Anyone who knows anything about distilling history has Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. on the “Mount Rushmore of Bourbon.” As a technological innovator, an industry spokesman, and as an all-around lifestyle icon (let’s face it, the Colonel made whiskey cool long before Don Draper was kicking back rye in the corner office), Taylor changed the way bourbon aristocrats did business; in turn, he changed the way people the world over perceived bourbon. For decades, though, the site of his Old Taylor Distillery — nestled along a quiet stretch of river just outside of Frankfort, Kentucky — sat dormant. Over the years, metal rusted, windows broke, and ricks rotted. Nature’s reclamation threatened to erase Taylor’s last and most famous distillery.
That is, until a group of historically-minded investors decided to restore the Colonel’s castle (literally) and establish a new distilling operation on the grounds. In keeping with Taylor’s penchant for innovation, the distillery — recently christened Castle & Key — features Marianne Barnes as the first female Master Distiller in the history of Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Marianne was gracious enough to sit down with Bowtied & Bourboned for a chat about the history of the site formerly known as Old Taylor, the future of bourbon tourism in Kentucky, her thoughts on the current state of the industry, and even what she’d pour in the event of an impending zombie apocalypse.
MCH: Alright, so I’m sitting here with Marianne Barnes, the Master Distiller of the distillery formerly-known as Old Taylor, and we’re just going to ask her a few questions the first of which … when you came into this project, obviously Taylor’s a big name, in the whiskey industry, how much did you know about E. H. Taylor, Jr. in terms of history and the history of the distillery?
Marianne Barnes (MB): Most of what I learned about E. H. Taylor and the distillery site was through Mike Veach, I had learned bits and pieces through working at Brown-Forman, specifically with Chris Morris because he’s such a huge history buff—specifically bourbon history—and Kentucky history, really, but it was a Filson Bourbon Academy at Belle’s in Lexington, it really opened my eyes to the rich history of every other bourbon brand. You know, I was entrenched in Brown-Forman’s history and didn’t have much time to spend learning everyone else’s, so I found it really fascinating to learn about E. H. Taylor and the impact that he had on the industry—and then his vision in creating the castle and Millville and starting bourbon tourism as we know it today.
MCH: Did anything you found when you first got into the distillery, doing renovations, change the way you thought about Taylor?
MB: Well, you know, it’s a fascinating place. And as much as it’s changed over the years, the skeleton and the ambiance and, you know, the walls—if they could speak—I could only imagine what they might say about the Colonel. But the guts, the equipment, the pipes, and all the process stuff that I was fascinated to learn were really more National Distillers era. And it was really interesting just to envision, imagine, the feats of engineering and how they put this place together way back when. I think that really did open my eyes to how sophisticated—well, in bourbon terms, you know the process hasn’t changed much over the last hundred or so years—so, how sophisticated the process is.
MCH: So, given Taylor’s reputation as an innovator—the Colonel changed quite a bit about how bourbon was made, and, how it was branded and regulated, and then the history of this place, like you said, I mean there’s a castle out the window. This is not a normal distillery. What does it mean to you to be the state’s first female master distiller, but then also what does it mean to be the first female distiller here? Because this is a different type of place?
MB: You’re right. This is a history-making site in itself and I didn’t take this position with the thought, “Oh OK, I’m going to do this so I can be the first woman master distiller,” no, that wasn’t why I did it. It was because of my love of history that was ingrained in me from my time at Brown-Forman, and really, I felt like the place challenged me, from the moment I stepped on the grounds, I thought “if I wanted to leave something behind, wouldn’t it be wonderful for this to be the place and to recreate, or, re-envision a product here in his honor.” And, by extension of his legacy and the impact that he made, and also, starting something new in a historic place.
MCH: When you first got to the grounds, was there ever a moment where you sort of looked at, you know, broken ricks or a missing still and thought, “oh my goodness, have I bitten off more than I can chew here” or was it always sort of that this place not just needs to be preserved, but it deserves someone to kind of come back and maybe that helped carry you through rougher moments?
