Walking into a warehouse of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, I can smell the history. A smoky aroma emanates from rows and rows of charred oak barrels turning moonshine into bourbon. Underfoot, wood planks give slightly as I walk. Peering through the dark at the aging barrels, the line between the past and present blurs. In Kentucky’s bourbon country, distilled spirits and supernatural spirits meet.
Distillery workers have reported seeing a wispy figure walking among the barrels. Lindsey Brewer, a Buffalo Trace Ghost Tour guide, says that a crew foreman and his men were moving barrels to another warehouse when he heard a voice that said, “Get out.” He didn’t see anyone around, so he thought nothing of it. Later, she says, the same voice yelled, “Get out now!” This time the foreman listened. He told his men to get some fresh air and moments after the last man left, the building collapsed.
New distilleries are popping up like dandelions along I-64, but a handful in Central Kentucky have been producing bourbon for more than a hundred years. As I visit five supposedly haunted distilleries, from Frankfort to Louisville, I hope to discover what—if anything—lurks beneath the barrels from beyond the grave.
Founded in 1792, the Buffalo Trace Distillery claims to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in America. Sitting on a sprawling 130 acres, Buffalo Trace is nestled in a valley at a bend of the Kentucky River just north of Frankfort. The distillery tour starts at Stony Point, the home of Buffalo Trace’s former president Colonel Albert B. Blanton. It was Blanton who steered the distillery through Prohibition by selling bourbon for “medicinal purposes.” He died at Stoney Point in 1959, but many believe he never left.
Visitors and staff members report hearing unexplained noises and people talking in Blanton’s former meeting room. A security guard says he saw lights on in the gift shop after hours. When he spotted someone inside the building, he went to investigate, only to find it empty. Photos of similar incidents line the walls of Stony Point’s basement. When Ghost Hunters came to the distillery in 2011, investigators identified the ghostly presences as Blanton and other past workers.
Brewer says she’s had her own experience with the paranormal. “I was giving a tour just like this one and there were about 30 of us in the rickhouse,” she says. “I had just been talking about the ghosts and I heard a voice over my shoulder say, ‘Rye.’ I looked around and there was no one there. So I asked the group, ‘Did you hear that?’ All 30 of them said they’d heard it too.”
In nearby Woodford County, housed in the former Old Crow Distillery, is Glenns Creek Distillery. Owner David Meier says that after researching the building’s history, he decided to make his bourbon the same way Old Crow made it in the 1800s.
But Meier was not always alone in his distillery. He says he used to hear footsteps coming up the metal stairs outside the main building. “They make a pretty distinct sound, so it wasn’t like I was hearing something else,” he says. “And there’ve been times when I’ve been here and heard our [plastic sample glasses] tinkle across the floor. That’s a pretty distinct sound, too. But again, when I went to see what was going on, there wasn’t anything there.”
Meier says he’s not sure if this is proof his distillery is haunted, but he says it’s been quieter since a group from the TV show Ghost Asylum visited the site. “What they do is come and investigate, and then they have this thing where they capture the ghosts and take them away,” Meier says. “I’m not sure whether or not there are such things as ghosts, but ever since they were here, we haven’t had anything like that happen here.”
One of the largest bourbon operations, the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Bardstown, produces more than half a million barrels of bourbon each year. For years, visitors have reported seeing ghosts at the distillery, from a woman standing near the windows inside the T. Jeremiah Beam home, to a former guard walking the site.
In 2018, the TV show Paranormal Lockdown stayed at the site for 72 hours and found evidence of ghosts in both the warehouse and Beam home. But our guide only acknowledges liquid spirits as she introduces us to some of Beam’s tasty offerings.
Ghosts, General Grant, and the Galt Hotel
On Main Street in downtown Louisville, Doc Crow’s Smokehouse and Raw Bar sits next to the Old Forester Distillery. Both are located on the former site of the old Galt House Hotel, once a popular stop on Louisville’s Whisky Row. The original Galt House opened in 1835 and hosted Jefferson Davis, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. According to some accounts, the Galt House is where Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman devised their plan to capture Atlanta during the Civil War.
The hotel was also the site of at least two murders. Union General Jefferson C. Davis (not to be confused with the Confederate President) shot and killed General William “Bull” Nelson after a dispute. Prominent Louisville resident Alfred Victor DuPont died after his mistress shot him when he refused to take responsibility for her pregnancy. It’s been reported that DuPont still walks the streets of Louisville dressed in a black tuxedo and top hat, carrying a gold-tipped cane.
After the original Galt House went out of business in 1919, other businesses moved in. Over the years, ghosts have been blamed for setting fires and running over people with runaway whiskey barrels. Staff at the high-end barbecue joint says that glasses fly off shelves and furniture moves on its own.
At the distillery, ghostly activity seems to be a daily occurrence. Security guard Zack Evans divulges that several employees have stories about ghostly encounters. He says he frequently sees ghosts. “On numerous occasions, I’ve seen a man who isn’t here,” Evans says. “It started one day when I was getting off the elevator. I saw this older gentleman. He had a moustache and a beard that was all grey and he’s dressed like a worker. He was just standing there looking at me through the door. Then he just walked off. We checked the video and there was no one there. After that, I saw him every day for a week.”
Other stories include people walking through walls, and visions of a woman in white. One person claims to have seen a ghost slowly drinking bourbon from a sealed bottle in an executive’s office. Even though I don’t spot any ghosts, I agree with their choice of beverage.
I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts or not, but it’s hard not to sense an intangible presence when driving through the beautiful backroads of Kentucky. I only spent a day spent sampling bourbon and listening to ghost stories, but I’ll be haunted by the spirits of the Bluegrass State for years to come.