Castle & Key Distillery; Rejuvenation and Preservation

Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky is a fairly new distillery, having only opened its doors in 2018. So, this really isn’t a history blog about Castle & Key, but at the same time it is. I’m also not here to talk about the history of bourbon… although, I could.

What led me to Castle & Key was the castle. I knew nothing about the distillery when I reached out to Castle & Key asking for a history tour. I had seen pictures of the castle in Kentucky Tourism advertisements and I wanted to know the history of the building and the grounds. I anticipated that if I showed up for a tour, I’d get the history of bourbon. That’s not what I was looking for, of course. So, I sent an email and asked if it were possible to receive a history tour so that I could write about them in my history blog.

After several weeks, and several emails back and forth, a date was finally set, and Castle & Key offered us a tour full of hospitality, charm, and history. We were greeted at the distillery’s entrance by Castle & Key’s “Guest Experience Lead,” Maggie McGuire. Her title matched her perfectly. Maggie was bubbling with excitement regarding our tour, her smile was infectious, her kindness was that of a true Kentuckian full of southern hospitality. (Shh… I won’t mention that we later learned she was born in Wisconsin. 😉) After offering us bottles of water, Maggie led my daughter and I to the first stop on our tour and jumped right into the history that runs deep at Castle & Key.

Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr

E. H. Taylor Jr. was born in Columbus, Kentucky on February 12, 1830 to John Eastin Taylor and Rebecca Edrington Taylor (later to become Young). John and Rebecca had 3 children together within their very short marriage, as John Eastin Taylor passed away while in New Orleans in 1835. Edmund (John’s oldest son) was only 5 years old at the time.

Now, for reasons I could not find, Edmund did not stay with his mother and two younger siblings after his father’s death. He was sent to stay with his great uncle and future President, Zachary Taylor, whom at that time owned a plantation in Louisiana. It was here that Edmund received his formal education at Tulane Preparatory School.

Colonel E. H. Taylor Jr. / Image Credit: Buffalo Trace Distillery

In 1851, Edmund returned to his birth state of Kentucky and stayed with his uncle, Edmund H. Taylor, in Lexington. Edmund H. Taylor was a prominent banker in Lexington, so he added Senior (Sr.) to his name and Junior (Jr.) to his nephew’s to distinguish between the two of them. Upon arrival, E.H. Jr. enrolled and attended the Sayer School for Politicians, and eventually went on to a become a banker, following in his adoptive father’s footsteps.

Marriage and Children

In late December of 1851, E.H. Taylor Jr. married Francis Miller “Fanny” Johnson of Lexington. The couple would go on to have seven children; four daughters and three sons.

Mrs. Fanny Johnson Taylor / Image Credit: WikiTree

Fanny Johnson Taylor’s Obituary / Image Credit: WikiTree

A Career in Distilling

Beginning in the banking industry, E. H. Taylor Jr. had the opportunity to learn and understand commodity trading (specifically grain and cotton). This led him to lending money to distilleries which then allowed him to see their books and financials. Taylor Jr. saw that there was money to be made in the industry, REALLY good money. This turned his interest away from banking and into distilleries.

Taylor Jr. didn’t want to make any ole whiskey, like so many in Kentucky were doing. He wanted to stand out above the rest by making a quality product that came with an experience. He wanted his distillery to be a destination filled with hospitality and great whiskey.

A Little Travel and Research

With his interest peaked, E. H. Taylor Jr. “went abroad” at the end of the Civil War wanting to learn the best distilling methods.

He traveled to Scotland learning from the Scotch whiskey industry, to Ireland to study the Irish whiskey market and to Germany to get immersed in the beer industry. On his journey in Europe he gained a great appreciation for the quality of the whiskey and copper distillation equipment.

Sipping History

While he learned many techniques that he brought back to Kentucky from around the world, he also brought back a love of many architectural styles that would become part of his “destination experience” but not until almost 20 years later.

Old Taylor Distillery

Now, 20 years later, E.H. Taylor Jr. would have the opportunity to bring those early ideas of a quality product with a hospitable experience to life. Many distilleries during this time were simply factories. Taylor Jr. planned his distillery to be a destination, a place for people to visit, and he did so by integrating those architectural styles he had seen on his travels abroad years before.

He began with his limestone castle where the creation of his whiskey would take place. He then moved to his largest natural spring on the property, building a spring house to help protect the valuable waters. This spring house couldn’t look like just any building, it would look like a Roman Bath House with a hanging planter in the center of the roof for natural plants and flowers.

Old Taylor Distillery had five natural springs on the property, but E.H. Taylor Jr. chose the largest spring to be the one used in the creation of his liquor. (This spring is still the largest on the property, holding 140,000 gallons of water in its tank. The spring can replicate itself twice within 24 hours!)

Expansion and Growth

Continuing to create the destination he envisioned, E. H. Taylor Jr. added two railroad lines to the property. One ran in front of the property bringing coal to the boilers. The second line ran to the back of the property, bringing people, which in turn required a train station that he also built.