MB: You know, it was a tough decision to leave my former position at Brown-Forman, but I’ve never regretted it. Coming onto the site and being here every day, it feels good, it feels like home. I walk around and I know most of the nooks and crannies but there’s always things that surprise me. The structures are in great shape; the old equipment, it’s almost like it got stuck in 1972 when they closed it down and not a lot changed. We’re still turning agitators that hadn’t moved since 1972, we’re able to reuse a lot of these big steel tanks, and, we’re gonna have to put in new pipes lines, because Lord knows what’s been living in there for the last however many years. But it’s really just connecting one thing to the next. If we wanted to make 400 barrels a day we would’ve hooked back up to the old still because it would’ve worked, which is just amazing to think that they left a 72-inch stainless column still that would cost, you know, $350,000 today just sitting on this site for decades.
MCH: Do you have a favorite, sort of, historic spot on the ground or maybe more than one?
MB: I would say, you know, there’s definitely more than one. I love being in the sunken garden, particularly now that John has brought it back to life—literally: planting new plants and giving it a new form, reminiscent of what it would’ve been in the old days. I like sitting out there and looking at the castle, the old distillery, the new garden—kind of that dichotomy. And then looking across the street, who the two old 45,000 barrel warehouses would have sat at one point. And you know, it does make me sad that they were taken down just to sell off the wood in pieces, brick by brick, but we’ve stopped that process. It’s gonna be reborn and that’s an inspirational place—and I really like being on top of the castle, on the roof, because it’s really more of like that nerdy process thing. So I can see the whole site and we have a lot of the old engineering drawings, so some of the 30s, up until, most of these are National Distillers era drawings, but from the 30s when they first started their expansions and renovations, up into the 50s when they were this huge concrete warehouse that we have on site that holds about 65,000 barrels. When that was built, it was still moving and breathing and living and expanding, which I just think is fascinating. So I like being up on top of the castle, with the bird’s eye view of everything and then down in the garden are my two favorite places.
MCH: You’ve touched on it a little bit, and obviously there was quite a bit going on here between Colonel Taylor’s day and the present, so when renovations began, was there anything particularly cool found on the grounds? Any hidden artifacts? Anything other than, say, a $350,000 still that you made you think “what is this still doing here? I can’t believe someone just left this behind or how did this survive?”
MB: There are, I would say, two gentlemen, that are really responsible for the well-being of this site over the years. One is Gary Tate, we call him Shorty, he’s about 6’ 3”, he lives down the road and he’s working for us now. He’s the third generation of his family to work on this site, particularly in the warehouse, but he’s been a watch dog, really taking care of the site, because it feels like home. And another gentleman, whose name is Sandy, and Sandy actually works in the wood shop right below us, he’s been coming to this site for years and years and years, and there are many stories about Sandy in his red truck running people off in the middle of the night. So I really attribute the well-being of the site and the fact that there’s not a whole lot of graffiti and there’s a bunch of broken windows but there’s not a whole lot you can do for that. They’re fixable. But really the good condition that it’s in, I would attribute to them.
MCH: We’ve touched on this a little bit too, but I’m wondering if you could expand, in terms of Kentucky’s bourbon industry—and I think it’s fair to say, for bourbon drinkers, this part of Kentucky, really, the trail is sort of like Disneyland—what do you think restoring this place specifically means to that? How will it add something new or change the way the public is able to engage with not just distilling and bourbon but also the history of distilling bourbon?
MB: There is a lot of history in the industry—and it directly correlates with the history of the state. And I think what this site tells, is an interesting, different perspective. So it stopped producing in ’72, and just by the architecture of the buildings you can see the different eras, and the 1887 castle and the 1930s when National Distillers expanded. And you can see what Prohibition had done to the bourbon industry—it just created so much demand they had to expand rapidly. And then into the 50s, bourbon continued to be on the rise, and then unfortunately in the 70s when the place was shut down, and that’s the site that you see today. It’s the disrepair that the failing of the bourbon industry really brought on. It wasn’t the fact that the former owner didn’t have the money to keep it up, they simply didn’t need the capacity here. So I think that coming onto this site, it feels like a ghost town, it kind of feels like The Walking Dead. You walk through the site and it’s almost post-apocalyptic, and I think that really kind of hammers home where bourbon was—and the fact that we’re bring it back. There’s gonna be places on site that still feel old—well everything feels old—but it still feels a little bit in disrepair. We have to tackle the project in chunks. So we can’t get to every building, even though we plan to open this coming spring, which is really soon, we won’t be able to get to everything. So what we do get to is going to feel like it did in Colonel Taylor’s day. So you’re going to get that feeling, that nostalgia, almost going back in time with the top hats and tails and the ladies in the long dresses out by the spring house for the Colonel’s annual derby party. It’s going to be a whole different experience, with the formal gardens, and, it’s a bourbon factory, but it certainly doesn’t look or feel like that.
