As I share my love of America’s native spirit and the places it has taken us, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite distillery tour?” I’m quick to answer, “Woodford Reserve – I love the product and the historical buildings…But to be completely honest, one of the BEST tours out there and one of my favorites didn’t even serve bourbon yet. Castle & Key”.
The Original Bourbon Trail
Most of us have heard of and viewed at least parts of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced. While the KBT was established in 1999, the idea of bourbon tourism actually started much earlier.
Built in 1887 by Col. Edmund Haynes (“E.H.”) Taylor Jr, the Old Taylor Distillery was designed to be a destination. It featured fermentation and distillation facilities in a limestone castle, water drawn from nearby Glenn’s Creek in a neoclassical springhouse, along with sunken gardens. As passenger trains passed the world’s largest rickhouse (534 feet) holding 33,000 barrels, they saw E.H.’s name on the side of the building. Disembarking at a custom-laid tracks and a train station designed by E.H., they were able to stroll around the 113 acres, take in the operation, enjoy a picnic, and return with – you guessed it – a little bit of bourbon as a souvenir.
While E.H. was a champion for the Bottle-in-Bond Act, and along with others, saw its passage, Taylor could have never predicted that barely 20 years later, Prohibition would come. Taylor passed away shortly thereafter in 1923. The conglomerate National Distillers took over the facility along with 200 brand names. As American tastes trended towards light beers, wine coolers, and clear spirits, production ceased in 1972. Jim Beam briefly acquired the facility and while barrels continued to age in the various warehouses, the lights were officially turned off in 1987. Except for photo-enthusiasts taking in nature’s attempt to reclaim the land, the property remained vacant. In 2007, a salvage company arrived, stripping away much of the copper, metals and building materials until it was completely abandoned in 2008.
The Rise of the Phoenix
Like a phoenix arises from the ashes, Will Arvin and Wes Murry – a lawyer and investment fund manager, respectively – purchased the abandoned Old Taylor site in 2014 for just under $1 million. While no figures have been officially released, some say that upwards of $30 million has been applied to the renovation efforts. What could be saved, was saved. Some rickhouses and buildings just couldn’t be restored and were either left in place or knocked down. The outline of footings of a rickhouse or two mark the visitors parking lot. The Administrative Services building adjacent to the parking lot remains boarded up like a Walking Dead film lot – though, an overhead shot would show the roof completely collapsed inwards and the building beyond renovation.
As work progressed, Will and Wes sought out a Master Distiller. They didn’t have to look far, as they enticed rising bourbon star Marianne Eaves (featured prominently in the documentary Neat). Marianne had been the heir apparent to Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve. Now, she could put her own stamp on her own bourbon. Work began on bringing the old place back to life.
It wasn’t long thereafter that spirits began to be produced. Clear spirits, like gin and vodka, require little to no aging. Herb and floral gardens were brought back to their former glory and found their way into the clear spirits.
One unique find in the renovation was an original bottle of Old Taylor inside one of the walls. Produced in 1917 – pre-Prohibition – this rare find was to be the inspiration for Castle & Key’s bourbon. Marianne’s knowledge of chemical engineering allowed her to begin a scientific assessment of that 100-year-old bourbon and try to recreate its essences.
Using modern technology, they were able to deconstruct the Old Taylor Bourbon. The prominent note was a rich, creamy, sweet butterscotch note. The method used was gas chromatography, whereby the individual chemical compounds can be displayed. With this, Eaves was able to see what grains were utilized and find a similar yeast strain. Time will tell, but I am very excited to experience this vintage spirit when it comes to market.
The parking lot is the perfect picture-taking spot to get a front-on view of the stately limestone castle that is the heart of Castle and Key. Around the corner lay well-kept grounds and the Visitors Center, now in the former boiler-room. Everything at Castle & Key is top-notch – the tour guides, the visitors center stocked full of waxed-cotton Barbour apparel, and the experience. Be prepared to walk, as our tour lasted a whopping two hours from beginning to final swallow of the cocktails.
You’ll begin in the visitor’s center, followed by a visit to the Romanesque springhouse where water is drawn for distillation. While Glenn Creek runs just a few feet away, the springhouse sits on top of a groundwater source used by E.H. nearly 150 years ago. While you won’t have long to explore the area around the springhouse, I encourage you to do so following the tour. Gin and vodka were the primary spirits available for sale when I went in 2018, as the bourbon was still aging. On clearly marked trails leaving the springhouse, you’ll see some of the botanicals used in the spirits produced today.
Following the springhouse, you’ll quickly enter the limestone castle – home to C&K’s mashtubs and column still. The signage, valves and dials inside harken to simpler, less-hurried times. Leaving the castle, you’ll step down into a picturesque sunken garden. Today, these gardens are beautifully manicured and resemble an English country garden. Take a few minutes in the visitor’s center or check out some of the pictures from Abandoned Online to appreciate the work that went into the quality experience that Castle & Key is today.
As you leave the sunken garden, you approach the former bottling building (complete with trees growing through it) on the right and a modern 1950’s warehouse on the left. The day we toured, we caught workers rolling barrels along the tracks into the warehouse – where was this job at the career fairs in high school?
Ahead of us lurked the massive, 534-foot main warehouse. When you leave by car, be sure to travel “around the corner” as the Old Taylor name is still present – though faded by age – along the side of the building. If you go a little further down McCracken Pike, you’ll also find the former Old Crow Distillery and Glenn Creek Distillery.
The brick structure is rapidly filling with bourbon. While C&K staff are patiently filling their own barrels and allowing the product to mature into a bottled-in-bond expression (aged at least 4 years at 100 proof), our tour guide indicated that it looked like this would likely take 5-6 years [sigh]. Owners Arvin and Murry were smart to create some revenue now while their bourbon matures, including providing warehouse space as well as contract distilling for the Pinhook Bourbon label.
Following a peek inside the largest rickhouse in the world, it was back to the boiler room – literally – where we sampled some of the gin and vodka produced onsite.
First – let me be honest – there’s no bourbon… yet. If you’d like to get a glimpse at what Castle & Key might be like, I encourage you to check out Pinhook Bourbon – one that Marrianne has had a hand in.
Second – we were served a couple of absolutely delicious cocktails. We sampled a very refreshing Gin & Tonic, full of herbs from the gardens we toured. Following that, we were offered a Moscow Mule. Vodka, as a crystal-pure unaged spirit, can be made from just about anything (including potatoes). What makes C&K clear spirits unique is that they’re made from the same mashbill as what’s going into the barrels for aging. While vodka is supposed to be nearly flavorless, when paired with the ginger beer and lime juice, it was incredibly flavorful – so much so that a bottle highlights my bourbon cabinet.
This rates near the top of my favorite tours. The history of the Old Taylor site along with the first-rate experience make this a must-see. The grounds, the castle, the experience are all top-notch. While we’ll wait patiently for that fine bourbon to age, and wish Marianne luck in all her pursuits, this is one bourbon that I will be keeping my eye on.