Castle & Key Distillery Reopens After More Than 45 Years

Castle1.jpg

This castle-clad distillery is the key to bourbon's future

All photos by Sara Havens.

If you stumbled upon the hallowed grounds of the former Old Taylor Distillery in Millville, Ky., say, four or five years ago, you might think you've found the gravesite of an old amusement park. You'd pass by an old, crumbling castle, explore what appeared to be a spring house that time had whittled away, frolic in a sunken garden that had truly sunk, and even encounter rusted tracks that resemble the skeleton of a … rollercoaster?

 The key-shaped spring house

The key-shaped spring house

But step back 130 years ago, and you'd see Col. E.H. Taylor's elaborate vision of a beautiful and bountiful bourbon distillery, which he built in 1887 at the time of bourbon's heyday.

Although his beloved distillery has sat empty for more than 45 years, a new crop of distillers and partners with equal passion for the brown spirit have stepped in to resurrect his castle and all it represents — bourbon reigning king. Castle & Key officially opens its gates to public tours starting Friday, Sept. 21, and Master Distiller Marianne Eaves (Barnes), one of the first female distillers since Prohibition, couldn't be more proud.

“This is a huge moment for us — opening the distillery doors and letting people walk through the gate to see behind the curtain and what we've been working so hard for,” she said last week during a media preview. “The distillery went from a post-apocalyptic war zone now to a place Col. Taylor would be proud to open his doors to today.”

Eaves' journey began more than four years ago when she joined the vision of Lexington businessmen Will Arvin and Wes Murry, who decided to purchase the decaying remains of the former Old Taylor Distillery and bring it back to life. It took the team a lot of patience and money, of course, but year after year, progress was made on the 114-acre distillery that also includes the world's largest rick house, Col. Taylor's ornate castle, fully restored sunken gardens and a spring house, a train depot that will soon serve snacks and drinks, and a quarter-mile-long botanical trail where Eaves grows her own juniper berries for her Restoration Gin.

 The old barrel conveyor

The old barrel conveyor

During the media event, Murry said he was thankful for finally getting the chance to tell the Castle & Key story. “It’s a big moment for us,” he began. “When we first came here, the place was pretty rough. Now, four-and-a-half years later, we’re standing in this beautiful structure getting the opportunity to tell you about that four-and-a-half year journey. It’s a very cool moment for all of us.”

Public tours will run an hour and 45 minutes, which is fairly long for a standard distillery tour. You'll get to see all steps in the bourbon-making process, from grain to glass. And speaking of bourbon — while Castle & Key currently is aging their bourbons and rye whiskeys, they're producing a Restoration Vodka and Restoration Gin.

 Will Arvin, Wes Murry and Marianne Eaves

Will Arvin, Wes Murry and Marianne Eaves

At the moment, their bourbon is nearing two years, and Eaves plans to keep it in the barrel as long as it takes to get a quality, great-tasting product. One of their first releases, she said, will be a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon, which honors Col. Taylor's legacy since he was one of the leading champions for the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.

Castle & Key also is using as many locally grown grains — corn, rye and wheat — as possible, and plans to make their bourbon using a white corn recipe. They will enter their bourbon into barrels at a low proof point for the industry as well, at around 107 proof. With two new Vendome Copper & Brass Works stills — one 24 inches in diameter and one 32 inches — the distillery has even began to enter into the contract distilling realm and already has a handful of clients.

 Rick the Cat

Rick the Cat

Highlights of the tour include the enormous refurbished rick house, which measures 534 feet long and can hold 35,000 barrels; the gorgeous spring house that Col. Taylor specifically shaped like a key, because he believed his pure limestone water was the key to his bourbon's success; the historic castle; and the distillery cat named Rick who keeps watch on the grounds — or, who may just like to be watched. (Instead of chasing mice, Rick likes to join tours and hopefully nab a scratch or two.)

The Castle & Key team worked hard to restore as much of the former distillery as they could, and the grounds are a nice mix of modern and old-school. Those rusted tracks mentioned earlier did not belong to a rollercoaster, but rather are remnants of a mechanical barrel conveyer they just couldn't tear down.

It's history, but yet it's the future. It's Castle & Key.