MCH: Down the road—and this could just be the history nerd in me coming out—are there any specific plans to showcase the history of the site? And obviously, the whole place is a historic site, but again, the nerd in me is imagining a small museum, something specific and permanent to sort of show off the history for people who might’ve just come for the bourbon or to see the gardens but have a chance to learn something that maybe you can’t learn at other distilleries?
MB: Absolutely. We haven’t figured out exactly what or where or how we’re going to execute that, but we definitely want to talk about the history of the site. And to educate people on the importance of the site, what Colonel Taylor contributed to the industry, and bourbon and Kentucky. So we’ve collected a lot of artifacts. There were some things that we found on site. But it had been so looted over the years, because of being abandoned, that there wasn’t a whole lot of super interesting stuff, but we did find some very old engineering drawings and that sort of thing that really tell the story of the expansion, which I think is fascinating. But people who are related to Colonel Taylor or who have family members who worked here are coming out of the woodwork and want to share their family memories with us; bringing pictures and old bottles and keepsakes, and awards from when their father was salesman of the year. It’s been really fascinating, and we’re trying to collect those things so that we can put them on display—and to tell the stories of the people who have such great memories of this place.
MCH: Fantastic. Is there a timeline for when our readers will be able to buy your gin and down the road, your bourbon?
MB: Thank you for asking! You know, we’ve had a couple wake-up calls with the timeline and anybody who has done a construction project can vouch for this… things happen, things pop up. Particularly when you’re working on an old site, doing historic renovation always has surprises to share. We were initially hoping to start production in March, but it looks like we’re going to be into April, potentially even May, to have gin for everyone to taste. And then we’re also on the same timeline for the distillery to open for touring and to share with guests—so they can actually come and see and taste here.
MCH: Very cool. Logistically speaking, are there any plans to possibly do anything with the road? We’ve been talking about “the road” to the liquor, but also the road to the distillery itself, which in Taylor’s day probably wasn’t quite as harrowing, but—and it’s a gorgeous drive in—but it would be interesting with the kind of traffic that I’m guessing you’re going to attract. So are there hopes to maybe work with the city or the county or whomever would be in charge of that to widen it?
MB: We have had the KDOT out several times. Our parking is going to be across the street from the distillery, so we’re very conscious of making sure that it’s safe to get across, and also making sure that folks are aware that there will be people crossing. You know, McCracken is a very narrow, winding road, as is Duncan, it’s just a pretty steep winding hill to get down here to us. But it’s not too far from the interstate, if you can make it here and get safely into the parking lot, we’ll make sure you get over to the distillery as safely as possible. But yes we’ve been keeping them [KDOT] informed of what our plans are and, yes, there’s not a whole lot of room on either side of the road to make a wider road, but hopefully we can make people more conscious and make it a safer drive.
MCH: If you had to pick one thing, what has been the most difficult part of starting a new operation at an historic distillery?
MB: The most difficult part, I would say, I think it’s been interesting to see how the production plans have changed over time. So before I started, they were thinking a small pot still in the old boiler room, we’ll leave the rest of the distillery as a museum and just have this small portion to make bourbon. And then as things moved along, and you know, before I started, they started looking at all the equipment in the distillery and thought, “hey we could probably use this and it’s free!” And then when I came on we decided to locate our new still in the same spot as the old still instead of doing a small pot still to do a couple barrels a week—we’re now up to 20-30 barrels a day. So it’s been interesting figuring out with the old infrastructure how to place the new equipment and where to put the new lines and what can we use and what can’t we use—and probably one of the most challenging things is figuring out what’s going on underground. There’s septic tanks and underground lines, and we have some ideas from the engineering drawings but they stop at a certain point, so you don’t know if that’s actually what’s there or if that’s how they were using it when they shut down. So we’ve had contact with a couple of the old superintendents, a gentleman named Charlie Lewis who worked here for quite some time and actually lived at the small house at the other end of the property where our botanical trail is going to be, and we’re also having a gentleman out named Bob Robinson, who worked for National Distiller for his entire career, and knows this site very well. I’m looking forward to meeting him and learning from the people that spent so much time here. So I think probably the most challenging thing has been trying to be Sherlock Holmes and figuring out how it was used and how we can plug in our new process—and quickly.
