Castle & Key Distillery’s Bluegrass Revival

A Kentucky bourbon landmark springs back to life

Photo: Castle & Key

Bourbon ages in a Castle & Key warehouse.

As you emerge from a dense tunnel of hardwoods on McCracken Pike, in Woodford County, Kentucky, the distillery materializes abruptly, as if conjured. Bourbon pioneer Colonel E. H. Taylor Jr. dreamed up the turreted limestone castle with its European-style springhouse and sprawling gardens in 1887, adding pergolas, pools, and walking trails to the manicured grounds in hopes of luring guests. They came by the train-car full. And with them, the idea of bourbon tourism was born. Known as the Old Taylor Distillery, it shut down during Prohibition before changing hands and once again producing bourbon until finally closing in 1972. For more than forty years it then stood empty—a forgotten ghost of bourbon country past.

Today, after a massive four-year renovation, it’s hard to understand how the now-stunning landmark—which officially reopened this fall as Castle & Key Distillery—was nearly dismantled and sold for salvage. But in 2014, when Kentucky businessmen Will Arvin and Wes Murry scooped it up, kudzu vines choked the buildings, which were rapidly succumbing to weather and neglect. The gardens were a distant memory. To top it off, the pair had zero bourbon experience. But they knew enough to recognize that to stand in the colonel’s long shadow and succeed, they needed help.

They soon set their sights on Marianne Eaves, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old rising bourbon maker with a degree in chemical engineering. Eaves worked for Brown-Forman—the parent company behind Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Jack Daniel’s—studying directly under Chris Morris, Woodford’s acclaimed master distiller. “Everybody said we had no shot,” Murry says, “which meant I had to try.” Turns out, for Eaves the chance to become Kentucky’s first female master bourbon distiller since Prohibition made for enticing bait. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” she says. “But after meeting the guys, I could see very clearly their passion and their dedication to doing things the right way. And after meeting their wives, I also knew they could take direction from a woman.”

Photo: Castle & Key

Master distiller Marianne Eaves at the historic springhouse.

For the group, doing things right meant doing them slowly. To that end, rather than sourcing their first batches of bourbon from an outside distiller, as many fledgling brands have done, they started from scratch, which means it will be another few years before bottles hit shelves. A 1917 bourbon distilled at Old Taylor and unearthed during the renovations provided the inspiration for the mash bill. “I’d tasted old whiskeys before, but this one was more complex—a little sweeter,” Eaves says. “We had a bottle reverse engineered, and the lab confirmed a white corn base, a low percentage of rye, and a high percentage of barley.” She enlisted the growers at nearby Walnut Grove Farm to cultivate an heirloom variety of white corn called Hickory King for the mix. Meanwhile, as the bourbon ages, Eaves and her team are producing a vodka made from a whiskey-inspired blend of corn, rye, and barley, and a London dry gin that uses Kentucky-grown botanicals such as lemon verbena. Next year, they’ll release a limited-edition rye whiskey that is now resting in oak.

But you don’t have to wait to visit. Building on Colonel Taylor’s open-door philosophy, Castle & Key is hyperfocused on hospitality, which is why Murry and Arvin put the gardens at the top of the punch list, enlisting the renowned landscape designer Jon Carloftis, a Kentucky native based in Lexington. Starting in the small formal sunken garden, Carloftis planted historically accurate hemlocks, magnolias, and native berries across the property’s 113 acres. Fruit trees and Limelight hydrangeas line the restored keyhole-shaped springhouse, which holds 140,000 gallons of natural limestone-filtered water, and a new botanical trail now meanders along the banks of Glenn’s Creek. In addition, the new owners added a twenty-seat speakeasy and tasting room and a welcome center inside the hulking shell of the old boiler room. Upon booking a visit to the distillery, guests are asked what drew them to the property. The gardens? The history? An interest in bourbon making? Depending on the response, the Castle & Key team can then tailor the experience. Naturally, each visit ends with drinks at the speakeasy’s copper-wrapped bar. Somewhere Colonel Taylor is raising a glass.