Nicolas Laracuente is on the trail of lost and forgotten distilleries around the state for proof that helps unearth details about Kentucky's past.
Exploring the backcountry of Woodford County with archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente is an informative adventure.
We first drive through a tiny town, then for miles past farms before turning onto a gravel road that passes through a cow pasture. At one point we can see Wild Turkey Distillery in the distance, but we're searching for remnants of an older and much smaller distilling operation.
Driving to the end of the gravel road, we park near the tree line and grab our gear. We hike for more than a mile along the edge of a field before coming to a creek bed and heading into the woods. The grade is steep and there's no trail.
We reach the top of a ridge and Laracuente, who first scouted this area four years earlier at the invitation of the landowners, points out the major structural remnants of Epler Distillery, an early farm distillery that quit producing whiskey sometime in the early 1900s. In centuries past, many Kentucky farms supported small distilling operations that made whiskey for profit and trade, as well as for personal consumption.
We descend into a holler, where a limestone wall stands incongruously among the tangled undergrowth. It's so well preserved it's hard to imagine no one has maintained it in more than a century.
Typically when a distillery shuts down it's stripped for raw materials or sold to someone and repurposed, but this site is especially well preserved, Laracuente explains. It appears as though one day they were distilling whiskey here and then the next they just walked away.
Bourbon archaeology? That's a thing?
Laracuente was born on an Army base in Wurzburg, Germany. He estimates that his family moved about 10 times before his dad retired from the Army – including stints at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell – but he always considered his Memaw's and Papaw's house in Buckhorn, Kentucky, to be home base.
He discovered a love of archaeology as an undergrad student at Tulane University after realizing that there are still plenty of undiscovered sites out there to be found. One of his first jobs was mapping the American Cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where the funeral scene in Steel Magnolias was filmed.
Laracuente earned his master's degree at the University of West Florida, where his research focused on Florida's Colonial-era Spanish Missions. He also met a girl, and they began planning for a future together.
"Sometime after meeting Tiffany at UWF, I found I really missed living in Kentucky and wanted to stop moving and finally put down roots," he says. "Fortunately Tiffany fell in love with the mountains and is happy to call Kentucky home, too."
Laracuente had an "aha" moment during his doctoral coursework at the University of Kentucky that led him to hunt for lost whiskey distilleries.
"While I was at UK, I was disappointed by the lack of research that was happening here in my home state," Laracuente says. "It seemed that all of the archaeologists who lived in Kentucky were doing research outside of the state. It's easy to find a Mesoamerican archaeologist or someone who researches things overseas in Kentucky, but there are only a handful of people who study Kentucky."
The State Plan – a two-volume publication that sums up archaeological research conducted in the state – includes several chapters devoted to prehistoric archaeology in Kentucky, but only one on historic archaeology, Laracuente explains.
"As I read through that chapter, one of the areas of historic archaeology that was highlighted for future focus was the distilling industry," he says.
Laracuente dug a little deeper into the topic, and found that Kentucky's distilling industry is like an archaeological nexus that connects many aspects of people's lives and livelihoods.
Kentucky's distilling industry is like an archaeological nexus that connects many aspects of people's lives and livelihoods.
"There are influences of the global economic market, religion, agriculture, environmental concerns – these are each individually things that an archaeologist could focus their entire career on," he says.
Still, he laughs when I ask him what kind of reaction he gets when he tells people he's a Bourbon Archaeologist.
"It's usually, 'What is that?' or, 'I didn't know that was a thing,'" he says. "I never introduced myself as a Bourbon Archaeologist at first – I thought it was a little hokey – but rather than trying to explain why I look at a little of all of these things and sell myself short as a 'generalist,' I decided to start calling myself a Bourbon Archaeologist to prompt the conversation."
Piecing together a bigger picture
The first project Laracuente worked on was a Ground Penetrating Radar survey of the former James Pepper Distillery in Lexington. From there he worked on several surveys at other distilleries before discovering the once lost site of the Jouett Distillery in Woodford County.
Now that he's opening up the Epler Distillery to survey, he's interested in looking at similarities and differences between the two sites to learn more about how small farm distilleries might have influenced commercial distilling in the state, as well as local communities.
"It's that intersection among all aspects of life that has my attention as an archaeologist," he says. "There are so many towns, like Tyrone, that came into existence and then imploded during Prohibition. People's way of life and the material culture they adopted were impacted by this industry, whether they realized it or not.
"Some of it is obvious, like farmers gradually shifting to only providing corn for local distilleries throughout the early 1800s," he says. "I also see parallels between this industry and others, like coal or the auto industry. Listening to some of the oral histories from people in Nelson County describing life during Prohibition, for example – folks out of work over night, lack of jobs impacting all the other industries in the county, etc. – sounds very similar to some of the stories from around the nation during the latest recession."
Back in the holler, we search for stakes Laracuente placed in the ground when he first visited the Epler Distillery site four years ago. The stakes mark the grid where the distillery is thought to have been, and he has already done an electrical resistivity study to determine whether there is anything underground that might be covered by colluvium, or loose sediment. The next step, he explains, is a shovel test. Volunteers will dig in different parts of the site to survey the soil for the presence or absence of artifacts. By determining what kinds of artifacts are present in what locations, Laracuente hopes to get a better idea of how the Epler Distillery operated.
As we wander around the site discussing what each pile of limestone may have been, Laracuente spots a shard of pottery sticking out of the mud. We begin searching the area, eventually coming up with several more artifacts. As we search, we discuss the similarities and differences between the Epler and Jouett distilleries – one a legal, taxpaying operation that appears on a 1861 map of Woodford County and the other, the Jouett site, not shown on any records except for a lawsuit; the record that prompted Laracuente to search for the site in the first place.
Hopefully, details unearthed by Laracuente's research will help fill in the missing parts of the narrative, and the role Kentucky's distilling industry played in shaping the state's economy and identity.
The Jack Jouett Archaeology Project is an ongoing, volunteer-run archaeological survey, and Laracuente welcomes people from the community to join in. Find more information and sign up to participate at the Jack Jouett House Historic Site website.
Follow Nicolas Laracuente's work on his blog.