The Whiskey Catfish Society: Part 4 – Castle & Key

It was the last day of the Whiskey Catfish Society weekend and we had one more awesome thing to do together before we parted ways. Nice and hungover from the Whiskey Catfish Potluck, we loaded up in the car and headed toward Versailles with hopes of walking around one of the most historic and beautiful distilleries in Kentucky.

What is now Castle & Key was formerly the Old Taylor Distillery, built in 1887 by none other than E.H. Taylor Jr. himself. The 83-acre location has was shut down in the early 1970’s, meaning that for the last 4 decades it has slowly become overgrown, the buildings have begun to crumble, and punk kids have broken in to vandalize and steal from the property.

It’s time for that to change.

A couple of years ago, business partners Will Arvin and Wesley Murry purchased the property with the intention of bringing the site back to life. They quickly recruited up-and-coming Bourbon star Marianne Barnes, previously of Brown-Foreman, and got the renovations underway.

The Whiskey Catfish were lucky enough to have Marianne and Castle & Key Brand Ambassador, Brett Connors, show us around the property, recounting the history of the location, the work that had been done to revive it, and plans for the future. Castle & Key won’t open to the public until next year, so this tour was an amazingly unique opportunity for our group, and we can’t thank the folks at Castle & Key enough for letting us spend that afternoon with them.

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We arrived early, giving us plenty of time to peer over the crumbling stone walls and down into the brilliant green gardens as we waited, hoping somebody was actually going to show up to give us a tour. Before long Brett arrived and let us in the front gate. This place is so iconic and amazing-looking that most cars that drive by actually slow to a crawl in order to take in as much as they can. Brett was careful to close the gate as a few passersby attempted to join our magical tour group.

We stood inside the gate waiting for the rest of the Catfish to arrive, and we wondered if Marianne was going to show up. Don’t get me wrong, Brett was super cool and fully capable of giving a great tour, but a tour from the Master Distiller herself is just a different kind of thing.  Then, from a darkened archway she appeared, much like Willy Wonka, cool hat and everything.

Marianne Barns at the door of the castle
Marianne Barns at the door of the castle (hat not pictured)

We headed inside to check out the giant room that hosts the fermenters. The scale of this place was amazing. The room was huge with 15 royal blue open fermenters serving as the centerpiece to the space. Off to the right sat six closed fermenters, added by National Distillers who took over the distillery after prohibition. Throughout the tour a common theme emerged regarding National Distillers as they seemed to have done their best throughout their ownership of the property to max out the production and size of everything. Bigger is better, I guess.

We strolled around the room as Marianne told us about her background how she came to be involved with the revival of this place. Then, like some straight up Cinderella shit, we all watched as she stopped talking, reached down, and picked up a dazed Cardinal who had just run into a window. She whispered some nice things to it, gently placed it on an open window sill, then turned back to the group and resumed talking about whiskey things. Seriously, that happened.

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Now with the understanding that we were dealing with a legit Disney princess here, we headed into Marianne’s lab where she showed us some of the things she’s been working on. On a long shelf lining one of the walls sat a collection of single-ingredient distillates like Pineapple Sage, Ginger Root, and Catnip which she was blending in order to dial in her Gin recipe. Ok, so she admitted the Catnip was just a fun experiment and won’t be going into any products, but I felt it was still worth mentioning. I guess some people get to distill Catnip for fun at work…must be nice.

We hung out in the lab for a while and watched Marianne start the distillation of some small test batches of their Bourbon mash. The mash will use white corn, a traditional recipe made at the distillery during its heyday, and will be released as a bottled-in-bond expression. A rye whiskey hopefully released in 2018 will join the Bourbon to form their initial line of whiskey expressions. After passing around and sniffing some of the fun distillates she had been testing it was time to head back out into the distillery and check out some more sights.

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After walking up some stairs and past the column still we arrived in the old control room, complete with an antique dashboard full of cool dials (well, except for the ones that had been stolen by assholes over the last 40 years) and the shiny new gin still. Past that room and back down some stairs was the grain room where we gathered underneath the huge grain bins that will soon house the corn, rye, and barley as they await being turned into delicious whiskey juice. Walking through these rooms it’s hard to explain the beauty of all of it. Old wood, raw steel, brick, and massive amounts of grey stone create an environment like I’ve never seen. I often found myself just looking around as Marianne dropped her knowledge on us, trying to take it all in and figure out how I could just live there.

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We made our way to a huge room at the front of the building near where the tour began. This was the old boiler room which housed the coal furnaces and while still very much in its raw form, the space will eventually be home to the Castle & Key gift shop. Beyond this room was the end of what will be “the normal tour”,  the future bar where visitors will be able to sample the distillery’s products and reflect on the history and beauty of the site.

