FRANKFORT, Ky. — It's a hidden treasure that sat vacant for years until a brave group of bourbon lovers came along. They took on the project of a lifetime, and the transformation is truly remarkable at Castle and Key Distillery.
"There was a lot that happened here. It really is a bourbon icon, built by the father of modern bourbon,” Castle & Key Master Distiller Marianne Eaves said.
Eaves is a chemical engineer turned master distiller. She said she had no idea what she wanted to be when she finished high school in Oldham County. Her dad suggested chemical engineering, and the rest is history. She got an internship at Brown-Forman and worked her way up the ranks there before moving on to Castle & Key.
"It had never even occurred to me that this was even in my realm of possibilities as a chemical engineer,” Eaves said. I think there were a few things that made me stand apart- my palette, my passion for the industry, and also my scientific background."
In Frankfort, the sun shines brightly on the spirits sanctuary, with darker days now a thing of the past.
"It was a much different experience four and a half years ago walking into the distillery when the roofs were collapsing and all of the windows were broken,” Eaves said.
It's no secret the site had to rise from the ashes to return to glory. Eaves got a front row seat to it all.
"We knew that it was important and worth saving. Everybody thought we were a little bit crazy, but we knew the opportunity here. It's just been incredible,” Eaves said.
To fully appreciate the journey, you've got to travel back in time. Colonel E.H. Taylor built the distillery in 1887 and helped pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897- legislation that regulated bourbon as we know it today.
"It was ten years after he started the distillery, so he had a good decade of producing this incredibly high-quality bourbon and setting a standard in the industry for what he thought bourbon should be,” Eaves said. “What it could be is maybe a better way to say it because he wasn't shy about saying that he made the best bourbon in the world. When folks taste it, even still today, you can find historic bottles that he produced, it's pretty inspiring."
The original bourbon boss is now honored in just about every aspect of this rebirth. Take the name for instance.
"You can't miss it when you're driving up. It's this stunning, massive, limestone castle that pops out of the middle of nowhere. For one, it's the castle structure that houses the distillery, but it also a symbol for us of the Bottle and Bond Act. It's a fortress to protect Colonel Taylor's whiskey in an industry that wasn't regulated at that time,” Eaves said. "Even from the beginning when the distillery itself was a little bit scary, the site has always been inspiring. You feel the spirit of the site when you're walking around. It's a little bit like going back in time and being transported to Europe."
Key comes from the keyhole-shaped spring pool that gives the bourbon its crucial component.
"It holds 140,000 gallons of limestone-filtered water that bubbles up from an underground aquifer. This is the water that we use to produce our bourbon, and Colonel Taylor built this keyhole-shaped spring pool to emphasize the water's importance to the recipe. It is the key to the bourbon that he was creating,” Eaves said. "When you pick up a glass of bourbon, you're really experiencing nature and time in a totally different way,” Eaves said.
That’s especially true when it comes to Castle and Key's first batch of bourbon, also a tribute to Taylor.
"We knew we wanted to make a traditional style. After having the opportunity to taste a 1917-distilled bourbon that was made by Colonel Taylor, we thought there's got to be a way to pull this apart,” Eaves said.
Turns out, there is.
"That just comes down to the chemical analysis. We call it a gas chromatography, which breaks down every individual chemical that's in the whiskey. From that, the scientists at Firm Solutions were able to figure out what grains he was using, a kind of rough mash bill, and also a genetically similar yeast strain to produce similar flavors as part of that fermentation and distillation process,” Eaves said.
What you'll taste won't be an exact replica, but it will highlight his famous flavors like butterscotch
"I get goosebumps just thinking about it now,” Eaves said.
The bourbon is aging in barrels for now and won't be ready until 2021.
"It'll be worth the wait though, we promise,” Eaves said.
The distillery blends the past, present, and future into every single sip.
"I hope we're making Colonel Taylor proud,” Eaves said.
Castle & Key offers signature gin and vodka right now. You can do tastings and tours year-round. It's about an hour drive from Louisville. You can sign-up for tours through the distillery’s website here.