Recently we shared a series of whiskey reviews for Coppercraft Distillery that incorporated a unique three person review format. Each whiskey review contained three separate set of tasting notes and observations. It was so well received that we thought we'd try a similar approach when writing about today's featured distillery – Castle & Key. What follows are two independently written summaries of visits to the distillery in the past few months. We hope you enjoy them both and appreciate the multi-angle approach to what is one of the industries most noteworthy distillery launches in the past year.
LUKE CASTLE'S VISIT TO CASTLE & KEY DISTILLERY
The feeling I got getting out of my car in the parking lot at Castle & Key (no relation, unfortunately) was simple. This is exactly what a distillery should look like. It’s old but doesn’t look worn out. Active without moving. Beautiful without effort.
You get an immediate sense of what things were like in 1887 when Colonel Taylor built the Castle. He was unique for his time. A buttoned-up banker in KY with a strong sense of style. He was meticulous in his dress and appearance which carried into his design of the Castle and surrounding property.
Today it still embodies everything the Colonel built with a few touches added from the current owners. Great care has been taken to restore the aura of the original design from the Castle façade to the signage. Fighting off a LOT of snakes they’ve resurrected a Botanical Trail, a Springhouse and Sunken Gardens. The gift shop and the tasting room are the only places that they’ve injected modern design. Think of them like you would a loft in an old grain house in a redeveloped part of town. Stone and wood beams with just a touch of today.
I started my tour with a stop in the tasting room and an introduction to Brett Connors. He’s exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about what they are building. We tried their Gin and Vodka both neat and in drinks. They were great. Both had nuance and flavor you never get in national brands. Great spirits make even better cocktails especially in the hands of people who know what they are doing. You will not be disappointed here.
Next, we hit the distilling facility in the Castle. The coolest part to me is that they kept all the original tanks. As a HUGE fan of dusty National Distillers bourbon, I couldn’t be more excited. The Old Taylor, Old Crow and Old Grandad (along with several other labels not starting with Old) that were produced here prior to it shutting down in 1992 are some of the best Bourbons ever made. If these tanks still hold even a fraction of the magic they once possessed Bourbon lovers will be in for a treat.
They are making Bourbon, Rye, Gin and Vodka in small batches with a painstaking attention to detail. Marianne Eaves is the Master Distiller and first Woman to hold that title in Kentucky. She has a degree in Chemical Engineering and quickly rose to Master Taster at a Large Distillery up the road. Those who have tasted her still very young and aging whiskey are consistently excited at where it is now and what they expect it will become.
Walking along the path toward the aging rickhouse there is a botanical garden where they grow some of the ingredients that end up in the Gin. I didn’t think that could be cool, but I was wrong. The first thing you notice as a fan of dusty ND in the rickhouse is the smell. If you’ve had the pleasure of trying them, they are often described as butterscotch bombs. It very well could be my mind playing tricks on me, but I swear that’s all I could smell. I could’ve spent the night in there.
Back in the Gift Shop Brett and I chatted for a while and a few things are clear. They are passionate about doing things right. They know how lucky they are to have found such an amazing place. They are working exceptionally hard to build something special.
This is a must visit for Whiskey fans, but I would recommend it to History buffs, Architecture fans and quite frankly anyone with even mostly functioning eyesight. Having been to several distilleries in KY, this visit moved C&K to the top of list for me. Yes, I am biased since I share a name with them but in an era where everyone else is rushing to capture their share of the Bourbon Boom and building shiny new Visitor Centers, they are embracing their history and working hard to not only preserve it but showcase it.
I left excited to see what the future brings for Castle & Key. If you want to know when they will start releasing their own whiskey, the answer is short. When it’s ready. The good news for those of you who are like me and impatient; these same facilities produced some amazing bourbon back in the day in 4-6 years. Let’s hope they can do it again.
STEVE COOMES'S VISIT TO CASTLE & KEY DISTILLERY
When a news reporter once asked Albert Einstein to explain unkempt hair, the eminent science replied blithely, “Neglect.”
Borrow “neglect” from Einstein and add to it abandonment, vandalism and nature’s ravages to describe why no one has wanted to revive the historic Old Taylor Distillery in Millville, Ky.
Even with bourbon booming and distilleries looking for building sites, only a few brands sniffed around the property before deciding an overthrow of the snakes, racoons and deer cohabitating there wasn’t worth it. When National Distillers sold it to Jim Beam in 1987, the bourbon giant deemed the place shot. Lock it and leave, they said. So even a modest makeover would be a budget buster for any small players.
