When we last visited Castle & Key, gin and vodka were the only distilled spirits available for purchase and Marianne Eaves was still its Master Distiller. Fast forward two years and two pandemic years, and we were ready to experience Castle & Key again - this time, though, with bourbon.
Bourbon is Tourism
Today, Castle & Key Distillery stands upon the grounds of the former Old Taylor Distillery, built in 1887 by Col. Edmund Haynes ("E.H.") Taylor Jr. In its day, it featured enchanting, sunken gardens, a massive 534 foot-long aging warehouse that bore Taylor's name on the side, and even its own train station, where visitors could disembark, snatch a souvenir bottle of bourbon, and stroll the grounds. With the exception of the trains and the track, much is still the same.
Following Taylor's death in 1923, the property was acquired by National Distillers. While surviving Prohibition and two World Wars, the property was shuttered in 1972 as America's taste for whiskey slumped. Beam acquired the property in 1987 and used it briefly to age its spirits, as just around the corner was the Old Crow Distillery and the Old Grand Dad Distillery was nearby in Frankfort. Before long, what the pickers and salvagers had not reclaimed, Mother Nature lent a hand.
In 2014, partners Will Arvin and Wes Murry purchased the property, which by now was dilapidated and more resembled something out of the post-apocalyptic movie than a once glistening distillery. Following tens of millions of dollars - some say over $30 million - it was time to secure a Master Distiller. Enter Marianne Eaves, a then-rising star at Brown-Forman and Woodford Reserve. If you've enjoyed the Old Forester Whiskey Row series, Marianne was instrumental in its formation as well as having a starring role in the documentary Neat.
In May 2019, Eaves left Castle & Key to pursue other projects, but her mark had been made on the Castle & Key brand as well as others, such as Pinhook, that were distilled and aged onsite. Early suggestions were that Castle & Key would be continuing Taylor's legacy of producing Bottled-in-Bond products, and while that typically took at least four years, because of the brick Warehouse B where much of the product would be aged, it would likely be more like 6 years before it was ready. In the meantime, artisanal vodkas and gins, flavored with botanicals from the distillery's own heirloom gardens, were offered for sale.
Along with our oldest daughter and her friend, we selected a cool spring day to revisit Castle & Key. The Pandemic and Post-Pandemic times have not been kind to many distilleries, as it seems limited hours and staff shortages are here to stay. As crowds return, again, for visits, I encourage them to check websites and social media often for hours and scheduling changes. Castle & Key, in addition to limiting the days and hours it is open, had also recently revamped their tours, allowing a two-tier tour system; we opted for the longer, historic tour. We were not disappointed.
Our able guide, who, incidentally, was related to E.H. Taylor (how interesting is that!) began our tour at the neo-classical springhouse, where water was drawn from the springs, filled by waters trickling through the nearby limestone cliffs. Viewed from above, the springhouse is shaped like a keyhole, as Taylor insisted that limestone filtered water was the key to fine bourbon. When we were last here, the springhouse was being used to provide water for distillation. Unfortunately, due to climate change and changes in the water table, the springhouse no longer refills in sufficient quantities, so water is, instead, drawn from adjacent Glenn’s Creek.
It was here that our guide shared the story of the lovely facility, the grounds, and the E.H. Taylor story. Even Taylor’s train station - Taylorton Station - has been revamped into restrooms and a walk-up bar featuring spirits and premium cocktails.
From there, we headed inside the castle itself, to a room filled with mash tubs. One unique find in the renovation of the facility was an original bottle of Old Taylor inside one of the walls. Produced in 1917, this pre-Prohibition bourbon served as the inspiration for Marianne Eave’s expression for Castle & Key’s bourbon. Using gas chromatography, Eaves was able to determine the prominent note was a rich and creamy butterscotch flavor. The discovery also allowed Eave’s to recreate the original mash bill as well as locating similar yeast strains to re-introduce a one-hundred-year-old bourbon.
