At one time, the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro, Ky. had a small museum put together by the Thompson family. When I was an archivist at United Distillers, we gathered the distillery related materials for the archive and these photographs were part of what we found. There were actually four photographs in the series and I regret that I did not get copies of all four for my files. One of the other two photographs showed the distillery from a distance. It was a wooden barn-like structure – uninteresting to look at except that it showed the waterline, a pipe, running from a hillside to the upper part of the distillery. They must have been tapping a spring on the hill and taking advantage of gravity to feed the water into the distillery. The other photograph showed James Thompson on horseback with a pistol in his hand and the four distillers standing at the entrance to the building with assorted rifles, shotguns and pistols. It showed the dangers of visiting such a small, rural distillery in the years before Prohibition.

The Harlan Distillery was a very small, rural distillery located about a mile from the Tennessee border near the town of Gamaliel, Ky. in Monroe County. It was a pot still, farmer distillery using the same technology that was used a century earlier than the photographs were taken. I believe the photographs were dated 1918, but they look like something that could have been taken in 1818. The distillery closed with Prohibition and never came back as a legal distillery. It would be interesting to know if those stills survive today. They could be in a barn today.

The first photograph shows two of the distillers standing in front of a pot still and condenser. The second pot still is behind one of the workers but its goose neck leading into a second condenser can be seen. The still is covered with either clay or mash and I was told by Mike Wright, the head of Quality Control and a person who had studied early distillation methods, that the reason was twofold. First, they used spent mash to seal the head into the pot and second, the covering helped protect the pot from the flames of a wood fire, making them last longer.

The second photograph here shows the other side of the distillery where fermentation took place. There are three smaller wooden tubs that were probably for cooking the mash. There are four larger wooden mash tubs – three of them have fermenting beer in them and the other is tilted to show the inside. Two of the workers are standing in the photograph with some of their tools. A wooden rake for stirring the mash and a metal wash bucket for moving the mash between vessels and probably to fill the stills. The remains of their lunch is sitting to one side.

In both photographs you can see sunlight shining through the cracks in the wooden walls. The building was not overly weather tight. However these cracks probably kept the carbon dioxide from the fermentation from building up in the building and also helped keep the mash cool while fermenting. Distillation probably was done during the fall and winter so there would be plenty of cold air coming in those cracks, but at the same time, on the other side of the one room building there would be hot stills making whiskey. It must have been a real balancing act of temperature working in those conditions.

These are two of my favorite photographs. For one thing my grandmother was born near Gamaliel in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, but grew up in Gamaliel, Ky. She may have known these distillers. This is also a set of rare images of true farmer distillers, using 19th century methods for making whiskey. I would love to find more information about the distillery and distillers.

Images from the archives of Michael Veach