Unless their names are Will Arvin and Wes Murry. The lawyer and investment fund manager, respectively, saw the promise of revitalizing this one-of-a-kind distillery—the nation’s first whiskey tourism destination. The place was a monument to booze and bravado created by Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor in 1887. He built it in a day when distilleries were manufacturing operations—ugly ones at that—and he thought seeing how whiskey was made would be fun for drinkers. Dude was right.
Taylor convinced friends and customers to ride a steam locomotive right to his distillery, departing at the eponymous Taylorton Station depot on the grounds. He wasn’t lying when he told them the Old Taylor Distillery was built to resemble a Medieval castle with a magnificent sunken garden and a key-shaped peristyle supported by Roman columns. Save for the business end of the operation, the place looked more like a billionaire’s mansion than a whiskey factory.
“He was a man of taste,” says Marianne Eaves, hired as master distiller in 2015 for what would later be named Castle & Key Distillery. “His vision for bourbon tourism was so far ahead of what others thought about at the time, but he he did things his way.”
In the process of doing things their way, Arvin and Murry reportedly spent around $30 million refurbishing Old Taylor as a fully functional distillery and aging site. The owners also wanted tours to be curated experiences and offered by reservation only, and since its Sept. 19 grand opening, ticket sales have been brisk. “You can take your chances on a walk up,” a gift shop worker told a visitor recently, “but this is a long way to drive and risk not getting in.”
Well, not really that far. It’s 10 minutes off I-64, about 15 minutes from Woodford Reserve in Versailles, and about 15 minutes from the Kentucky’s Capitol building in Frankfort. The winding two-lane roads leading to it are etched into rocky descents toward Glenns Creek, an historic water source for many distilleries come and gone. You get the impression you’re “away from it all,” but it’s really a convenient trip if you’re already on the Bourbon Trail.
I got to see Castle & Key a year before it opened. The grounds in 2017 were still somewhat rough, but the distillery was rolling. My second visit came this September for a media gathering one week before the public unveiling. The treatment given the whole in the interim was stunning: a spit shined version of a site described aptly by many as post-apocalyptic before Murry and Arvin got involved.
That day, whiskey writers and some of the owners’ friends were treated to pre-tour cocktails and one of the best catered meals I’ve ever eaten. I add that that bit of info only to point out how well the Castle & Key team has already grasped event management and entertaining at a distillery. This is no mean feat at a place designed only to make and store alcohol. Its owners’ tourism vision is well in focus.
On tours you get a truck load of distilling history, endless shutter-worthy visuals and an unparalleled step back into time when you see how much of the original distillery has returned to operation. It all comes complete with bubbling mash, grain mills grinding and stills hissing, and the de rigueur-delicious aromas of rickhouses chockful of aging whiskey.
The surprises come in when you see the elegant grounds. The overlook by Glenns Creek is tranquil, but resist the temptation to be the 10,000th person to ask, “Can I just pitch a tent here and stay?” Booze Heaven is still Bonded Land, and when the gates close, you’re out. But plans are underway to build overnight accommodations on the property.
The sunken garden was a stunning work of landscape design 125 years ago. That landscape and garden genius Jon Carloftis brought it back from its jungle-like condition to then raise the bar over Taylor’s original is simply amazing. Photos don’t do it justice: even professional shots fall short.
The speakeasy style tasting room is great: dark, dim and pleasantly loud with a full tour group of 15. Since Castle & Key’s maturate has a lot of growing up to do, the vodka and gin made there appears in cocktails are served on premises. They’re great, and the pours are generous. It will be at least 2021 before C&K’s brown liquor meets the bottle, and even then there’s no guarantee. Eaves insists her whiskies’ age is only a milestone, not a guaranteed cutoff. (Currently, all aging spirits are younger than 2 years.)
At $30 per tour, it’s the priciest tourism experience on the Bourbon Trail. But on a third visit, just with friends and getting the regulars’ experience, I was convinced it’s worth the money. It’s two hours in length, thorough, upscale and unique. When the tour in the gift shop (high-end and attractive apparel and more, all of it expensive) visitors are free to stroll the grounds and continue the experience, which I recommend highly.
When distillers dream of making the Bourbon Trail experience more Napa-Valleyesque, they need to see this. C&K (like the Bardstown Bourbon Co. and Maker’s Mark) embodies that. There’s nothing else like it in America.
Inside the rickhouse photo by Luke Castle. All other photos courtesy of Steve Coomes.