I’m sure it will become part of the Buffalo Trace tour.
I’m hoping that I’ll continue to find innovations that maybe have been forgotten in the industry for whatever reason. The only way that I’ll be able to do that is to work with distillers more closely.

Right now there are smaller revelations for the Jouett, Epler, and Frazier distilleries. There are details about what everyday life was like on these sites that isn’t captured in the archival documents. At the Jouett site we found a jaw harp that I like to imagine someone played while waiting for the still to get to the right temperature. We also found remnants of one of the meals they had on that site, there are stab marks in one of the animal bones we found.

There is also an interesting aspect of gravity used in these sites that mimics what archaeologists have found in other aspects of the world. Especially in the early farm distilleries, parts of the site are built into the side of steep hills. At the Epler site there is a road that ends just above a building foundation that is next to their spring. They were definitely conscious of the topography of the site, there is an early 1800 distilling manual that devotes a few pages to the amount of effort it takes to raise water a foot in elevation. It argues that springs in hills are the best locations for distilleries as it minimizes that labor. This was surprising to me but may be common knowledge to folks who distill all the time.

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lunch time during one of our field days

From all the smaller sites that you have excavated is there one that sticks out that you find particularly intriguing?

They are all intriguing in different ways. I find the Epler distillery fascinating as it had the grist mill, distillery, and home all within a very small area. Most of the other sites that I’ve worked on are specialized. There was a distilling area and nothing else happened there. The Jouett distillery was very similar to modern Buffalo Trace in this sense. You aren’t going to find a bunch of kitchen plates or kids toys around these sites.
At Epler the ‘activity areas’ overlap. All of the things that you would expect to see in a home or a farmstead were happening in the same area that folks were distilling. I can’t wait to finish work out there.

Any interesting artifacts you can speak to?

Quite a few, a decorative hair comb fragment from a trash pit in the middle of Buffalo Trace. Some rubber stoppers that were probably from the George T. Stagg laboratory that is now called the Old Taylor House. A bent copper hydrometer from the first place a still was used at Woodford Reserve. A carbonized corn kernel that survived a fire at the Frazier distillery. Pieces of stoneware jugs from distilleries that operated in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

The artifacts themselves are interesting, but it is where you find them, in relation to everything else, that makes them important. A well-controlled archaeological investigation can use the artifacts and layers of soil to fill in voids in the historical record. Archaeologist can tell stories that were never written down. Either because someone wanted to hide what they were doing or because they didn’t think it was important at the time. It is completely possible that there is a forgotten distiller who was doing something that we would consider innovative today and it has been forgotten because it was never written down. Archaeologists can help piece that process back together by bringing focus to a particular element of the past.
I mentioned earlier that Buffalo Trace is going to start replicating E.H. Taylor’s process of making whiskey in the next year or so. In this case it was the excavation of the copper-lined fermenting vats that brought focus what he had been doing in the late 1800s.

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Copper sheeting from the OFC distillery

Do you think you will expand excavations into farm sites to include Apple and Peach brandy in the historical discussion given their previous importance to the industry?

Yes. Fortunately, I don’t have to change anything about the way I’ve been investigating the sites themselves. I just have to change the lens through which I’m examining all of this. I’ve already found reference to large orchards associated with a 1790 distillery that I had only thought about as a whiskey distillery before. I’ll be including a consideration for brandy in all of my future work… I don’t think I change my title to Brandy Archaeologist anytime soon though.

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Nick cleaning the floor of a test unit at the Jouett/Buck distillery.

Any new sites you are looking into or stories you are tracking down in order to discover more?

Right now I’m digging a little deeper into sites I’ve been working on. I’m hoping to finish three reports that I’ve been working on detailing the excavations at three sites in Woodford County.

All of that will become a book or books that I’ve been outlining and starting to draft. I’ll have to track down a publisher who is interested at some point I suppose.
But, honestly, the next things that I really need to do is shadow some distillers. Last year, when I met you at the Bourbon Archaeology talk at Locust Grove some things clicked into place watching Brian Cushing show us how their farm distillery worked. I’m pretty familiar with an industrial scale distillery since I’ve spent so much time at Buffalo Trace. But, the layout of these smaller sites doesn’t really translate to something of that scale. I think some hands-on time with a smaller operation will really help me pull some of these pieces together.

It would be cool to work with Steve Bashore at his distillery. But between the kids and work it might take a little bit before I can get out there. You wouldn’t need an extra set of hands every now and then would you?

 

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