In addition, he had an octagonal tower built to hold his experimental labs used to create the best quality liquors possible. Known today as the “Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry,” Taylor Jr. continued to innovate, modernize, and upgrade the bourbon making business, “including copper fermentation tanks, still design, sour mash technique improvements, and steam-heated cycled rack houses” (The Spirits Educator).

Whiskey or Bourbon?

Behind the tower, he had sunken gardens designed to look like those at Windsor Castle in England.

With buildings, grounds, and rail lines in place, and quality bourbon in beautiful bottles, E. H. Taylor Jr. went to work marketing his distillery as the place to be, and it worked. He was truly a man ahead of his time.

Taylor had the scenic 82-acre campus landscaped to make the distillery grounds a ‘delightful’ pleasure garden for visitors to enjoy nature and promenade. A large B.B.Q. pit dugout and a burgoo house with ninety-two kettles, served Kentucky stew with cornbread to feed the visiting multitudes. He entertained male guests with bands, juleps, cigars and cockfights in his custom-built cock house. He erected ‘artistic houses’ surmounted by red-tiled roofs with roses trailing up over the supporting arches at places where natural springs egressed. Large basins made from limestone rock channelled water into storage cisterns. Vines planted by walls grew into verdant shawls, softening the bright limestone. He filled the property with enchanting gardens and displays featuring a giant sundial, a sunken English rose garden, stone bridges, gazebos, and a pergola with a reflecting pool.

Walking trails bordered by flower beds led sightseers along sealed footpaths to safely carry foot traffic where they ‘never soiled shoes.’ He employed Kentucky’s leading horticulturist to design gardens of azaleas and hydrangeas and plant thousands of trees across the much-denuded landscape to create a bucolic parkland and whiskey wonderland in the heart of the bluegrass.

The whiskey Wash

His Later Years

  • From 1871 to 1887, Taylor Jr. called upon his early education and served as Frankfort’s mayor for 16 years.
  • He was given the honorary title of Colonel by the Commonwealth of Kentucky for his many accomplishments, contributions to his local community, and for public relations reasons.
  • Around 1890, Taylor Jr., one of the wealthiest men in Frankfort, had a most beautiful Queen Anne style home built on Thistleton, his 900 acre estate on Louisville Road (current day Ashford Farm).
  • Taylor Jr. was instrumental in the passing of the Bottle and Bond Act of 1897.
    • “Prior to its passing, disreputable sellers would put items like tobacco juice, turpentine, iodine or other unsavory and potentially poisonous additives to a barrel of whiskey to fill it back up, and/or to give the liquid color.” – The Bourbon Review
  • He was elected as a member of the Kentucky state senate for the 20th district from 1902 to 1904.
  • “In 1917, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. was the only person to have the “Degree of Master of Hospitality” conferred upon him by the registrars of 58 colleges.” – Distillery Trail
  • He continued to be an influence on the bourbon industry until his death at the age of 93 on January 19, 1923.
Thistleton / Photo Credit: Gardens to Gables

 Because of his innovations, his systematic approach to whiskey making, his dedication to quality and his constant battle to protect bourbon and keep its name from being applied to inferior whiskies, Taylor is known as “The Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Prohibition and Beyond

Occurring between January 17, 1920 – December 5, 1933, Prohibition made the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol illegal. During this time, Old Taylor Distillery shut its doors and Taylor’s sons sold most of the machinery.

After Prohibition ended, National Distillers purchased the Taylor property and the brand, continuing to expand the warehouses and production. At its peak of production, Old Taylor Distillery was cranking out 1,000 barrels a day.

Concrete Rickhouse built by National Distillery in 1953 holds 58,000 Barrels / Personal Photo

“National Distillers had a staff of nearly 1,000 people working between the Old Taylor Distillery and the Old Crow Distillery (right next door) which was also purchased by National Distillers.”

Distillery Trail

The End of an Era

As often occurs, times began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. The American palette began to move away from dark spirits to clear spirits like vodka, rum and tequila. The demand for martinis was made popular by James Bond and Hawkeye Pierce. Bourbon could not compete and distilleries suffered.

In 1972, National Distillers closed the doors of Old Taylor Distilleries for “Summer Break” but never opened their doors again. The property sat unused until 1987 when National Distillers sold their spirits division to Jim Beam who only used the property to house and age products. With no one on the property, no use of its buildings, no production of products, the acres and acres of land returned to nature. The distillery was left abandoned and the buildings left to rot.

One of the Dilapidated Warehouses yet to be Rehabilitated / Personal Photo

Salvage and Destruction

In 2005, the property was purchased by Hart Pine Salvage Company, and its fate was the wrecking ball.