While the tubs were in various states of fermentation and the various knobs and ancient dials more closely resembled something from the lab in Young Frankenstein, our guide pointed to who - or rather what - was really controlling all of the operations in the room - a single, lowly iPad on a small table in the front room. From there, we passed onto the copper stills. The original stills had long been salvaged by pickers, so two new Vendome Copper & Brass Works stills have been installed - one 24 inches in diameter, and the other 32 inches in diameter. I’ve been curious as to who has stepped in the role of Master Distiller following Marianne’s departure, and our guide shared that there is now a “tasting committee” of a dozen (or two) who routinely taste the various aging barrels in the various warehouse locations to determine when they are ready for release.
Stepping outside, we followed around the turret of the castle, which in its day, served as E.H. Taylor’s office, though, now serves as conference space and as a preparation area for bridal parties. Castle & Key is a desirable wedding and event space, and from the castle, we continued our walk through beautiful sunken gardens. When Arvin and Murry began their restoration, this area was a mass of trees and overgrown hedges. With the help of arborists and an excavator, they were able to curb back growth, clear the ground, and restore it to its former glory.
The maze of overhead piping that emanated from the distillation room led to a barrel-filling building next to the sunken gardens. Here, the finished distillate was flowing into Castle & Key barrels at a low, 107 proof. Earlier in the tour, our guide had shared that pictures were welcome at any time, though there was one spot where we were not allowed to take pictures. As we left the barrel filling building, and after some in our group had snapped a few pictures inside the building, our guide quickly caught his senses and asked some of our fellow members to please delete those pictures. It was then that I saw a couple of metal stamps used to brand the “money end” of the barrel head along with bourbon brand names I will leave unnamed. The Pinhook brand has openly named Castle & Key as the contracting distiller, but it was very interesting to see a pretty good-sized distiller contracting at least some of their distillation.
We continued our walk past the remnants of the bottling building and laboratory, still in an abandoned state. As we neared Warehouse B - the world’s longest rickhouse at 534 feet long - we passed a rusted tractor-like piece of equipment. Our guide shared that back in the 1940s, workers had improvised a tractor that could utilize claw-like implements to scoop up several barrels at time for transportation to warehouses on the other side of McCracken Pike (where the visitor parking lot is located today). Unfortunately, their innovation never paid off, as time and time again, the barrels were crushed. Supervisors forbade the use of the tractor, and it hasn’t moved in eighty years since.
As we stepped inside Warehouse B, the smell was incredible and the sense of history was jaw-dropping. On the day of our tour, workers were using the elevator to man-handle barrels for dumping. It was here that our tour guide had glasses poured of Castle & Key’s signature small-batch bourbon ready for tasting. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity before, and I will continue to say, there is nothing quite like sipping a great bourbon right in the rickhouse.
After a quick sip, we left Warehouse B and continued past the concrete rickhouse behind the castle. Our tour guide shared that when it was built in the 1950s, it was built to also serve as a bomb shelter for the local population. If you have to wait out a nuclear attack, I can’t think of a better place to sit!
Lastly, in addition to the tasting in the warehouse, our tour included a small token redeemable at the Taylorton Station located on the grounds for a drink or cocktail of our choice. We were able to enjoy lunch on the day we toured from a local food truck that had set up near the springhouse.
We arrived early on the morning of our tour and were greeted by a line that was already forming in the parking lot. I quickly surmised that they were releasing some more of their Small Batch #2 Bourbon and was excited to be one of the few that could purchase a bottle. You can catch the full review, but here is a quick take on what we sampled in the rickhouse.
On the nose, this smells of chewy caramel candy (like a Sugar Daddy) and butterscotch hard candy disks. There were light fruit blossom notes (like apple and peach), and warm oak. The first sip gave a strong indication that Marianne's chemistry degree had paid off. Butterscotch was at the forefront, followed by apple and oak. Some light mint was present at the end, leading to a medium-long finish with more caramel, spice, and toasted oak.
This still rates near the top of my favorite tours. The history of the Old Taylor site, with its beautiful gardens and grounds, along with the up close experience make this a must-stop if you’re in the area. Just around the bend, on the grounds of the Old Crow Distillery is the Glenn’s Creek Distillery (still in the infancy of its restoration), Woodford Reserve is around the bend in the other direction, and Buffalo Trace is a short drive away in Frankfort. I’ll be interested to see if, and when, they release a Bottled-in-Bond edition, but for now, I’ll enjoy their Small Batch releases.