MCH: It sounds like in doing that sleuthing you’ve uncovered some good things, which leads then to the next logical question, what’s the best part about not starting from scratch? About getting to come into a place like this and open up shop?
MB: The best part, it’s the learning—that’s the obvious answer. I had a very specific path laid before me at my last job. At this job, you know, I’m an owner of a new distillery, or a new-old distillery, and responsible for everything from taking out the trash to figuring out financing to selling barrels. And ultimately what the product is gonna taste like and how the distillery is going to be run—and what people are going to see and feel and taste and hear when they get here. So the best part is ultimately being responsible for bringing the site back and it’s really an honor to just be part of the team and to be able to do this.
MCH: More generally speaking, since we touched on production, are there any trends going on right now in bourbon making that you—as Master Distiller—are specifically planning to avoid?
MB: Yes. [Laughing] There’s a lot of weird things going on out there, particularly with maturation. Our warehouse is very historical and Colonel Taylor was known for being the one to develop patent warehousing, and we are not going to put steam back into the warehouses. So learning how to use them in a different way is going to be a fun challenge. But I’m not going to go in with tiny barrels; we’re not going to try to force chemical reactions and have a 32 year old product in 6 days. Particularly with maturation, we’re going to stick to old way. It’s going to be 5 years before we have bourbon on the market and I’m going to take some time and learn this new warehouse; figure out where those sweet spots are and that certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
MCH: Is there anything going on right now with bourbon making that you think is a good idea—something new that you want to incorporate into the operation?
MB: I love all of the different grain recipes. I think that’s so fascinating. Grain is a really important flavor contributor to whiskey and traditionally folks have been using the same four grains. And wheat is fairly new, honestly, it was always barley, rye, and corn. And not always yellow corn. In Colonel Taylor’s day he was using white corn. So one thing that I’m planning to do is go back with an heirloom variety of white corn to give it a different flavor, and of course all of our grain is from Kentucky, which is something new. So following the local movement, the locavore movement, and sourcing from a local farmer.
MCH: Two questions now. And these are just you personally, we won’t make you speak for everyone. First: wheat or rye?
MB: Potentially both. Our core product will be a traditional recipe based on what Colonel Taylor would have been producing so it will be rye—a smaller percentage of rye because he was said to have used twice the amount of malt of anyone else in the industry at the time. Nowadays I would not make that statement, because that would be a whole heck’uva lot of malt, but I will also be using white corn in his honor and that rye recipe. We are looking at also producing a wheated bourbon, because we can! And I like the option of maybe blending the two together at some point. There’s a lot of things that I would like to try; there’s a lot of R&D to do to figure out exactly what we want to present to our customers. I’m working on a very small scale, producing a liter at a time, in my laboratory, so maybe both.
MCH: And last question—you mentioned The Walking Dead earlier and that sometimes there’s a post-apocalyptic vibe going on here—so if the world is ending, and you get one last sip of whiskey, what are you going to uncork?
MB: I’m gonna take a gamble. There’s a bottle on our shelf right now that I have not opened. It’s an Old Taylor product that was distilled here in 1915. The oldest Old Taylor product from that era that I’ve tasted so far is 1917—so I think I would rather not die without knowing what that tastes like. So that would be my last sip. I would crack open that bottle just to try it out.
MCH: The historian in me absolutely loves that. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the time.
After our chat, Marianne led me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery. The grounds — from the castle to the spring house to the garden — are incredible; they’re unlike anything else on Kentucky’s famed bourbon trail. When the facility is opened to the public, this place will be a must visit for all bourbon and whiskey aficionados. It’s going to be a while before any liquor is ready for consumption (gin will come first, then bourbon), but after hearing Marianne’s plans, we’ve got a very strong hunch it will be worth the wait.