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Kentucky’s New Castle & Key Distillery Blends Technology and Legacy

They’ll be distilling bourbon and gin

Outside Church & Key in Versailles, Kentucky.
Outside Church & Key in Versailles, Kentucky.
Ashlie Stevens

Marianne Barnes trudges through the snow behind a crumbling castle and talks about gin. She points to an expanse of land that, for now, is blanketed in white. "We’re planning on doing a botanical tour on the distillery grounds that will include the flowers and plantslavender, aronia, native mountain mint, juniper, echinacea, all thatthat we’ll be using in our product," she says.

Barnes pauses, then adds, "It will be a bourbon drinker’s gin."

The statement seems fitting as she's standing on the grounds of the historic Old Taylor Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, which was built in the early 20th century by Colonel Edmond Haynes Taylor, Jr., known to modern bourbon lovers as E.H, and considered a leader in industrializing bourbon production during that time. Taylor was an early bourbon pioneer, advocating for stricter regulations regarding the spirit's distillation and labeling.

Barnes, the first female Master Distiller of Kentucky bourbon since Prohibition, along with her business partners Will Arvin and Wesley Murry, have taken over the space and are painstakingly resurrecting it after almost 40 years of neglect. They’ve been working on the property for over a year, but plenty remains to be done: there's overgrown tangles of foliage to clear, collapsed walls to rebuild, and a reflection pool sits in desperate need of a deep-clean.

"You know what Napa has done for wine? I want us to do that for bourbon."

"Thankfully vandalism wasn’t too badnot too much graffiti," Barnes comments. "The main thing we found is holes in the castle roof. We’re thinking that local teens climbed to the top of the walls over there, took the bricks from the top, and tossed them onto the roof, so that was something that needed to be fixed."

Barnes anticipates that, within the year, the distillerynow renamed Castle & Keywill return to the former glory of Colonel Taylor’s days. Distillery ground tours are slated to begin next month.

"I want this to be a place for people to visit and really appreciate both the drink and the heritage," Barnes says. "You know what Napa has done for wine? I want us to do that for bourbon."

Castle & Key plans to introduce its Kentucky-native botanical gin in a few months, rye whiskey by 2018, and then traditional-style bottled-in-bond bourbon to honor the Colonel’s legacy, which will be barrelled this year.

The Original Old Taylor Distillery

Colonel Taylor began his career at Gaines and Berry Co., the home of Old Crow bourbon, before going on to eventually build Old Fashioned Copper Distillery, known today as Buffalo Trace. Later, he conceived Old Taylor Distillery just outside of Kentucky’s state capitol. Like Taylor himself, the distillery had distinct character. In a time where most distilleries resembled wooden sawmills, Old Taylor’s grounds were modeled after a medieval castle with Greco-Roman influence, complete with pillars, sunken gardens, and its own railroad station where guests could travel in for Taylor’s annual Kentucky Derby parties.

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Inside Church & Key. [All photos by Ashlie Stevens]

According to The Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson, Taylor emphasized "pure goods," and made his Old Taylor, Hermitage, O.F.C. (the initials for Old Fire Copper) and Carlisle brands a standard of bourbon quality, his barrels commanding about twenty cents more on the gallon than other whiskeys. Carson writes, "The Colonel had a firm hold on the concept of the uniform product and the consumer package, and labored long and fruitfully for the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, which would compel the seller to state on the label what was in the bottle."

In his will, Taylor wrote that the distillery should never produce again after his death, which occurred in 1922 when he was 90-years-old. National Distillers, the company that later acquired the property through a merger, broke his request and continued distilling on the site until the 1970s when the operation went out of business, and the grounds were left to crumble for over 40 years.

But now Barnes is eager to continue Taylor’s rightful legacy. "The core of Colonel Taylor’s vision with bottled-in-bond was building a relationship of trust with his consumer, providing a literal guarantee of bourbon’s authenticity and, by extension, quality. Our goal is to embrace and enhance that vision, creating products and sharing the story from the plow to the bottling line," she explains.

"I want as many of the ingredients that can be, to be sourced locally from Kentucky."

Like Taylor, Barnes has served as a bourbon innovator in her own right. After acquiring a chemical engineering degree at the University of Louisville, she admits, "I could have ended up at a variety of places, but I ended up at Brown-Forman. And it was the best decision I could have made."

Brown-Forman, one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies, manufactures some of the most well known brands throughout the world, including Jack Daniel's, Chambord, and Woodford Reserve. It was there, under the mentorship of Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris, that Barnes rose within the company to the position of Master Taster in an unheard of five years. That’s why, when she announced her departure from Brown-Forman last year to resurrect Old Taylor Distillery, some were skeptical. Most 29-year-olds haven't paid off their student loans, let alone leave an important position at a top spirits company to help open a new distillery—especially as a woman. Yet, in the male-dominated bourbon industry, Barnes is making her mark.

"I remember calling my dad and him saying, ‘Is this really what you want to do?’" Barnes says. "But both the history here and the opportunity here to create something were really appealing."

History Meets Technology

Vendome Copper & Brass Works recently installed state-of-the-art distillation equipment at Castle & Key, with the distillery primed to begin production this summer at an annual capacity of 12,000 barrels per year. In addition to distillation capabilities, the facility has two barrel storage buildings, one of which is the longest bourbon rickhouse in the world.

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Outside Church & Key.

Barnes pries open the door to this rickhouse. The warm, floral-yeasty air flows out in waves, wafting around the rows and rows of barrels. The wooden ramp through the facility seems to stretch forever.

"This building is the length of about two football fields," Barnes notes. Currently, the facility is storing barrels for other distilleries since there's so much room, but Barnes looks forward to barrelling her own bourbon.

"I want this to be a true Kentucky bourbon," she explains. "I want as many of the ingredients that can be, to be sourced locally from Kentucky. As someone who enjoys the science behind things, I’m really intrigued by what some local farmers are doing with experimental grains and how we can use both modern and classic technology to put together a product that will really appeal to bourbon drinkers."

Barnes' blend will be spicier, heavy in rye, with some floral and citrus notes

Barnes has talked with farmers from the University of Kentucky’s agriculture program about finding corn that is similar to the variety that would have been used in Colonial Taylor’s mash.

"On a farm visit, one of the farmers who I was visiting with pulled out an old bottle of Old Taylor from years and years ago," Barnes says. "Again, as someone who really appreciates modern technology, I wasn’t sure what to expect from how it would taste since I assumed that ‘Oh, our distilling equipment is so much better,’ but I have to say, they knew what they were doing." Barnes adds, "I will definitely take notes from how the original Old Taylor tasted."

While Barnes and her partners are still sorting brand specifics, like pricing and a consistent recipe, she knows that her blend will be spicier, heavy in rye, with some floral and citrus notes, and with as many state-sourced ingredients as possible. It’s a decision that is both on-trend and historic; tapping into regional producers will appeal to today’s buy-local movement, while also serving as an appropriate move for a historic Kentucky property.

"It’s so encouraging to see how much people want to know about the bourbon they drink, who made it, where and how it’s made," confesses Barnes. "Castle & Key is a destination that encourages people to be our guest, taste, see, and enjoy a step back into bourbon history."

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