top of page
  • michellebennington

The Inspiration Behind Unbridled Spirits

Updated: Jun 21

In a few days, the third book in the Small Batch Mystery series will release. This series is a story of amateur sleuth Rook Campbell and her adventures solving crimes in Kentucky’s bourbon community.

I’m relieved to finally have this series complete. It’s the first series I’ve finished (it’s so exciting!!!) and I’m looking forward to doing more.

I’ve long been fascinated with bourbon, the production of it, and, most of all, it’s history. Which is why for the third book, I wanted to set most of the mystery in a historical bourbon baron home—because I also LOVE touring old houses.

And when I sat down to write, I had just the house in mind.

The house in Unbridled Spirits is the J.T. Bolton House, a fictional structure inspired by the very real and very old T.B. Ripy House in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. I had the honor of visiting this house several years ago when the owners were in the early stages of refurbishing the house for public consumption.

During the visit, I was treated to a ghost tour of the home, inside and out. Of course, we didn’t find any ghosts, and I didn’t expect to. Everyone knows a ghost tour is just a history tour with a few ghost stories sprinkled in.

So, with the release of the book, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the inspiration for my fictional house. So, let’s jump into the past to explore the history of T.B. Ripy and his gorgeous home.

James Ripy (nee Rippey) was born in 1811 in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He then immigrated to the United States. His family originally entered the country at the Port of Philadelphia. An immigration worker misspelled his surname. Since it was too expensive and complicated to change it back, he decided to keep the name Ripy.

In a short time, his family moved to Kentucky and settled in a small log cabin along the Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg around 1830.

In his twenties, he became a store clerk and renounced his British citizenship in 1839 to become an American citizen. Soon after, in 1840, he married a wealthy local girl, Artemesia Walker.

In time and with hard work, Ripy became a successful merchant and distributor of household goods, including whiskey. He then began buying several distilleries in and around Bourbon County in an area that later became Anderson County.

Ripy and his wife had three children, but one died as an infant, which was fairly common in those days. His two sons lived to adulthood, James P. Ripy (born 1844) and Thomas Beebe Ripy, called T.B. (born 1847).

James P. served as a junior officer in the Confederate Cavalry Corp during the Civil War. After the war, he married into the family responsible for distilling Bond & Lilliard Whiskey. From there his destiny was set: he became a distiller just like his dad.

The youngest son, T.B. was sent to a prep school in Louisville and then to college in Frankfort before also entering the family distillery business.

In 1853, Ripy, Sr., who was in his 50s, bought a large distillery with his two partners. Within a year, they were producing 120 barrels of mash each day. A year later, at the peak of their production, they sold the distillery to a prominent local judge, Judge McBrayer who partnered with T.B. Ripy. Within a year, the judge left the business and T.B. became the sole proprietor of the T.B. Ripy Cliff Springs Distilling Company. He was only 21.

Eventually, father and sons came together to build their own distillery in 1869—a large complex on the Kentucky River in the town of Steamville on Wild Turkey Hill. That’s right, THE Wild Turkey. They called this family endeavor the Rippy Brothers Distillery for the two brothers who ran the business.

Ripy later renamed Steamville, calling it Tyrone after his place of birth. Tyrone flourished around the distillery, soon growing to a population of 1,500 people with stores along a square, a city hall, a post office, and a wharf to ship and receive products coming along the river.

When Ripy, Sr. began having health problems and Artemesia couldn’t take care of him, T.B. and James P. pitched in to help care for their parents. In June 1872, Ripy, Sr. passed away at only 61 years old. His wife died several years later and both were buried in the Walker Cemetery near downtown Lawrenceburg.

Within 10 years, T. B. would go on to become the largest distiller in the world and would carry that title for over two decades between 1880 and 1905.

As an up-and- coming whiskey baron, with a wife and 10 kids, he needed a house that would reflect his standing. So, in 1888, T.B. built the impressive five-story mansion on a 150-acre estate on Lawrenceburg’s South Main Street.

The Queen Anne/Victorian/Romanesque Revival architecture boasts 11,000-square-feet, 24-rooms and cost $80,000 to build--which was about $2,786,728.42 in today’s currency.  From the grand brick exterior to the sleek mahogany staircase, 13 planetary-themed stained-glass windows, rare indoor toilets, gas chandeliers, to the swimming pool, Ripy spared no expense in building the house for his close-knit family. He even built a tennis court (pictured below) for his wife, Sally, who had come to love the sport during her stays at a resort in French Lick, Indiana.  Of course, a home this size required a full servant staff--two maids, a cook, a gardener and a butler--to help keep the grand house up and running.

As the bourbon business continued to thrive, Ripy’s bourbon, called “Old Ripy,” was chosen to represent the state of Kentucky at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. T.B. passed away in 1902 and was buried less than a mile from the Ripy Mansion at the Ripy family burial site.

By 1920, Prohibition rolled in and shut down or decimated many distilleries. Ripy was one of the few distilleries to thrive under the Volstead Act, by producing and selling “medicinal” whiskey.

In 1935, T.B.’s son, Earnest, rebuilt the distillery, which would eventually come to produce more than twenty brands of whiskey, including the renowned Wild Turkey brand. Earnest also became the distillery’s first ever Master Distiller. In time, Earnest’s two sons, T.B. and E.W. took over the family business and expanded production. The brothers sold the distillery in 1949 to Robert and Alvin Gould who renamed the brand to J.T.S. Brown Distillery while the brothers, T.B. and E.W., continued to work at the plant until late 1972.

Given all this great success, I’m not sure why the family couldn’t continue to own and maintain the Ripy House. But, for whatever reason, it was sold in 1965 to a new owner who failed to properly steward this historic landmark, allowing it to deteriorate and fall into decay.  That’s when the Ripy descendants stepped in. 

Not willing to let the house or their legacy die, in 2010 they bought their family home back for $186,000 and embarked on a complete restoration of the house and grounds--which has cost them half-a-million dollars so far. 

The garden, which covers the old tennis court, was modeled after Longwood, the famous Dupont Garden in Delaware. The garden designer planned it so the gardens would bloom from spring through fall to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The space is filled with roses, tiger lilies, hydrangeas, phlox, allium, iris, and viburnum bordered with boxwoods, magnolias, river birch, and spruce trees.

The House is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for events and tours. Tours are available by appointment only and are personally led by George Geoghegan, a descendant of the family.

When I was there several years ago, the restoration was just underway. Unfortunately, I think I lost the pictures I had taken when my hard drive melted down in 2019. So the pictures I have here are pulled from various websites. However, I do remember from my visit that the lower floors had been restored and the upper floors were still in ruin. The wallpaper and paint was peeling from the walls, the floors and walls were covered in holes, rot, and water stains, light fixtures hung broken from the ceilings. Dust and spiderwebs covered many areas. There was still much to be done.

I’m thrilled to see the restoration is now complete, so I’ll need to schedule a visit to see the house in all its grandeur--and get new pictures--and maybe inspiration for more books!


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page