Castle & Key Distillery: A New Old Kentucky DestinationBy Tim Knittel
The restoration project of the former Old Taylor Distillery began more than four years ago, generating an abundance of hype and fanfare. Suffering from forty plus years of neglect, the buildings and grounds had become an overgrown wasteland and a haunt for local teenagers. The proposed opening dates came and went, keeping the Kentucky distilling industry (and curious locals) wondering about the progress.
On September 19th, the long-awaited grand opening of the Castle & Key Distillery finally took place. A small crowd of distillery employees, bourbon luminaries and curious locals listened respectfully to speeches by the distillery’s new master distiller, Marianne Barnes, the governor of Kentucky and its new owners, Wes Murry and Will Arvin.
Old Taylor—The History
The original owner, Col. E. H. Taylor Jr., not only operated the opulent distillery as a premium whiskey factory, he also utilized it as a marketing and branding tool.
The Castle & Key entrance / Photo Credit: Castle & Key
In fact, actual production existed inside a castle-inspired distillery building. Meanwhile, warehousing and bottling took place in a series of brick buildings. The grounds surrounding those buildings were treated like a palatial complex featuring a guest house, a sunken garden and walking paths. Taylor even built an enormous covered reservoir to collect water from a limestone water spring. This, Taylor described, was the “key” to his whiskey—as well as a focal point for his many lavish parties.
Furthermore, Taylor installed a railroad extension into the heart of the property. This allowed for an increased production speed and worked as a means to bring guests in to experience the grandeur.
The Modern Property
From the height of Kentucky hospitality in the 1800s to its recent purchase, the property suffered a long, slow decline. Often described as a jungle by visitors (and trespassers) during the last few decades, the buildings seemed beyond hope.
The distillery’s warehouse / Photo Credit: Castle & Key
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the road to restoration was long and expensive. Any changes or renovations to the buildings and grounds had to be done in accordance with stringent rules. Fortunately, a series of lucky breaks allowed for a revival of much of the existing operations.
For example, most of the fermenters—used from 1935 to 1972—were still viable. Additionally, the doors and windows in the gift shop were replicated to their original splendor thanks to a discovered 1909 photograph.
Updated with a nod to the past
In full keeping with Taylor’s original use, Castle & Key exists primarily as a distillery, with hospitality and guest offerings as a secondary perk.
The retail area / Photo Credit: Castle & Key
Wherever possible, the existing structures and equipment were left in place. Where the property has been updated, it maintains an echo of Taylor’s style and personality. Copper and other metals are used throughout, as is hard wood and white paint. Edison bulbs in the visitors center provide a timeless feel. Even the gift shop’s offerings are carefully curated with premium goods that accommodate a modern luxury lifestyle.
Famed landscape designer and local resident Jon Carloftis oversaw the redevelopment of the grounds. Carloftis restored the sunken gardens and planted an herb garden in the foundation of a lost warehouse. Additionally, he landscaped throughout with Kentucky native plants. In fact, botanical trails are planned to stretch across the property.
Those trails are part of a vision for the distillery to be a welcoming destination (in true Kentucky hospitality style). A section of the property, including the visitors center, botanical trails and the springhouse, will be open to all guests. A café offering local food and drinks is in development in Taylor’s old train depot.
The Tour Experience
While all will be welcome on the property, distillery and production access are available only through guided tours. However, the distillery tour is substantively different than those offered elsewhere in Kentucky. The experience is longer—up to 90 to 120 minutes—and led by two hosts. This allows for a more leisurely and personalized experience. If, for instance, a guest wishes to linger in the sunken garden for additional photo opportunities, one host can stay behind without delaying the group.
Castle & Key Gin / Photo Credit: Castle & Key
Additionally, the hosts are provided with extensive training and education, creating less of a scripted lecture and more of an interactive experience. If the tour group wants to focus more on history or more on production, the experience can shift in response. Production details are made fully transparent, described by Barnes as “opening the curtain” on operations.
Since Castle & Key currently offers only vodka and gin in bottles—the whiskey is several years away—the tasting is a twin cocktail experience rather than the common neat tasting at the end of a tour. One cocktail is ready upon your arrival to the tasting room and the other is DIY, inviting guests to create their own.
The limit on tour guests—capped at 15 per tour—will likely mean that not everyone who visits will get inside. However, the openness of the rest of the property will extend a measure of Kentucky hospitality to all visitors.
The restoration is a marvel. Fans of history, architecture, botany and, of course, Kentucky bourbon will find even a drop-in visit well worth the travel time.