The group planned on selling the distilleries hand cut Kentucky Limestone blocks that made up the facade of the castle, the vintage bricks and tiles that lined the walls of the turrets and the rare 100 year old heartwood pine that made up the racks inside the barrel warehouses piece by piece for scrap. Two of the once sturdy warehouses were torn down and their heartwood pine that used to hold thousands of barrels of bourbon was sold for flooring.

Distillery Trail

Luckily, for the castle and many other buildings on the property, the housing market crashed in 2008 putting the brakes on the salvage industry and ultimately saving the buildings from complete destruction.

Rejuvenation and Preservation

In 2012, Will and Shannon Arvin became interested in distilleries and began looking for ones for sale. Coming across photos of the Old Taylor Distillery property, the Arvins became interested even though it was in ruins; overgrown by nature, lacking electricity, and much of its equipment. The Arvins invited a mutual friend, Wesley Murry, to look at the property. In 2014, Will and Wes became partners and purchased the property, 113 acres and 27 buildings, for nearly $1 million.

After investing millions of dollars more on the renovation and restoration of the property and its buildings, Will and Wes brought the distillery back to its glory days. They filled their first barrel of bourbon in December 2016, and named the distillery Castle & Key.

It doesn’t take too much to realize where the name came from. The “castle” is quite obvious, and the “key” is two fold. One for the key hole shape of the natural spring built over one hundred years before, and two because natural springs waters are the key to a Kentucky bourbon.

Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller of Bourbon since Prohibition, Marianne Barnes was hired to oversee production and Jon Carloftis was hired to redesign and bring the sunken garden back to life. After 2 full years of preservation and restoration, Castle & Key Distillery opened its doors to the public on September 19, 2018.

A Destination full of Southern Hospitality

Today, Castle & Key has truly rejuvenated the spirit of E. H. Taylor Jr., creating a distillery that is not only functional but also a destination. The grounds are breathtaking, the buildings spectacular in architecture and usage, and the hospitality is inspiring.

The old coal storage and boiler room have been repurposed to the most beautiful gift shop I have ever seen. Made of brick and concrete, the interior surprisingly feels warm and homey. Every employee is eager to welcome you with a warm smile and a helping hand with anything you might need or want.

The train station is now the bar, with the most friendly of bartenders prepared to make you a cocktail of their own creation or one of your choice. It was here that my daughter and I received a drink on the house, hers was nonalcoholic of course.

The grounds surrounding the train station and spring house are pristine, set and ready for a game of corn hole or just an opportunity to sit and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

We were given a tour through the castle where most of the bourbon-making-magic happens. Maggie was wonderful with her knowledge of the machinery and the process, most of which I can not personally explain.

At the barrel-filling building we were greeted with employees that clearly loved their job. They offered my daughter and I the opportunity to pound the bung into freshly filled barrels. I jumped at the chance, I mean when would such an opportunity arise again?

In the bottling building we learned about the creation of their perfect bottle and the nod to Taylor Jr. and Old Taylor Distillery.

We learned of the numerous weddings held on the property today both in the sunken gardens and in what was the shooking building (the process of dismantling barrels after use), now used as a most beautiful event space.

We had the opportunity to step into the longest rick house of its kind in the world, measuring 534 feet in length, and it was there that Maggie gave us a lesson on reading a barrel.

As we wrapped up our 2 hour tour, Maggie told us of the warehouses that used to be and the desire to try to save what remains of another. She showed us machinery from the original distillery that had been found under weeds and decaying buildings.

We wrapped up back in the gift shop where Maggie kindly finished our tour showing us old photographs from Old Taylor Distillery times.

Reflection and Conclusion

When I reached out to Castle & Key via email for a historic tour, I knew nothing of the property and its history. I simply wanted to see the building called “the castle.” Little did I know that I would walk into such deep history.

I had no idea that I would find the man that would later be known as “The Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry.” I had no idea that I would find one of the wealthiest men in Frankfort during his time. I had no idea that I would find the longest rick house of its kind in the world. I had no idea that I would find the beginnings of 2 other well known bourbon distilleries, and I had no idea that I would find Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller of Bourbon since Prohibition.

Most importantly, I had no idea that I would find the greatest, most amazing tour and tour guide that we had EVER experienced. I simply can not rave enough about the experience offered us at Castle & Key. Maggie was absolutely amazing. Her passion for the history and her knowledge of the property could not possibly be matched. Everyone on the grounds and in every building was friendly and overflowing with Southern hospitality. The grounds are gorgeous and the buildings spectacular. This was an absolutely amazing experience from beginning to end. My daughter even walked away from the experience stating that Maggie was the sweetest person ever and that her experience was the coolest thing we had ever done, and that’s coming from a 16 year old! 😉 (Thank you, Maggie and Castle & Key, for an absolutely fantastic day!) If you have the opportunity to visit, whether for a tour, a tasting, or just to listen to music on the lawn, you absolutely should do it.

I can definitely say, without doubt or hesitation, that Castle & Key Distillery is making E. H. Taylor Jr. proud.

Now, get out and see Kentucky. 💚 HAPPY TRAVELS!

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