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On this day, however, the tour marched on.

While the distillery itself was obviously incredible, it was now time to head outside to check out the iconic grounds that sprawled across the remainder of the 83-acre site. The first stop was the trademark of the distillery grounds, The Key. Not only is The Key amazing in its appearance, it also houses the fresh water spring that is the water source for the distillery. Underneath a very thin layer of algae sits a pool of crystal clear water flowing from the limestone shelf just under the surface. The way Marianne talked about this location was full of romance and respect, we all paused to take it in as she described the work that went in to removing the massive amounts of overgrown vines and fishing out everything from barrels to chandeliers out of the water.

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The Key is situated at one end of a quarter-mile botanical trail which comprised the next part of the tour. We walked along the trail with Marianne pointing out her favorite trees, a huge hollowed-out bush that will eventually provide the setting for small cocktail parties, and again recounting the amount of work that went into clearing the land and getting the grounds to their current state. We stopped briefly at the opposite end of the trail to view a small home where an old distillery employee lived back in the day, and to smell some of the botanicals that grew along side of the trail which will be incorporated into the distillery’s gin recipe.

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As we found ourselves at one end of the land that Castle & Key occupies it was now time to head to our next destination on the opposite side of the 83-acre plot, Rickhouse B, the world’s longest rickhouse.

Along the way we got to take in the sights of the distillery’s water tower, an amazing concrete rickhouse full of massive pillars and rusted brackets which used to support the barrel racks. We passed the building used to break down used barrels for transport, and the future home of the Castle & Key offices. Walking between the buildings felt like viewing a combination of a post-apocalyptic factory and an old-west ghost town. We eventually arrived at the remains of Rickhouse A, which is now reduced to a single standing wall. The foundation of where the rickhouse once stood now was home to the distillery’s primary botanical garden. Again we stopped for a while to pick and smell some of the leaves and flowers of which Marianne was most fond before moving on to Rickhouse B.

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Holy shit Rickhouse B is massive. The length of approximately two football fields, it’s the longest like it in the world. The Whiskey Catfish entered the door one-by-one and peered down to the far end which appeared as a single point of grey. The rickhouse isn’t full by any means, leaving plenty of room for Castle & Key’s future distillate to age, but there are still plenty of barrels to look at (and smell….damn they smell good) as we walked down the corridor towards the end of the building. Due to complicated legal things no pictures of barrel heads were permitted due to NDAs that Castle & Key has with the producers of the sauce aging within Rickhouse B. This doesn’t make a ton of sense to my little brain as if I was aging my whiskey in such an amazing rickhouse I would go out of my way to let people know, but whatever, that’s just me I guess.

We continued walking down the wooden floor, admiring the construction of this place, and even got to go upstairs and look down through the empty racks upon the aging whiskey. If you’ve never spent any time in a rickhouse you are truly missing out. There’s something about the light, the temperature, the humidity, and most of all that smell of wood and whiskey that is just incredible.

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Once Marianne and Brett finally forced us to leave the perfect environment that was Rickhouse B, it was time to hit our last stop on the tour, the Castle & Key garden. Of all the sites we had visited throughout the day, this was by far the most pristine. It’s hard to imagine that not long ago this place was full of snakes and other crawly things and was completely overgrown. Today it’s like a painting, almost too perfect to be real. While Marianne briefly headed back to her lab to check on the mash she was distilling, we took advantage of the benches in the garden and enjoyed the perfect day for a few minutes.

The Garden

Before long it was time to get back up and reconvene at the front gate before saying goodbye to this place and these cool people. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend the last day of a trip, or any day ever for that matter. Getting to meet so many online whiskey friends and share experiences like this with them was bad ass. They are no longer just “online friends” and it’s incredible at how cool they all ended up being. I figured there would at least be one weirdo in the group but there wasn’t (unless it’s me…shit).

I was also blown away at how cool and welcoming Brett and Marianne both were and that they would be willing to take more than 3 hours out of their weekend to show a bunch of nerds around. The day really gave me a whole new appreciation for this place, the history, and the people behind giving it a new life.

If you made it this far, you are an incredible person. As this tour was over a month ago it’s obviously taken me a while to figure out how to compose my thoughts on the day, and I still feel like I glossed over a ton of stuff. Pictures and words just can’t convey the appreciation and magnitude of our trip to Castle & Key, so make sure to get there as soon as they are open and check the place out for yourself.

The Whiskey Catfish Society with Marianne Barnes at Castle & Key

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