When a person is described as “having a nose” for something, it’s because he or she possesses an above-average ability to discern the intricacies of a particular thing or process. A nose for gardening yields a lush landscape; a nose for investments expands one’s bank account; and so on. Perhaps nowhere is the olfactory gift more desirable than in an industry where the ability to—literally and figuratively—sniff out a winner marks the difference between average and spectacular.
Down a verdant rural road in southeast Franklin County, among historic brick and stone buildings, sits the new/old Castle & Key Distillery and the scary-smart sniffer of master distiller Marianne Barnes. Her spirit for … well … spirits has landed her at the helm of an up-and-coming brand and the loving resurrection of an iconic Kentucky landmark.
On a steamy July day that threatened rain, wind and worse, Barnes shared her story and the incredible property that has become Castle & Key. “I never knew this was it, until I did it,” said Barnes, seated comfortably in a worn leather chair in the mercifully air-conditioned distillery offices.
Kentucky’s first female master distiller since Prohibition, Barnes exudes an easy grace that makes it clear this isn’t simply her job; it’s her home. “I had a chemical engineering degree from UofL but didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it,” Barnes said. “Then I got an internship at Brown-Forman, which was a great co-op—very hands-on—and after three years was hired full time. I acquired a lot of experience very quickly, working in research and development, with bourbon and tequila and in production manager training.
“Then one day my boss’ boss’ boss asked me, ‘Do you want to be the next Woodford Reserve master distiller?’ ” In a state of happy shock, Barnes readily accepted.
Fast forward to last year, when Barnes was approached by Wes Murry and Will Arvin about their vision of a refurbished and revitalized Old Taylor Distillery, with Marianne in the lead role. “I met them here in the middle of winter,” Barnes said, “and it was a snowy wonderland.”
The snow did little to hide the amount of work that lay ahead, however, and Barnes took time to consider what was being offered. “It was a monumental task,” she added, “but I felt confident in them. They did their homework, and it was up to me to make the product. They bet on my skills.”
The folks at Brown-Forman were shocked at Barnes’ decision to leave but understood her desire to accept the challenge at Castle & Key and offered their encouragement.
Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., a great-nephew of Zachary Taylor and a descendant of James Madison, made his foray into the bourbon business in 1870 with the purchase of a distillery along the Kentucky River he named the OFC Distillery (known today as Buffalo Trace Distillery). Difficult financial times and a strained relationship with his business partners led to his resignation from OFC and the eventual creation of E.H. Taylor and Sons, a company he started with his son, Jacob. The opening of the Old Taylor Distillery followed in 1887.
A staunch advocate for purity in bourbon production, Taylor worked to help pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Bottled-in-bond whiskey must be the product of one distillation season, produced at a single distillery, at least 100 proof and aged at least four years, and stored in a government-bonded warehouse. This strict set of guidelines ensured not only the best flavor but also a spirit that was safe to drink, as distillers often became quite creative in coloring and blending their whiskies to maximize production and profit.
Though Barnes refers to Taylor as “the father of modern bourbon,” his insistence on the highest of standards was not limited to the bourbon itself. As soon as one arrives at what is now Castle & Key, it is apparent that Col. Taylor wanted more than a simple whiskey operation. In fact, the modern Bourbon Trail concept of distilleries offering tours and amenities to guests was imagined by Taylor more than a century ago. “Col. Taylor built to entertain,” Barnes said, “and that’s what we want to do.”
Surrounded by swathes of emerald grass, thick shrubbery and trees that Taylor would have looked upon, Castle & Key has a charmed feel. History whispers with every breeze, and Barnes revels in the connection with the past and the treasures that have been uncovered. “There is a train depot with two rail lines,” she said, “which is how Col. Taylor brought guests for parties.”
A naturally fed spring bubbles up from the limestone in a keyhole-shaped viewing area—the “Key” in the Castle & Key name—resplendent with Roman columns, carved ceiling and gently curved walking path. In the distance, a former caretaker’s house is being renovated to accommodate overnight guests, while the gray stone castle at the heart of the property is being upgraded for both production and tours.
The jewel in the Castle & Key crown is certainly the garden spaces, where noted Kentucky gardener Jon Carloftis has made his mark. “When this was all cleaned up, we discovered the original concrete paths,” said Barnes while walking through a stunning sunken garden adjacent to the castle. “This was designed after the gardens at Windsor Castle.”
Carloftis worked his magic here and in several locations throughout the grounds, creating, as always, the impression that these spaces just “happened.” A botanical trail adds beauty to the stroll, and a cocktail garden yields many of the plants Barnes will use to create the company’s signature gins—a process completed in a fraction of the time necessary for bourbon. “We’ll be making a London-style dry gin,” she said, “that will have seasonal flavors. Lighter, fruitier, more floral notes in the spring that remind you of bourbon; spicier, denser, more baking spices in the fall. We will also have a barrel-aged gin with familiar notes and a gin liqueur.”
On the far side of the property, an herb garden flourishes a few feet away from what Barnes laughingly calls the “man-eater.” “This is the longest warehouse of its kind in the world,” she said. Already aging bourbon for other distillers, the rickhouse stretches roughly two football fields in length and can hold upwards of 40,000 barrels at capacity. “Our production is about six to eight weeks out and will be a traditional bourbon, made from white corn, bottled-in-bond, but will be modern and complex. It takes four years, but it’s worth the wait.”
Rye also will be a Castle & Key commodity, with the raw product grown right here in the Bluegrass. “We found a Kentucky farmer who can grow our rye for us,” Barnes said. “The grain will be grown in Kentucky but malted elsewhere.”
As the production gets into full swing and the building projects are completed, guests will have the opportunity not only to imbibe the quintessential Kentucky spirit but also to connect with the spirit of those who came before. Brick and stone buildings house much of the original equipment from the Old Taylor Distillery, and the special architectural and decorative touches of Col. Taylor make each visit feel personal. Weddings already are being held here, and Barnes shares the excitement she and her partners feel for the future of their enterprise. “We want to create a premium, curated, Napa Valley feel to the Bourbon Trail,” Barnes said, “including a restaurant and hotel. This is a passion project for us. We are not creating Disney World, but something new, something our own.”