Entering the grounds at Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, 50 miles or so southeast of Louisville, is like stepping into a fairytale. The landscape immediately transports you out of rural Kentucky and into a place that's more reminiscent of old Europe than anything in the modern American South.
Located on the former site of the Old Taylor Distillery, once owned by nineteenth-century distiller Col. E.H. Taylor, the property, unused since 1972, covers 113 acres of land.
A walk around the premises reveals crumbling stone buildings tangled up in brush and debris. It’s like uncovering ruins from an undiscovered ancient village. There's something magical in the air. The land is oozing with history, and if you listen closely, you just might hear it talk.
It's hard not to imagine the bustling scene that once existed here, but even more so, it’s impossible not to envision what this space will look like in the future. Underneath the weeds and rubble lies a multitude of 100-year-old, structurally sound buildings just begging to be brought back to life. There's a limestone castle — hence the property’s name — complete with a moat and mystical sunken gardens. Hardhat-wearing workers can be found around every corner, laboring tenaciously to bring each and every building back to life.
Only a short while back, a team of passionate entrepreneurs rediscovered the land and has been working tirelessly to revive the property ever since. Among the group is Marianne Barnes, the first female master distiller of bourbon since Prohibition — a distinction she earned through hard work, raw talent, and fate. Her story is a perfect illustration of the final lines of one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems; “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
After graduating from the University of Louisville with a degree in chemical engineering, Barnes was offered two very different internships. One was in renewable energy, the field she always thought she’d enter into, and the other was a research and development position with the notable spirits company Brown-Forman. Barnes had to make a choice, and she decided on Brown-Forman solely because, as she said, “it just sounded like more fun.”
Fun is really at the core of the bourbon industry, and it’s a big reason Barnes continues to excel in her field. She enjoys it. Admittedly not a lover of bourbon at the start, Barnes actually had to train herself to enjoy the flavor. “I didn’t have a taste for whiskey prior to my internship at Brown[-Forman],” she said. “But I needed to learn how to enjoy it, so I asked my coworkers for advice.”
What ultimately worked for Barnes was finding a whiskey that appealed to her sweet tooth, and Woodford Double Oak soon became her libation of choice. It didn’t take long for Barnes to develop her palate for brown spirits, as she quickly rose to the title of master taster, which ultimately lead her to becoming the master distiller she is today. “These days I still like sweet bourbons, but I also love those that are spicy and more complex. Overall, balance is the most important,” she said.
While Castle & Key will certainly produce bourbon, Barnes has plans to first dabble in gin and even vodka as well. The grounds are planted with a variety of flora and fauna that have been carefully selected by renowned landscape architect Jon Carloftis, as well as by Barnes herself. She’s been busy testing gins and experimenting with local botanicals such as Kentucky native mountain mint and wild honeysuckle, as well as the more exotic lemon verbena and ginger. The end goal? To produce a gin that appeals to what Barnes calls “a Kentuckian’s palate” — in other words, the palate of a bourbon drinker.
In addition to distilling top-notch spirits, the folks behind Castle & Key have big plans to utilize the 113-acre property further. Over time, the grounds will be home to a full tasting room, retail shops, a restaurant, and bed & breakfast, in addition to offering event hosting and historical tours.
Castle & Key is unique on so many levels, but having Barnes at the helm is arguably its most notable asset. She possesses both the passion and expertise to produce spirits that are sure to be as impressive as the property on which they’re distilled. A few years from now, all eyes will be on Barnes as she presents her first batch of Castle & Key bourbon to the world. Her attitude is rightfully confident, but surprisingly low-key. "We’re making bourbon,” she said, “No one takes it too seriously.”
Castle & Key Distillery will open to the public for tours starting this fall.